Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

Whistle-blowing on the Internet - Solution for problem of Science Fraud?

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Whistle-blowing on the Internet - Solution for problem of Science Fraud?

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I came across a very interesting article in Nature News, dated April 3rd 2014, Publicly questioned papers more likely to be retracted,

I added the following comment which appears on the above web page:

Ravi S. Iyer • a day ago

I find this to be very interesting. So a single scientist who put up data about suspected science fraud on a blog was able to stir things up and have nearly a quarter of these suspected fraud cases (put up on the blog) retract or make corrections! That's quite awesome, I think.

Wonderful to know of an editor-in-chief who studies "retractions and irreproducible research". Such studies may provide the means to reduce the science fraud problem to manageable levels.

I certainly like the tone of Fang's last words in the article. I think the Internet should be used as a major tool by all academics and scientists worldwide who want to clean up the academic and scientific publications field of fraud. Some have already used it to good effect but perhaps we need more of the good and clean academics and scientists to step up to the plate and contribute their bit to the cleanup using the Internet.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Suspended jail sentence for scientific fraud for South Korean scientist

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Last updated on 17th March 2014

Today's The Hindu carried this editorial article, The wages of scientific fraud,

Some Notes and comments:

The Supreme Court of South Korea upheld a ruling about Hwang Woo Suk, stem cell researcher of South Korea, resulting in a suspended jail term for one-and-a-half years for Hwang. Hwang is considered to have done fraudulent stem cell research.

The following comment of mine appears on the web page of the article:
On the one hand it is quite sad that such drastic action has to be taken on a scientist and academic but on the other, plunging ethical standards in science and academics in some parts of the world including South Korea and India, leave no option for authorities than to create such jail term fear among fraudulent scientists and academics. I think India should learn from this South Korean case and, if India does not have adequate laws, devise suitable laws and mechanisms including criminal prosecution, as punishment for scientific and academic fraud. 

My view may sound harsh but, it seems to me that, lack of fear of criminal prosecution is leading to graduate/post-graduate project theses being bought & sold (instead of the student working and writing his/her own project thesis), fake Ph.D. degrees, fake scientific and academic projects to get government grant money etc. The only way to stem this rot seems to be to bring in fear of criminal prosecution.

from:  Ravi S. Iyer

Posted on: Mar 14, 2014 at 13:46 IST  

--- end comment ---

"He did not resort to relatively lesser evils like plagiarism but instead settled for the bigger ones — image manipulation, rampant data falsification and fabrication, gross misrepresentation of facts, purchasing eggs for research, and forcing junior members in the same lab to donate eggs. There were acts of outright fraud as well — embezzlement of nearly $3 million and making applications for research funds based on fabricated data."

[Ravi: Utterly Horrifying!]


"Hwang epitomises and exemplifies the case of a brilliant researcher who allowed his moral compass to go completely haywire, all for instantaneous, though ephemeral, glory and fame."

[Ravi: I think the lure of glory and fame in the scientific and academic field is almost irresistible to some. Among them, some aspire for it through ethical means, which I consider to be fair game, but some cannot resist resorting to unethically cutting corners to win glory and fame. This perhaps is the acid test of character for talented scientists and academics.]

March 15th 2014:

A comment on the above (which I had sent over email to some contacts) about other fields where people make false claims and profit from it, set me thinking. I initially thought, maybe I went overboard on the criminal prosecution bit and came up with a more nuanced stand as follows:

Regarding making false statements to acquire government funds, I think that would come under embezzlement/financial fraud in the penal code of most countries including India, South Korea and the USA, and so be a criminal offence if proved (with clear evidence of deliberate falsification to get the money). Typically the law may not be enforced for government grants to academics and scientists, but the provision would be there, I guess. So if things really get out of hand the authorities can use the existing laws to criminally prosecute financial fraud done by academics and scientists. [It seems that the South Korean Supreme Court convicted Hwang using/against such law(s) for embezzlement.]

But what about deliberately falsifying data in scientific papers submitted by scientists & academics? It seems to me that the typical penalty for detected cases of falsification (deliberate or otherwise) would be just retraction of the concerned paper. Yes, the reputation of the concerned person(s) would suffer but there may be a significant number of academics/scientists who may not mind taking that risk. I doubt that such retraction due to deliberate falsification would result in even a temporary suspension, forget about dismissal, of an academic/scientist in most academic/scientific institutions in India (barring the elite). [The concerned academics/scientists would typically be willing to lie stating that the falsification was involuntary/not deliberate]. In other words, in most of Indian academia (and perhaps academia of many other countries worldwide) the deterrence for deliberate falsification of data in scientific papers is minimal. Given the huge growth in academics/scientists worldwide I think this is not a happy state of affairs.

