It isn't the fraud witchhunt, it's the Glamour culture of science

Aug 05 2014 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

The Sesai suicide has been deemed the result of an anti-fraud witch hunt by well respected biomedical ethics / conduct of science / publishing / open science dude Michael Eisen.

I disagree that this is the proper frame for what happened.

First, while I am no fan of the sort of lynch mob behavior that tends to emerge in the comments at the retractionwatch blog these days, scientific fraud still needs to be rooted out and exposed wherever it occurs. Blaming a suicide on the "witch hunt", as if rooting out fraud is not a valid or significant concern, is a problem to me. We already have enough enabling behavior in the Academy. Enough excusing, enough looking the other way and enough failing to convict a pattern of behavior because we can't lay beyond-reasonable-doubt gloves on the perpetrator. Dismissing all vigorous attempts to get to the bottom of a paper fraud situation as if they are baseless (i.e., witches do not exist) is counterproductive.

Second, data fabrication and fraud has victims. And all too often we frame scientific fraud ONLY through the lens of scientific understanding. Which, let us be honest, is fairly robust against claims that turn out to be wrong. Sure, time and money are lost, but the scientific understanding wins out in the end. Peoples' careers, however, often suffer irretrievable harm. When a job is won by a data faker like Marc Hauser or Michael Miller then someone else lost that job. When a research grant is awarded based on faked publications or preliminary data, another investigator doesn't get those funds [even the grants themselves are rarely pulled from the University, a new PI is frequently substituted]. These are serious harms, there are victims and turning a blind eye to scientific misconduct ensures more harms in the future.

Third, this was a Japanese investigator who decided to take ultimate responsibility by killing himself. I've been around a few decades and have noticed that middle and top level managers in Japan occasionally commit suicide over work-related matters that are inexplicably strange and unjustified to most Western (and certainly USian) eyes. It strikes me that there are cultural factors at play here that explain this event far more truthily than some analysis of the effects of a "witch hunt" about data fraud.

Nevertheless, if you absolutely insist that there is some thing about the current culture of science that resulted in this suicide of a research scientist, rxnm has some thoughts which seem much more related to me.

And what about everyone else? Journals, colleagues, scientists, journalists? Do we really need hero narratives? The splashy results that will “change everything”? The hype machine it is out of fucking control. We are adopting the language of biz-speak bullshit and starting to buy into these empty non-values about techno-utopian revolutionaries and lone geniuses. We all participate in the culture of valuing glam, prestige, prizes. Who gets the 8-figure grants while everyone else struggles to stay afloat? Who can I get a selfie with at SfN? Who gets to stamp their name all over the culmination of decades of work by hundreds or thousands? We’ve become cultish: around people, journals, technologies, institutions. As if these are things that matter more than the colleagues around us, or our own integrity. It’s pathetic, and we can be better.

Without the need for Glamourous results, there is less need to fake data. Without the hero and lone-genius narrative, PIs would feel less desire to appear always-correct and fear the overturning of their pet story or hypothesis much less. Without this intensely competitive fight to publish in the right limited subset of journals.... etc.

ps. Graduate students suicide occasionally too. Guess which culture change would have the greater effect- anti-fraud alleged witch hunts or dismantling the hypercompetitive, Glamour-humping prestige-seeking?

40 responses so far

  • Mikka says:


  • The problem is, like most complaints of "the world is going to hell", there isn't a lot of evidence to suggest that things were ever really better. Or if "dismantling the hypercompetitive, Glamour-humping prestige-seeking" is even a realistic proposal.

  • zb says:

    I fear that in some subfields, like in Lance Armstrong's bicycling world, the fraud is driving out the real science, and so we can't be as confident that "scientific understanding" will win out (at least, in anything less than the long term during which the moral arch of history also curves towards justice). That's too long.

    The stem cell fraud was uncovered the fairly normal way (people looking at the data). Uncovering the Hauser data manipulation meant whistle blowers, and, honestly, that kind of thing, reporting inter-observer reliability when there weren't multiple observers? How would one ever uncover that without inside information? And, one would expect the stem cell science to be corrected, if not the fraud discovered, on replication. The Hauser-like studies, those don't even get replicated. This stories make me fearful.

