Book review

On Fact and Fraud – Cautionary tales from the front lines of science by David Goodstein; 168 pages hardcover, Princeton Press  ISBN 978-0-691-139661-1

On Fact and Fraud is a little book with a large message about staying clean in science. Goodstein has had a lot of experience with scientific fraud both as a professor — teaching a course on Scientific Ethics at California Institute of Technology, Caltech — and as an administrator. He was involved with adjudicating cases of suspected fraud and writing the guidelines to help determine issues of fraud. The whole concept of guidelines itself is an interesting side issue in the book.

From the outset, Goodstein has a dark message to students on the way up the academic ladder. For high school science teachers, we have long exited this ladder, with most of us completing a Bachelor’s of Science degree. But for those who persevere, the ladder is long, with numerous rungs and numerous checkpoints to pass before climbing higher. And with so many on the ladder, competition is fierce and movement upwards is not always fair.  While rewards and fame and prestige can accrue as one moves higher, many fall by the wayside or simply remain at a particular level, tired of the constant fight to move upward. The battle to move upwards perhaps sets the stage for someone to contemplate scientific fraud.

Goodstein begins with an introductory chapter outlining the academic ladder and a definition of scientific fraud — actually 15 reasonable precepts of what this constitutes. In a later chapter he deals with both Caltech’s and the US Government’s policies on scientific misconduct. But he makes the point that scientific fraud involves one or more of “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism”. One only has to recall the recent case* of fraud at the Toronto District School Board to observe the fall from grace as a result of plagiarism.

Subsequent chapters deal, in depth, with cases or suspected cases of scientific fraud. While the “cold fusion” of Pons and Fleischmann will be readily recalled by most chemistry teachers — and Goodstein presents this with excellent background —cases in biology and physics are also explored. One of these cases involves the Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, who is a mentor of Goodstein and was considered prestigious at Caltech. Perhaps because of this link, there appears to be a bit of whitewashing of Millikan, but while Goodstein provides convincing evidence in Millikan’s favour, he is not as convincing when it comes to Millikan’s character, treatment of graduate students and his racial and sexual biases. Nonetheless, the Millikan chapter is a thoroughly interesting read. Other interesting cases of fraud are examined in biology and physics, along with cases in chemistry, such as semiconductors and the discovery of element 118.

On the whole On Fact and Fraud is an interesting book especially the presented cases and their subsequent dissection. Teachers may want to copy, for their classes, the eleven stages from entry to a university program to prestige and fame, to remind our students of the row they are planning to hoe. Goodstein reiterates on numerous occasions that while the reasons for fraud vary, the method — the fabrication, falsification or plagiarism — is virtually universal. As teachers we need to eradicate, when found, fraud even at the high school level. Students who begin the academic climb having engaged in a fraudulent approach may be more likely to continue to do so as they attempt to move upwards.

[*Chris Spence, director of the Toronto District School Board, was disgraced and stepped down due to a plagiarism scandal in January 2013.]