So what can be the solution? I think there should be a law for such offenses which prescribes civil punishment (as against criminal punishment). The same law should also prescribe civil punishment for persons responsible for fake Ph.D.s, running fake universities, fake project theses etc. [ is a list of fake universities in India! Why could they not just shut them down? Probably because they cannot under the current laws]. I am not in a position right now to suggest what the civil punishment could be.

In the current situation in India, self-regulation by the academics themselves seems to be a total failure - I repeat, total failure. Perhaps it is a club mindset where they do not want to hurt any of their own tribe. Having a law with civil punishment will enable people and/or the police to file civil suits against such offenders. [BTW I should also state that this club mindset resulting in failed self-regulation in India applies to other fields as well like lawyers (bar council) and doctors (medical council). It is very, very rare for these councils to take action on their members. Actions against them for matters like medical negligence are usually fought in a court of law by affected parties like patients/patient relatives.]

But why target only academics and scientists for such deliberate falsification? Why not have similar laws for other fields like software consultancy companies & software consultants? Well, I think typically the public impact of falsification by academics and scientists is far higher than in other fields. Besides in fields where you have a paying customer like software consultancy companies the large customer protects his/her interests via a legal contract and small customers can go to court for fraud if companies have failed to deliver what they promised in return for their fees. For consumers, India has a consumer court which tilts towards the consumer in cases of defective products.
--- end nuanced stand ---

As I thought more on the matter I remembered that I was given to understand that record tampering is a criminal offence in India. For example, if an academic administrator (like the Registrar) falsely shows staff on the academic institution's rolls (typically to project an exaggerated picture to academic regulators & academic assessment organizations) or changes the records to deliberately assign false/wrong designations to staff (for malicious or non-malicious reasons), I understand that such an academic administrator can be booked for the criminal offense of record tampering. It is this severity of the offense that I presume deters most sensible academic administrators from indulging in such practices though, unfortunately in India, some foolish academic administrators still do such acts either through ignorance of the serious consequences if a police complaint is made, or from a foolish bravado.

I wonder whether civil punishment may be effective, in India, as a deterrent for deliberate falsification of data in scientific papers, fake Ph.D.s, fake project theses etc. If not, then perhaps criminal punishment may be the only solution to stem the rot.


March 17th 2014

A couple of comments on the above and my responses to the same:

Comment (paraphrased): A simple solution may be to incur civil penalty for deliberate falsehood for monetary gain. Snag is that it is hard to know whether it is deliberate falsehood or not.

My response: I think, for academics & scientists, in India and other countries where unethical practices have become a plague in academics & science, civil penalties is the first option that must be seriously tried, with rigorous implementation.

Regarding whether the lying was innocent or deliberate I think we can look at how other fields handle such issues. Affixing a signature to a document makes a person liable to some extent to the contents of the document he/she signs (e.g. a loan application to a bank or an application for a voter's ID card). I understand that if the document has to be made more legally binding, the document is typically made on stamp paper (government revenue stamp) and notarized. But even if the signature is on plain paper and not notarized, if the matter does go up to a court of law, I believe that the person signing the document is held, to some extent at least, accountable for the contents of the document.

I think a court of law might excuse one or two such documents having grave untruths that have a significant negative impact on some people and/or society at large, on the grounds of involuntary error. But if there are more such cases from the same person(s) then I think the court of law will not accept an excuse/reason of involuntary (not deliberate) error, and hold them accountable for the damage their errors/lies have caused, irrespective of whether the errors are proven to be deliberate or not.

Perhaps civil punishment handed out to dishonest academics & scientists should be on similar lines. One case of detected dishonesty (deliberate or otherwise) - let them off with a warning but put them on notice and have it recorded on some globally accessible database. Further case(s) of detected dishonesty (deliberate or otherwise) - hand out the civil punishment and record it in the globally accessible database.

Comment (paraphrased): It is not feasible or reasonable to require statements to be provably true.

My response: I agree that we cannot require statements in all fields including academics & science to be provably true. [In science (and academics in general, I guess), as per my understanding, a statement which has not yet been proved to be true, can still be made but is subject to being confirmed/proved as objectively true by others.] Subjective spiritual and religious experiences may be true for the subject who experienced it but there is no way for that person to prove to others that his/her experience was genuine. One should not bar such people from writing about/sharing their experiences on the grounds that it is not proven to be true.

Further, people, including writers, have a right to be wrong as an Indian High Court observed in the context of a book ban appeal in 2010 (I have been wrong quite a few times, myself) and human error is part and parcel of being human. However, habitual falsehood must be checked in serious fields like academics, science, medicine, policing/law enforcement etc. otherwise the field may become a frivolous field like the tabloid press instead of a serious and respected one.

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