Friday, January 05, 2007

The internet "memory hole" and Jan Hendrik Schon

First post of the new year. Whoo-hoo.

While revising the course webpage for the class that I'm teaching this coming semester, I noticed something interesting and disturbing. Anyone out there remember Jan Hendrik Schon? This fellow was the focus of arguably the most serious fraud in the physical sciences in the last 50 years while he was working at Bell Labs. As you can see from the wikipedia entry above, there was a thorough investigation and the fraud was discovered, though only after hundreds of person-years had been wasted by people around the world trying to replicate work that turned out to have been fabricated in the first place. The results of that investigation had been archived on the Bell Labs website. However, now that Alcatel has taken over Lucent, those links are dead, and a seach of the new Alcatel-Lucent site does not find any trace of Herr Dr. Schon. At the moment the links on the Internet Wayback Machine still work, but there is no guarantee that these will last forever. I know that old links to, e.g., previous years' problem sets from my courses go away after some time.

This is bad. It should be the responsibility of Bell Labs to maintain this information in an accessible way for at least ten years, or some other reasonable period. In the meantime, I will host the documents on my own university account. Here is the executive summary, and here is the full report of the investigating committee.

22 comments:

Alison Chaiken said...

Kudos to you Doug, for taking this seriously. Shouldn't APS offer to host this information on their website? I remember that they had a panel think about fraud and ethics after the Schon event and a similar debacle at LBNL at about the same time. More people would see the documents at the APS website, and it makes sense for APS to have them alongside whatever ethics info they have up.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

What boggles my mind is that Schon's papers are still being cited on regular basis, almost as if nothing happened. Nature or Science wrote about this weird phenomenon last year. Apparently a lot of citations to retracted articles passes through referees and editors - never mind the authors themselves. Several articles are actually reviews (!) on organic/single molecule electronics. Maybe some non-specialists can claim they never heard of the scandal, but if you claim to be a specialist in the field?! Come on!

It appears Science and Nature and JAP and others did their job thoroughly by both printing the actual retractions (which can be easily tracked down in publication databases - one record for each retracted paper - so this is how you get a lot of publications!) and marking the old papers as "retracted". Web of Science does this too. Yet people still cite those papers!

For example, Schon's 2001 Nature paper is listed in WoS as:

Self-assembled monolayer organic field-effect transistors (Retracted article. See vol 422 pg 92 2003)
SCHON JH, MENG H, BAO Z
NATURE 413: 713-716 2001

However, it was cited at least 24 times since retraction was issued by Nature and Science in Spring of 2003. Including 5 citations in 2006 and 5 citations in 2005.

His publication record is rather amusing. In 2001 he has published 4 papers in Science and 4 papers in Nature - all as first author.
6 of these 8 appeared in the span of about 10 weeks - from late Sep till early Dec.

In 2000 he had 5 papers in Science and 3 in Nature. All first author of course. That makes it 16 first-author paper during the 2-year span. I don't know that many people nowadays who manage to publish even two first-author Science/Nature in the same year, so that type of "productivity" must have raised some eyebrows somewhere, no?

Interestingly enough, he avoided PRL for some reason - only one first-author PRL.

I remember him giving talks everywhere - people told me off-the-record he was on short list for positions at Harvard and also for directorship at Max Planck. But I had no idea how much he published.

siddhartha04 said...

Thanks for doing this - it was only a few months ago that I downloaded the report to read it in depth, and now... poof. They seem to have done a good job erasing the record on the new website. Also, that Internet Wayback Machine is quite interesting.

I haven't really commented before, but I just wanted to say hi and thank you for a great nano/cond-mat oriented blog.

Anonymous said...

here's a question, doug. i'm in mse, thinking about getting into the blogging game - but, i was wondering, how did you go about getting hits? looks like the "blogosphere" in this field consists of several blogs that link to each other - how does one "break in"?

Anonymous said...

Write an email to Peter Woit. If he gives your blog a link in his blog, you will start receiving lots of hits without any doubt. His blog is the most famous and most visited one in science for sure. Also, please use your real name in your blog. Bullshit like "female science professor" does not give much credibility so it will reduce your audience.. People want to know who the author is..

Anonymous said...

By the way, I do not understand the continuing fuss about JHS story. It is yesterday's news. Most of his papers are not well cited anyway. Editors in Science&Nature like certain authors like we all know. He was just one of them and he abused it. I do not think there is more to it than that. Let's fast forward to year 2007 now please...

Doug Natelson said...

The point, Rice anonymous, is that findings like this should be as archived as the actual journal articles. The historical record actually matters. I don't think you appreciate how important or bad that scandal was. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. I also don't understand your animosity toward anonymous bloggers, FSP in particular, given that you post anonymously. Yes, I know who you are, but how does that give your comments credibility in general?

Alison, that's a good suggestion - I may send email to them about it.

IP, you've hit on my frustration exactly. Amazingly there are still people out there who have some notion that some of JHS's "work" may have value. Again, this is why the investigation records need to be somewhere accessible.

Anon., the suggestion of emailing other bloggers and asking them to add you to their pages is basically what I did.

sylow said...

