What disgraces science? Sloppy experiments and plagiarism

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December 13, 2014 by AK

According to The Independent,

Arsenal owner Alisher Usmanov hands Nobel Prize back to disgraced DNA scientist James Watson straight after buying it off him.

Which seems to imply the oligarch Usmanov is a respectable owner of a football team and the Nobel prize winner Watson is a disgraced DNA scientist.

A disgraced scientist, to me, is one whose conclusions are based on negligent or deliberate errors, primarily in her experiments. A scientist caught faking results is a perfect example. Especially dangerous is a forensic scientist engaged in such practice, endangering innocent people. Examples include Annie Dookhan, who falsified at least 27 (and possibly thousands of) test results in Massachussets; Theresa Caragine and her coworkers at the NYC lab; and of course Patrizia Stefanoni, whose botched DNA tests contributed to the railroading of Knox and Sollecito.

Merely breaking established lab protocol can result in sham results. Even if sloth is to blame rather than bad faith, a consciously invalid experiment is a betrayal of science. That’s what disgraces a scientist. There’s also plagiarism but it does not produce invalid results by itself, merely misattributes them.

Here’s what the science historian Nathaniel Comfort, a professor at Johns Hopkins, has to say about Watson’s eccentricities. James Watson may have said incredibly wrong-headed things but I’m not aware of him falsifying results. He is accused of not giving a female colleague enough credit for her research that was critical to his own discovery. Not good but neither proven nor a case of plagiarism. He may have made outrageous claims, some underlain by prejudice more than a scientific conviction, but can his ill-considered comments count for more than 25 years of running the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory?

I don’t have much good to say about Alisher Usmanov but I’ll give it to his PR advisors: a smart move.


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