The Schön scandal concerns German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön (born 1970 in Verden) who briefly rose to prominence after a series of apparent breakthroughs with semiconductors that were later discovered to be fraudulent. Before he was exposed, Schön had received the Otto-Klung-Weberbank Prize for Physics in 2001, the Braunschweig Prize in 2001 and the Outstanding Young Investigator Award of the Materials Research Society in 2002, which was later rescinded.Here we see examples of:
The scandal provoked discussion in the scientific community about the degree of responsibility of coauthors and reviewers of scientific papers. The debate centered on whether peer review, traditionally designed to find errors and determine relevance and originality of papers, should also be required to detect deliberate fraud.
Allegations and investigation
As recounted by Dan Agin in his book Junk Science, soon after Schön published his work on single-molecule semiconductors, others in the physics community alleged that his data contained anomalies. Professor Lydia Sohn, then of Princeton University, noticed that two experiments carried out at very different temperatures had identical noise. When the editors of Nature pointed this out to Schön, he claimed to have accidentally submitted the same graph twice. Professor Paul McEuen of Cornell University then found the same noise in a paper describing a third experiment. More research by McEuen, Sohn and other physicists, uncovered a number of examples of duplicate data in Schön's work. This triggered a series of reactions that quickly led Lucent Technologies (which ran Bell Labs) to start a formal investigation.
In May 2002, Bell Labs set up a committee to investigate with Professor Malcolm Beasley of Stanford University as chair. The committee obtained information from all of Schön's coauthors, and interviewed the three principal ones (Zhenan Bao, Bertram Batlogg and Christian Kloc). It examined electronic drafts of the disputed papers which included processed numeric data. The committee requested copies of the raw data but found that Schön had kept no laboratory notebooks. His raw-data files had been erased from his computer. According to Schön the files were erased because his computer had limited hard drive space. In addition, all of his experimental samples had been discarded, or damaged beyond repair.
On September 25, 2002, the committee publicly released its report. The report contained details of 24 allegations of misconduct. They found evidence of Schön's scientific misconduct in at least 16 of them. They found that whole data sets had been reused in a number of different experiments. They also found that some of his graphs, which purportedly had been plotted from experimental data, had instead been produced using mathematical functions.
The report found that all of the misdeeds had been performed by Schön alone. All of the coauthors (including Bertram Batlogg who was the head of the team) were exonerated of scientific misconduct. This sparked widespread debate in the scientific community on how the blame for misconduct should be shared among co-authors, particularly when they share significant part of the credit.
Aftermath and sanctions
Schön acknowledged that the data were incorrect in many of these papers. He claimed that the substitutions could have occurred by honest mistake. He admitted to having falsified some data and stated he did so to show more convincing evidence for behaviour that he observed.
Experimenters at Delft University of Technology and the Thomas J. Watson Research Center have since performed experiments similar to Schön's. They did not obtain similar results. Even before the allegations had become public, several research groups had tried to reproduce most of his spectacular results in the field of the physics of organic molecular materials without success.
- "I accidentally switched the slides! Honest mistake!"
- "I lost the data, sorry!"
- "I lost my secret sauce, sorry!"
- "I just fudged the data for cosmetic reasons"