Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Allure of Scandal: Sames & Sezen Back in the News

Thanks to Chemistry & Engineering News, the Sames/Sezen Scandal is back in the news. Yesterday the following letter from Paul Mengnjoh appeared on their site:

I was disappointed to read that Columbia University chemistry professor Dalibor Sames retracted four more scientific papers (C&EN Online Latest News, June 16). I wonder if this is a trend of a professor and student getting into serious trouble and putting the future of U.S. chemistry, which is the envy of the world, in jeopardy.

I was also surprised to learn that Sames was asked to police himself by trying to redo the experiments, while the student who conducted the experiments had moved on to a German university and was pursuing a doctorate in another subject area. Can someone at ACS explain to us what is really going on here? Should professors supervising graduate students in chemistry be more vigilant in monitoring what is going on in their labs and making sure our chemistry research is not tainted by students who are not careful in recording their findings in lab notebooks? The lab notebooks should be carefully examined before signing off on students' findings so that we don't have the situation that has happened at Columbia. I'm sure other ACS members would also like the answer to the questions I have raised here.
One could argue that the situation is private at this point. The papers have been withdrawn, and that's all we, the public, need to know. It's between Columbia, Sames and Sezen at this point.

I don't think so.

Mengnjoh's letter hits on some important points; please allow me to elaborate. This matter cannot be isolated to the school, the faculty member or the graduate student involved in this situation. The chemistry community must take this grave situation as a warning of what atrocities can occur when the mentor-mentee relationship begins to break down. Assuming that Sezen's results are all but fake, her actions are simply inexcusable. The fact that these lies made it out of the Sames lab are a failure of its leaders, Dalibor, and his group as a whole.

But I'm not writing to shame Bengu or Dalibor. They've certainly been dealt their share.

Let's look at where the system broke down, and what it means for the discipline:

Something drove Bengu to lie the first time. After that she had to keep it going to preserve that first lie (in for a dime, in for a dollar). Pressure from her advisor, her peers, the job market - any or all of these could have made her add her magic to the flask that fateful day. Maybe Sames wasn't paying any attention to what she was doing because it wasn't working. But what about Columbia or chemistry at large? Did Sezen's graduate coursework include a required course in science ethics? What about her undergraduate degree? Did she attend workshops offered by the ACS at a national or local meeting? Does the ACS offer such workshops?

If it was pressure from Sames that drove her to fake these results, what drove him to put undue pressure on his students? Is he just naturally a slave driver? Or was it the ultra-competitive funding situation in the U.S.? Why didn't he look at her primary data? Did he?

These pressures affect more than just Sezen and Sames - they are truths of our world. To ignore this situation as a unique and unrepeatable conflagration of events is immature. This situation is what can result from the system that has been created. There are more graduate students like Bengu, and more faculty members like Dalibor, and if something isn't done to repair the system that allowed this to happen, then it will happen again. How many multi-paper retractions from a prestigious university do you think the general public needs to start doubting the entire field of chemistry?

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment put forth by >Paul Mengnjoh in his letter. I hope that he, C&E News, chemists, and the public at large get to know the truth about this unfortunate situation. I also hope that once we have that information that some good can come of it, and that we don't just forget about it once the allure of scandal has passed.

News of this letter was also covered by Paul Bracher.

Update: Bracher wrote a follow-up piece looking into Columbia's misconduct policy.