    Were things ever better? Well, for concerns about the incidence and pervasiveness of fraud, I think they were, when the science was more closed and when the stakes were lower. Of course, that also meant that the field was an old boy's network. Obokata wouldn't have had a chance to commit fraud, 'cause she wouldn't have gotten a chance to do science in the first place. Getting the superstar result wouldn't have gotten her a RIKEN job, because it would have gone to the boy who'd done the right things (i.e whatever the equivalent was of going to Oxford/finding the right mentor, etc.).

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I was gonna post everything zb said. Word.

  • Dr24hours says:

    Suicides are among the most individual of desperate acts. While there have been some population level studies that show correlations and causality in certain circumstances (like TBI and PTSD in combat veterans) I am deeply wary assigning cultural blame to individual acts of tragic desperation.

    For further reading on suicide research, I recommend Dr. Monica Mattieu.

  • Dr24hours says:

    Matthieu, not Mattieu.

  • Dave says:

    What bothers me most about the lynch mob over at RW, Pubpeer etc is that their 'solutions' are to call only for more oversight of scientists, even if that is from nut bag politicians. The tone also is quickly becoming one of default suspicion of all science, and that is incredibly damaging. Even if they acknowledge the real reasons behind misconduct (institutional, personal, financial...), they are largely ignored when it comes to ways to fix the problem. Instead they talk about image manipulation detection, peer review blah blah blah. At what point will we begin to actually address the root of this problem and stop focusing on the symptoms? That's what I want to know. Where is the breaking point?

  • Ola says:

    @Dave, the breaking point is when the journals release their stranglehold over the data and accept that their 19th century billion dollar industry is dying fast.

  • […] relate suicide to the things that are going on in a person's life. And it's often a good reason to bring up those issues again, but in all likelihood, the "cause" was either depression or bipolar disorder, which likely (based […]

  • AsianQB says:

    Most of my Japanese colleagues seem to agree with his decision to commit suicide! Any "honorable man" is apparently expected to do this in such a situation, witch-hunt or not, data faked or not. As baffling as that may be to many, I don't think we can expect much of a "lessons learnt" from RIKEN, as this may just be the prevailing sensibility.

    As this news become more mainstream, the public comments on this story seem to pin all the blame on the "woman behind all the trouble", Obokata. I can only hope some sensible reporting prevails which shows that the senior authors on the papers DO have a critical responsibility of oversight.

  • rxnm says:

    zb nailed it that one contributing factor to the dark side of competitive science is that science (careers) are now actually becoming a competition...not a patronage-based gentlemen's club. The increased participation part of this is great, the terrible winner-take-all funding aspect is terrible.

    RW does a great service. No idea why anyone would ever read the comments.

    I don't think outright fraud is very common, but science is still uglified by the glam game, media hype, and celebrity scientist culture...that these are things that undoubtedly increase fraud is part of what makes them bad, but they suck no matter what.

    Competition brings out the best in some and the worst in others and many in the middle are indifferent to it...the degree to which people are motivated by internal or external factors varies a lot. Either way, we can decide what kind of competition it should be and what kind of meritocracy we want, and we are doing a super shitty job at that.

  • Dave says:

    I don't think outright fraud is very common

    I would have agreed a couple of years ago, but one look at Pubpeer will scare the shit out of you. I'm firmly in the camp now that believes there are elements of fraud in a significant proportion of papers, and the image manipulators are just the low-hanging fruit. I hope I'm wrong.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Part of the trouble is that these days the competition is vicious not just for the most prestigious positions, academic prizes & etc. The competition for having any kind of reasonably stable career in science is intense.

    When it's a fight for prestige, it's more likely that only the occasional douchebag will resort to cheating. When it's a fight simply to survive, you can expect to see more people cutting corners.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Agreed AL, we need to be wary in the most modest of job scenarios as well as GlamourHound labs. Still, make no mistake, there is a correlation of fakery with glamour.

  • toto says:

    I don't understand rxnm's point. S/he seems to be saying that the negative aspects of the Glam mags are somehow the cause of the cutthroat competition. To me it looks like they're a consequence of it.

    Even if you kill off all journals with a two-digit IF, even if you burn down all academic PR departments, even if you deport the Totally-Evilz "star" scientists to Easter Island, the cutthroat competition will still be there. And it will still lead some to the same desperate behaviors.

  • "Still, make no mistake, there is a correlation of fakery with glamour."

