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Physicist Fired for Falsified Data

25 September 2002 (All day)
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Jan Hendrik Schön, a Bell Labs physicist whose papers promised to revolutionize the fields of organic electronics, superconductivity, and nanotechnology, fabricated data and falsified reports from 1998 through 2001, according to a report released today by a committee of independent investigators. Schön was fired from Bell Labs Tuesday night, shortly after officials there received the report. The findings mark this as one of the most extensive cases of scientific misconduct in modern history.

The committee's investigation grew out of a series of allegations in May that portions of figures in separate experiments appeared to have been duplicated (Science, 24 May, p. 1376). For instance, several figures contained apparently identical patterns of what should have been random noise. Bell Labs--the research arm of Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, New Jersey--assembled an independent, five-member team led by Stanford University physicist Malcolm Beasley to look into the matter. The team ultimately focused on 24 separate papers that included 20 co-authors.

According to the report, Schön either falsified or fabricated data in 16 of the 24 cases. As well, he deleted his original data files, making it impossible to verify his scientific claims. "The evidence that manipulation and misrepresentation of data occurred is compelling," the report concludes.

Schön could not be reached for comment. But in a response to the committee that is part of the report, Schön says, "I have to admit that I made various mistakes in my scientific work, which I deeply regret. ... However, I would like to state that all of the scientific publications that I prepared were based on experimental observations."

The committee found no evidence of misconduct by any of Schön's co-authors. But the report raised a series of pointed questions regarding the role of Bertram Batlogg, Schön's supervisor and the group's senior member. In particular, the report questioned whether Batlogg should have looked more closely at the evidence supporting Schön's astounding string of reports, which in 2001 were being churned out at a rate of one every 8 days.

Other physicists said they are pleased with the thoroughness of the report, but saddened by its conclusions. "It's just stunning," says Lydia Sohn, a Princeton University physicist who was one of the first people to point out duplicate figures. "But this shows that the system of checks and balances in science works." According to Bell Labs vice president for research Cherry Murray, Bell Labs is now working with all of the authors to see which of Schön's papers should be retracted. Regardless of the decision, says Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Art Ramirez, few physicists will ever reference the papers again. Says Ramirez: "For me this basically invalidates the whole body of work."

Related sites
The full report
A list of research papers in question (PDF file)

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