A Breach of Trust

Beginning in 1998, a series of remarkable papers attracted great attention within the condensed matter physics community. The papers, based largely on work done at Bell Laboratories, described methods that could create carbon-based materials with long-sought properties, including superconductivity and molecular-level switching. However, when other materials scientists sought to reproduce or extend the results, they were unsuccessful.

In 2001, several physicists inside and outside Bell Laboratories began to notice anomalies in some of the papers. Several contained figures that were very similar, even though they described different experimental systems. Some graphs seemed too smooth to describe real-life systems. Suspicion quickly fell on a young researcher named Jan Hendrik Schön, who had helped create the materials, had made the physical measurements on them, and was a coauthor on all the papers.

Bell Laboratories convened a committee of five outside researchers to examine the results published in 25 papers. Schön, who had conducted part of the work in the laboratory where he did his Ph.D. at the University of Konstanz in Germany, told the committee that the devices he had studied were no longer running or had been thrown away. He also said that he had deleted his primary electronic data files because he did not have room to store them on his old computer and that he kept no data notebooks while he was performing the work.

The committee did not accept Schön’s explanations and eventually concluded that he had engaged in fabrication in at least 16 of the 25 papers. Schön was fired from Bell Laboratories and later left the United States. In a letter to the committee, he wrote that “I admit I made various mistakes in my scientific work, which I deeply regret.” Yet he maintained that he “observed experimentally the various physical effects reported in these publications.”

The committee concluded that Schön acted alone and that his 20 coauthors on the papers were not guilty of scientific misconduct. However, the committee also raised the issue of the responsibility coauthors have to oversee the work of their colleagues, while acknowledging that no consensus yet exists on the extent of this responsibility. The senior author on several of the papers, all of which were later retracted, wrote that he should have asked Schön for more detailed data and checked his work more carefully, but that he trusted Schön to do his work honestly. In response to the incident, Bell Laboratories instituted new policies for data retention and internal review of results before publication. It also developed a new research ethics statement for its employees.

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