    You say this all the time, but the evidence is very thin. There is a correlation of *detected* fakery with "glamour", because DUH: exciting papers published in prestigious journals are intensively scrutinized. No one is even looking at papers published in "The International Online Journal of the Thick Ascending Limb".

  • rxnm says:

    CPP, you act like we're not working scientists who have known and seen first hand many varietals of cheat fuck and douche bag over our careers. No one is massaging their data to get it into the Annals of Platypus Physiology B. And PIs who know how to squeeze the "right" result out of pliable trainees are, IME, notably thicker on the ground at the ILAFs and in the pages of your "prestigious" journals.

    It would be supremely, wilfully ignorant to think that the bullshit reward system we've created around certain journals and institutions doesn't change behavior with respect to those rewards.

    toto, your premise seems to be there is a real scientific difference between glam/non-glam papers. There isn't. Glam is a proxy for little except influence. Consider if everything was published in PLOS ONE. You think a hiring committee can tell the difference between what would have been a Neuron paper and a JNeuro paper? Take away the incentive for gold stickers, and sticker theft will go down.

  • CPP, you act like we're not working scientists who have known and seen first hand many varietals of cheat fuck and douche bag over our careers. No one is massaging their data to get it into the Annals of Platypus Physiology B. And PIs who know how to squeeze the "right" result out of pliable trainees are, IME, notably thicker on the ground at the ILAFs and in the pages of your "prestigious" journals.

    Confirmation bias, holmes. Sure, you may "feel" like you know what's going on at the higher versus lower rungs of scientific competition, but there are plenty of professional scientific contexts around the globe where hammering a bunch of papers out in journals like Annals of Platypus Physiology B allows people to keep their jobs. You think they're not as highly motivated to cheat? And they have the added incentive that they can feel pretty confident that no one is every gonna read the fucken shitte, let alone someone who cares enough to scrutinize their data.

  • Dave says:

    No one is massaging their data to get it into the Annals of Platypus Physiology B.

    Depending on where your cut-off is for 'glam', it's just not true that nobody is faking data in lower-tier journals. One peek at RW just this week, will demonstrate that.

  • rxnm says:

    Do you ask female colleagues for Title IX complaint stats when they tell you men in their department treat them differently? Accuse them of confirmation bias? Lecture about causation/correlation in career advancement stats?

    The same way I know there are toxic douchebags who treat female/asian/whatev trainees differently from their mini-me bros--because I see the effects it has on my friends, their happiness, and their careers--is how I know there is a toxic effect of glam humping on how many of my colleagues approach their science and their careers.

  • rxnm says:

    So... what is the "pro-glam" argument?

    To me, it is objectively stupid way to approach scientific publication and the evaluation of scientists. Maybe that's why I don't demand iron-clad statistical rigor for justifying the myriad reasons we should ignore it. Or at least deflate its starfucker pomposity like 3%.

  • Dude, how did this become a discussion of "pro-glam" arguments? The question isn't whether "glam" is good. The question is whether the claim that DoucheMonkey and others constantly make--that there is a greater prevalence of fraudulent data underlying publications in prestigious journals than in less-prestigious ones--is well-supported or not.

    And your analogy is bogus. No one is questioning the reality of your specific experiences. The question isn't whether some people commit fraud because they are chasing a Cell paper: obviously they do. The question is whether people chasing a Cell paper to achieve their career goals are more likely to commit fraud than people chasing a paper in Annals of Platypus Physiology B to achieve their career goals.

    It seems like you are, yourself, blinded by your own environment. There are many more people in humble circumstances for whom publishing papers in shitteasse journals is essential for their own career security than there are BSD investigators for whom publishing papers in prestigious journals is essential for theirs.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The question is whether the claim that DoucheMonkey and others constantly make--that there is a greater prevalence of fraudulent data underlying publications in prestigious journals than in less-prestigious ones--is well-supported or not.

    It is. There are clear data on the fraud rate and the correlation with JIF.

    In response to that we have unsupported desperate claims by GlamourHumpers and GlamourStockholmSyndrome wannabes that "oh, that's because of increased scrutiny" that barely hold any water. For example, your type of disagreement with the data on hand never seems to address why 100 lab meetings are necessary to detect the kind of obvious BSery that is usually at issue and why only 5 interested parties can't identify the same for lower JIF publications. Your type of disagreement proudly asserts no knowledge whatsoever of the review process at "shittasse" journals compared with high JIF journals and yet sees fit to ignore arguments that the more limited and focused the paper, the more intense the scrutiny on each model or datatype from reviewers of highly relevant expertise. And, always, your type of argument hilariously pretends that the level of competition and the stakes of getting published in a particular journal are exactly the same. They aren't.