This is off the topic; if I set up an anonymous blog(I do not have a blog to remind you) and say I am a full professor at Berkeley and I am in national academy of sciences, will you or anyone else believe me? Then, what makes you believe FSP's claims? Do you have any evidence? Do you believe everything you read in internet?
I asked her to give link to one of her papers so that we scientists would know who she is but she refused...
I will use the name sylow here from now on. I can use my real life name too if you want. I do not gossip about anyone here except Bush. Lol...
You have quite limited audience anyway. Who cares?

Doug Natelson said...

Sylow - I wasn't born yesterday, and I don't believe everything I read on the internet. I do believe that the Female Science Professor is, in fact, a female science professor for a few reasons: (1) Why on earth would anyone create such an elaborate hoax for, as you say, a very limited audience? (2) Her anecdotes and observations are completely credible, and I have often observed similar events. (3) Her insights into the direction of graduate students and the challenges of running a research program strike me as something that only a professor could write credibly. As shocking as you might find this, not everyone "challenged" by a hostile person commenting anonymously on their blog would want to respond to anonymous demands to reveal their identity. If the FSP is a fake, (s)he's a very good one.

Siddhartha04 - thanks for the kind words. Nice blog, btw.

Dan M said...

I would like to make the anonymous observation that, if you don't believe what you read on a blog, why are you whining about it on a different blog (that you also could chose to disbelieve)? I mean, geez. Isn't that kind of like complaining to an astrologer about UFOlogists?

Please ignore the actual real name attached to this post. It is an anonymous post, and should therefore be treated as complete rubbish.

Doug Natelson said...

Don't worry, Dan. I don't discriminate. I treat all your posts as complete rubbish.

sylow said...

Doug, we know one thing for sure. FSP is not jan hendrik schon. She told me she did not publish anything in Nature so far. We believe what she says, don't we?

Dan M said...

Doug,
That doesn't bother me, because you see, I don't believe you exist. You claim to be a physics professor from Houston, but in fact I think that you are an exotic dancer from Antigua, just trying to fool us all.

Chad R. said...

There's a decent Wikipedia article on Jan Hendrik Schon that lists the dead links for the executive summary and the full report. You might consider editing the article to redirect the links to your site.

Peter Armitage said...

That is really shocking that Schoen's papers are still being cited. I do remember citations cropping up for at least a year or so afterwards. But this was understandable as so many young scientists had staked their careers on these results and they had a lot of emotion and parts of their lives invested in some part (...oh gawd, just some little part!...please..) not being totally made up. I think people were clinging for a little while to the hope that some bit of it might be true. From a sociological persepctive, this was understandable then... but amazing that the citing persists.

Peter Armitage said...

Oh and something else...

I heard recently that Schoen had applied for a research job at some lab in Sweden. His CV was complete sans ONLY the papers that had been specifically flagged by the Beasley report. That is still a lot of Scie/Nature papers to show off!

Incoherent Ponderer said...

Schon should fess up and form an independent fraud investigation entity, whereby he can use his own cheating experience to track down other fraudulent papers. This is the only job I can see left for him in Scientific world. Given that he wasn't very good at cheating himself, though (identical noise in unrelated experiments - was he too cocky or too lazy to use random number generator?), I am not sure if he is able to catch other fraud.

Makes me wonder how much fraud goes on undetected.

Alison Chaiken said...

Schon should start a blog called "If I Did It" and get Peter Woit to link to it.

I don't think that further citations of Schon's papers are necessarily unjustified. A lot of his fraudulent work represents good ideas for experiments that someone should perform (since he didn't). Some of the experimental results that he fabricated may, ironically, be reproducible.

The strangest aspect of the whole Schon affair is that he obviously was very talented. It's hard to understand what made him cheat in such an obvious way. Some operatic composer should whip up a new version of the Faust legend featuring young Jan Hendrik.

Andrew Green said...

Thanks for this. I too am just about to give a lecture on the Schon case and found the links had disapeared at Bell Labs.

David Weld said...

What is Schön up to now? I've heard various rumors about him being offered new jobs in Sweden and/or China-- any truth to those?

Don Monroe said...

Sorry this is seriously late, but I just ran into this post. We (the investigating committee and the Lucent management who enlisted us) anticipated this problem, and, as alison chaiken suggested, the APS has had the report archived at a site they control since 2002: http://publish.aps.org/reports/

Don

Anonymous said...

"The strangest aspect of the whole Schon affair is that he obviously was very talented. It's hard to understand what made him cheat in such an obvious way."
Uhm, do I hear career pressure maybe?
It's a bit disappointing that after 6 years the scientific community still doesn't care to learn all the lessons there are to be learned from such a case.
When you are "encouraged" to publish as much as certain institution do, or, better, when you sign contracts stipulating that you should generate a ridiculous number of papers per year, is that impossible to imagine that certain PhD students will work late at night all by themselves, if you know what I mean?
When the common lore is that you should have at least 5-10 publications by the time you finish your PhD to stand a chance, when the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality, what do you expect?
It's scary indeed to think how many bogus papers are generated each year... Schon wasn't the only case, he's just one of the few who probably became so confidant in his scam that he abused the system, that's all...