Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Proof of originality in science

Over the last decade or so, media have been full of stories of scientific fraud and plagiarism. And a rather cynical thought crossed my mind: I don't believe that scientific fraud and plagiarism is on the rise; rather we have simply gotten better at detecting it.

I might be in a rather privileged position here: I have written a Ph.D. thesis and a number of scientific papers, but unlike most people, I can prove the originality. That is because I made my Ph.D. is synthetic chemistry; which means that my thesis and a number of my papers contain a description of how I synthesized new molecules, unknown to mankind before. And whenever somebody produces a new molecule, that molecule is officially registered and receives a CAS Registry Number. As these numbers are uniquely linked to the structure of the molecule, and there is a record of who published them first, I have pretty solid proof that I didn't just invent or copy my scientific writing. I can prove that I made that molecule and wrote about it first, and it is possible to verify that my described synthesis method results in that molecule.

In most other scientific fields, the principal product is ideas, not molecules. And while you can give a molecule a unique identification number, you can't do that with an idea. For a very long time that created a sort of stalemate: It was impossible for a scientist to prove that an idea he wrote was original, but it was equally hard for anybody else to prove plagiarism, unless the scientist plagiarized a well-known source. And a number of scientists wrote Ph.D. theses with the certitude that once they got through the process that awarded them their degree, nobody would ever read that thesis again. (I'm pretty sure nobody ever read my thesis since). So they took shortcuts. From a purely human point of view, I understand that: If you studied something in the liberal arts, coming up with an idea which is both brilliant and never thought of on a subject matter that has been studied for a long time isn't easy. It is a lot easier to make a molecule that nobody has done before than to write an interpretation of a work of Shakespeare that nobody has thought of before.

Some of the people who plagiarized then went on and made a career in the public view. They became politicians, or senior administrators for large academic institutions. And then, new technology evolved that allowed computers to "read" and analyze huge quantities of text. If you disliked a certain politician or senior administrator of a large academic institution, you could now do something which would have been impossible before: Take their thesis, which is a public document, and check it paragraph by paragraph against every other document in the public domain. Take their scientific papers, and check every picture in it against every other document in the public domain. That is still a lot of work, and nobody would dream to apply this to everybody alive who has ever published a thesis or scientific paper. But the practice of plagiarism apparently was always common enough that a plagiarism search against a specific target was at least worth a try. Do a Google search for "resigns plagiarism" and you'll get a long list of stories of various high-placed public figures having to resign due to their plagiarism having been detected. It is a pretty good method of political character assassination when it works; most people are ready to believe that somebody who cheated on his thesis must be a dishonest person. Very few of the stories even mention the accuser, or his ulterior motives in having looked for plagiarism.

While I understand the academic pressure of "publish or perish", I have a lot less understanding for the numerous scientists that have been found to fabricate false results, complete with photoshopped "proof". As Newton said, science sees further by standing on the shoulder of giants, by using established knowledge as a basis for further breakthroughs. People publishing fake results, especially in the medical field, risk wasting precious research time of other researchers trying to turn a medical result into a cure. Even worse are the fields of sociology and political science, where authors have been found to publish fake results in defense of their ideology. But that is a whole other can of worms, where a publication of a real result that contradicts current ideology is probably a higher risk for your career than publishing a fake result that people are comfortable with. Again I am not certain that scientific fraud is on the rise, or whether a simultaneous increase in people wanting to hurt other academics combined with better methods of AI detection just results in more stories being in the media today.

I've thought the similar things about a lot of subjects. The world that we see is not the world that we live in. As light gets shined in the darkness we realize how much is really there. We hear voices that we never heard before and it can be equally harrowing and energizing depending on what you're hearing. As information is "set free" we'll learn a lot more about ourselves and our societies. I just hope we don't through the good away to spite the bad.
"Fake it until you make it" is a pretty well known phrase in America and for good reason. It often works.

Like you said we have just gotten better at spotting the fakers.
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