    There are many more people in humble circumstances for whom publishing papers in shitteasse journals is essential for their own career security than there are BSD investigators for whom publishing papers in prestigious journals is essential for theirs.

    This doesn't mean that the competition to get a paper accepted in an acceptable venue for a given investigator is the same. At all. Nor that the acceptability of a given outcome of the study is the same. Negative and equivocal results can find a home just so long as the studies are reasonably solid in and of themselves. Confidence that your work will eventually be published somewhere that is acceptable to many of the people judging your career is, and should be, high.

    This contrasts distinctly with the reality for those playing the GlamourGame. Qualitatively and significantly different.

  • drugmonkey says:

    the cutthroat competition will still be there.

    This is incorrect. It is all about the total number of available paper acceptance slots in the tier of journals that are considered acceptable and desirable (and of course relevant to a research domain).

    There is plenty of room in the host of journals generally considered "neuroscience" to accommodate every single rejected submission in the category to Science, Nature, Cell, Nat Neuro and Neuron.

    Several times over. So there is plenty of room for all the "*authors contributed equally" to get their rightful first-author paper too.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You say this all the time, but the evidence is very thin.

    be that as it may there IS evidence. And all you have is handwaving that fails to so much as fight very strongly against counter handwaving.

    Are you entirely sure you are a scientist?

  • You got me, holmes. I'm actually a risotto cook in Little Italy.

  • rxnm says:

    "The question isn't whether some people commit fraud because they are chasing a Cell paper..."

    Cell paper? If you're a postdoc in the kind of lab that publishes there, why fake data? I mean, those editors are already falling all over themselves to solicit the latest trendy shit from your BSD PI, promising to make sure it's "handled appropriately," right?

    Fakery is for the magazines. C'mon, this stuff is ILAF 101.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm a little disappointed that there isn't really a journal called Annals of Platypus Physiology B.

  • dsks says:

    How the bullshittery is distributed across glam-factor is besides the point. The fact that jobs are on the line to get The Right Answers, and not merely prestige, produces a strong incentive for chicanery that isn't constructive to the overall endeavour.

    I'm not sure how, but we need to get back to basing merit more upon Asking The Right and Important Questions and Developing/Using The Right Approach To Find The Answers To Those Important Questions, rather than on The Answers themselves (which, as I've said, are not in the scientist's control... unless he's cooking the lab books).

  • potty theron says:

    Hey, those of us who do work on Monotremes (platypus and echidnas) have been trying for years to get Annals of Platypus Physiology off the ground. That it has failed I can only attribute to the BSDs who do not want the competition from our groundbreaking work.

  • potty theron says:

    Part of the answer to the question "is there more fraud in glam journals" can be examined (not necessarily answered) by looking at what kinds of people go into the glam sub-disciplines. In fact there are lots of folks (starting with the monotreme workers, and going through evolution and non-dinosaur paleontology and big chunks of ecology, population genetics, etc) that are not ever going to be published in glam journals. or win the No Bell prize. Are there (and I dont know) more BSDs attracted to the glam-fields because for whatever reason they want the glam? Are such people more likely to cheat because the glam is more impt to them than the science?

  • rxnm says:

    In my experience, there are several glam-humping postdoc phenotypes that don't seem to be interested in science at all. Some are easy to spot, because they actually say things like, "My scientific goal is to work at the most prestigious institution possible and publish in the most high impact factor journal possible." Literally (in response to, "why do you want to work in this lab?") These guileless nutjobs are to be avoided at all costs and are probably already pasting together random western bands for their first paper. They are not particularly common, but seem to be concentrated where you'd expect.

    Then there are the wanna-be BSD bro postdocs, who seem mostly to want to have license to someday act as douchely as whatever asshole-daddy's sway they've fallen under. They can't wait to be the keynote dude whose lame jokes and fake insight everyone pretends to laugh at or be interested in at conferences. These are mentoring relationships based on vicarious reliving of an imagined time when they were some sad version of cool for the BSD, and for the bros it's an extension of the oedipal fantasy and a chance to be constantly praised in front of female colleagues.

