In the past year, I got the chance to read Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich, a nonfiction work following the short career of Jan Hendrik Schon. Just in case you haven’t heard of him, Schon was one of the biggest fraudsters in scientific history. In a short period between 2000-2001, Schon published a series of subfield-creating results ranging from superconductivity at 117K in intercalated buckyballs to light-emitting field effect transistors. Most notably, he also announced the discovery of self-assembled molecular field effect transistors (SAMFETs), which would have had the potential to revolutionize the processors in one’s computer and thereby the economy. Most of his results, including the ones mentioned, were found to have been fabricated.
It is quite remarkable that Schon was able to publish 15 first-author papers in either Nature or Science in a time frame spanning from 2000-2001, while also publishing a whole slew of papers in other journals as well. Is this the absurd length one must go to for one to get caught? While physicists tend to be quite rigorous when trying to explain data, they tend to generally be much more trusting of colleagues that produce the data.
Although the book can be quite gossipy at times, it achieves the goal of imparting to the reader a sense of skepticism about published data. While he may have been the most egregious of the lot, Schon is not alone in perpetrating scientific dishonesty (the recent case of STAP cells comes to mind). It is pretty clear that many cases of “fudging” and/or fabrication occur that go unpunished and are never brought to light.
One aspect of the book that I found particularly disturbing is the effect that Schon’s results had on some careers of young scientists. Many graduate students spent years attempting to replicate his results without success in what is considered the most important years of one’s scientific development. Some young scientific careers were no doubt destroyed because of Schon’s outlandish claims.
One cannot stress enough the importance of scientific integrity and reporting accurate, reproducible data. This book may not be the best-written, but it serves an important purpose in opening one’s eyes to the ridiculous lengths to which one must go before being found out as a fraudster. This book has left no doubt in my mind that I have read papers containing “fudged” data and also that I will do so in the future. I just hope that I don’t spend years attempting to reproduce such a result.