Instant Theory

Friday, October 28, 2005

Too good to be true

One of MIT's rising stars has just been fired for falsifying data. Today, The Boston Globe and New Scientist, among others, report that MIT on Wednesday sacked Luk Van Parijs, 35, an associate professor in the school's department of biology (home to 4 nobel laureates). Van Parijs admitted, after a 14-month investigation by the school, to faking data left and right: in published papers, in unpublished manuscripts, and in grant applications. Now, the researcher's former affiliates, Harvard Medical School and Cal Tech, have concerns that work he conducted there may have also been tampered with. Van Parijs was previously considered to be a scientist with great potential, conducting elegant experiments that were published in major journals.

This debacle, which surely is a blow to one of the great academic powerhouses in the country, demonstrates the achilles heel of scientific research: Data and results can only be trusted as much as the scientists who produced them. In nearly every realm of science, there is a point in the research process where the men and women doing the science can be tempted to "clean up" or "polish" the data. Still others are tempted by the spoils of scientific breakthroughs that they completely invent results to conveniently prove their hypotheses. It might be surprising for people who have worked so hard to jeopardize their careers with such foolish mistakes, but it has happened before; just scan the Office of Research Integrity's case list to get an idea of how often this happens.

Research, especially in an academic setting, is a field that often relies on success of the scientist's work. Scientists need to publish papers, to get tenure, or to get and maintain funding. The temptation to produce successful studies is unfortunately too great for some to maintain their integrity. Hopefully, those who do misrepresent themselves or their work will be found out, and, as was the case with Van Parijs, it may require members of their own labs to blow the whistle.


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