    But I have to say, aside from these, even in the glammiest of glam fields, I don't know that many people who really want to publish in those journals at all, including the PIs. They've just given up on the idea of ever being judged on their actual merit and want to do what they think is best for their careers and those of their co-authors. I think most of them chose their fields long before they were even aware of any of this crap.

    When I was postdoc with a pre-tenure PI it was not really my choice where to publish. I feel like I could've published more and faster without these bullshit considerations, but I have to admit that there is little doubt that publication venue positively affected my job search. I don't know how much.

  • commentariette says:

    This is really sad. A man is dead, having committed suicide of bullying. That the victim was Japanese does not make it ok, sorry -- you think maybe Japanese people do not have parents or spouses or children?

    I do not think any civilized society finds it acceptable to convict anybody of serious wrongdoing without incontrovertible evidence and very few find death penalty acceptable. That's what 'it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for 1 innocent man to be convicted' means. We all obtain protection from a witch hunt, at the cost of whatever risk is posed to us by those 10.

    I think it would be better to try to end the attitude of competition and the culture of hating at anyone who is more successful and describing them as evil or cheating. The comments here are very unpleasant, not least under the shadow of horrible death.

    Maybe less competition would help, though I guess that would mean either very severely restricting the number of institutions and people that were allowed to compete for funding at all or just giving everybody a very small grant. Or eliminate funding altogether and expect that most research would be done in companies. But none of these seem very practical.

    So I think it is better to adjust attitude. Try to do good work, be sensitive to weaknesses or errors in your own work as much as other peoples, etc.

  • Grumble says:

    Commontariette, I'm not sure where you get the idea that there is a "culture of hating at anyone who is more successful and describing them as evil or cheating." First, you really should question the premise that scientists who frequently publish in glammy journals are "more successful" than those who don't. Second, the above discussion was largely centered on whether in fact there is more cheating among glammy-publishing-scientists than non-glammy-publishing scientists. That's a valid discussion to have, and it doesn't involve hate.

    That's not to say there isn't resentment among the non-glammy crowd. We think our work is just as valuable (if not more so), yet we also see that the value of the work is not what gets papers into glam journals. And then we see that people who publish in those journals get the best jobs and grants. Of course we resent that. But is doesn't mean we "hate those who are successful" or think that they are all "cheaters" or "evil".

    Finally, no one said the Sesai suicide is "OK" because he was Japanese. I think everyone (perhaps with some exceptions noted by a commenter above) would agree that his death is a tragedy. I certainly think it is.

  • DrugMonkey says:


    Your equating the pursuit of the truth regarding the fraud with a bullying that directly caused a suicide and likening it to capital punishment is entirely wrong and messed up. You are further wrong to act as if the cultural factors that do or do not facilitate suicide in circumstances like this are the same world wide. The number of suicides for professional embarrassment reasons in Japan are an outlier. Therefore pasting causality onto this without recognizing that difference is wrong.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And btw...

    WRT describing cheaters as "evil", you miss the point entirely. My comments are (nearly) invariably directed at the contingencies at work in science careers that induce or facilitate cheating. Many others take a similar tack, see quoted blog post from rxnm. That is what we can fix. That is the real problem here. I still believe very strongly that nobody gets into science b/c they want to fake data. They slip because of desperation. We create that desperation and we should be able to lessen it.

  • The thing is when exactly did this golden age of non-competitive science supposedly exist? Zb and others suggested that science used to be a polite gentleman's game without all the modern problems. When? In the 1950s, when Watson and Crick were racing against Pauling and others and using rather questionable means of appropriating data to win? Or maybe in the 19th century, when Darwin rushed to publish on natural selection when his friend Lyell told him that Wallace was about to scoop him? Or maybe in the 17th century when Newton and Leibniz were battling it out in regard to who invented calculus first?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Note: One counter to the Glamour hypothesis and in support of the CPP position...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    JB- this is not about Nobel quality revolutionary findings. we are talking about modern, professional workaday science. The 80s and 90s, maybe the 70s are a better comparison. The priority on high JIF has increased exponentially. The ability to survive on respectable journals and solid advance has changed.

  • mdphd says:

    JB, competition of ideas/work is fine and must continue to drive innovation (Watson and Crick had some shady behavior though..). I don't think that is the issue...It's the competition for resources, livelihood, etc (MONEY) in the academic sphere driving bad behavior that is the concern...

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