Research Misconduct

Cheryl Newton and Howard Siu
Case revision date: 
7 pages (Case Study)

Bell Laboratories (Bell Labs), headquartered in New Jersey is a leading research organization in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Bell Labs operates within Alcatel-Lucent, an Internet protocol (IP) networking specialist company. A number of Bell Labs scientists conduct research that has resulted an innovation and Nobel Prizes in a range of disciplines. Dr. Jan Hendrik Schön was employed by Bell Labs in 1998 and studied electrical charge conduction through organic crystals. His published research in leading journals such as Science and Nature illustrated groundbreaking discoveries that demonstrated the use of transistor devices. The rate of publications with Schön as lead author was very high: 100 articles in just three years. In some cases, Schön’s claims could not be duplicated by other scientists in the field. This started raising doubts regarding the validity of his research among the scientific community.
A Bell Labs committee in 2002 investigated claims that Schön’s data, published between 1998 and 2001, was fraudulent. The committee discovered problems of data substitution, unrealistic precision, and contradictory physics in nine of the published papers. Schön was found guilty of scientific misconduct and fired from Bell Labs. Thirty-six (36) publications were retracted or formally withdrawn, and his 1997 Ph.D. degree was revoked from the University of Konstanz in 2004. A timeline of events is summarized in Figure 1. The controversy sparked conversations within the scientific community about research misconduct and where responsibility lies among the lead researcher, corresponding authors, peer reviewers, and publishers.

Figure 1 – Bell Labs Research Misconduct Timeline

Figure 1 – Bell Labs Research Misconduct Timeline

Learning objectives: 

The main teaching objective of this case study is for students to analyze and discuss the implications of research and publication misconduct.

Key words: 
Ethics; Professional Engineering; Misconduct
CEAB attributes: 
Module 01– Case Study
Module TN – Teaching Note

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