Bell Labs fires physicist for faking research data

Investigators say Schon changed results without knowledge of coworkers

September 26, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

In one of the most serious cases of scientific misconduct in years, a star researcher at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey was fired yesterday after investigators determined he fabricated data in numerous high-profile papers.

Jan Hendrik Schon, a 32-year-old physicist whose prodigious output and breakthrough electronics research were once rumored to be worthy of a Nobel Prize, fabricated or altered data in 16 research papers published between 1998 and 2001.

Schon did this "intentionally or recklessly and without the knowledge of any of his co-authors," a five-member panel concluded in a report released yesterday.

The case had drawn widespread media attention since suspicions about Schon first surfaced in May. Instances of scientific fraud - particularly in physics - are rare. And the 77-year-old Bell Laboratories is one of the most storied names in science, birthplace of the transistor, the laser and the communications satellite.

Now, in the wake of the committee's findings and a similar fraud case at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, research institutions and scientific journals are considering ways to minimize scientific misconduct in the future.

Because researchers build upon one another's work, the consequences of Schon's deceptions are already being felt. Some physicists doing related work say they are finding it difficult to get grants to continue their research.

"This is totally reprehensible," said Art Ramirez, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has spent the past year trying to reproduce Schon's results. "You don't know what's made up and what isn't."

Schon joined Bell Labs in 1998 after receiving his doctorate at the University of Konstanz in his native Germany. Described by friends and colleagues as bright, hardworking and humble, Schon quickly drew attention to himself with a string of stunning breakthroughs in superconductivity and molecular electronics, two of the hottest areas of physics.

In 2001 Schon and his colleagues published an average of one research paper every eight days, according to investigators. That pace was almost "superhuman," Ramirez said. Many of the papers landed in prestigious journals such as Science and Nature.

But questions about Schon's work arose after other physicists had trouble reproducing Schon's tantalizing results in their own laboratories.

Then in May, researchers discovered suspiciously similar graphs in several of Schon's papers. Lucent Technologies, the corporate parent of Bell Labs, assembled a panel to investigate.

Schon told the committee he did not keep all his laboratory notebooks, and much of the data on his computer had been destroyed. "At a minimum, Hendrik Schon showed reckless disregard for the sanctity of data in the value system of science," the report said.

The incident may draw more attention to the risks of collaboration in science, a practice more common today than in the past. In particle physics, for example, it's possible to find more than 50 authors listed on a paper. Often collaborators never meet face to face, instead exchanging data over the Internet.

The committee found that none of Schon's collaborators on the suspect papers actually saw him do the experiments or double-checked his work.

"When you allow your name to be put on a paper as a co-author, you're essentially certifying that you've taken a serious look at it and everything's square," said physicist Robert L. Park, author of Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud.

William Brinkman, president of the American Physical Society, said his organization may issue new guidelines on collaboration. Science, which published eight of the 25 Bell Labs papers reviewed by the committee, also plans to review its publication procedures to better screen for fraud. "If bad things happen, you have to learn from them," editor Donald Kennedy said.

While the suspicions about Schon's research have been resolved, physicists may never answer one haunting question: Why would such a promising young scientist do something so risky?

Schon himself offered no clues.

"I have to admit that I made various mistakes in my scientific work, which I deeply regret," he said in a prepared statement. But he insisted that his discoveries were real. "I believe these results will be reproduced in the future."

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