Michael Ashburner on Fraud in Science
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 08 May 2008

Be scared of fraud, obviously, and that’s as teams. If you’re working alone, as I did for most, a lot of my early career, that’s easy. But, with big teams of people, it can be very difficult with fraud and there are some very, very good scientists who have had to, have found that a post doc or graduate student that’s been very clever but has been fraudulent and it can be very hard to detect. And that can be traumatic, I mean there are people, you have to withdraw, withdraw a high-profile paper because you discovered a year later that the person who did it, had just invented the work. I’ve never had that, thank goodness. You know, but if you’re running a big lab, it can be very difficult. You know, your students or post-docs come and report at weekly lab meetings and you may not be close to, close to the data, and I’ve heard lots of people have had that happen. I actually don’t think that scientific fraud is that important in the sense that if something is invented in the lab and it makes a big splash, it’s good to be repeated so soon that it will be detected. I mean there clearly is fraud in science - everyone knows that. No, no, well the Baltimore case is very complex, I don’t really know…. But, there is some fraud, which is very crude. I got involved in a case in Cambridge in which I was called in, to help clean up the mess. And no, the guy was not clever. It was very crude fraud and it very easy to show as fraud. Yeah, but it’s normally detected fairly quickly and it’s noise, I think it’s human nature, you know. It’s like sex, you can’t stop it, yeah. You know? You know, Stalin may have wanted to stop sex, but he couldn’t stop sex, yeah. And you can’t stop fraud in science. There is going to be a low-level of fraudulent, fraudulent noise in science. It’s a consequence of pressure and ambition, and also of arrogance. That people think they know the answer, yeah. They think they know the answer. They’re convinced they know the answer, but they can’t quite get the experiment to work, yeah. And so they invent it because they are convinced they know they are right, yeah and so... Yes, you do have peer review, but quite a lot, quite a lot of fraud gets through peer. Look, there used to be a joke, you know, papers published and sell. So when Ben Lewin started, Ben Lewin started to sell. I’ve know Ben, I’ve taught him as an undergraduate, a very long time ago, and there is a period in which, once I suggested to Ben that we produce a book of papers which have two criteria: that have had cover photographs and sell and have subsequently been withdrawn because they’re wrong. Ben wasn’t amused. And eh, you know, it happens. So, a lot of fraud gets through peer review because, you know, you have a clever fraudster he’ll be internally consistent

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner