Sames-Sezen ORI Finding

December 1st, 2010

Sometimes, less is more.

I find myself using this expression a lot.  Usually, it is in the context of having just viewed a long presentation in which someone has tried to cram two hours of results into a 45-minute seminar.  Giving your audience too much information can detract from the message you wish to communicate.

Last night, I started writing a post about my thoughts of the Sames-Sezen investigation.  The post was detailed.  It was long.  It was boring.  There will be a time to talk about the nitty-gritty of the case, but for now, I want to focus on the most pressing issue at hand:

The Sames-Sezen Affair is the single worst (known) example of misconduct in the history of chemistry; we must learn from it.

The fact that this story is a black eye on chemistry does not mean it is our duty as chemists to sweep it under the rug and move on.  The fabrication of data by researchers is a major cultural issue facing our field.  The Sames-Sezen story is a teachable moment, and we must explore the matter thoroughly to learn from it. 

The press is an incredibly important institution to our society.  For a democratic government to function effectively, the voting public (who holds the ultimate power) must be informed.  With regard to the world of scientific research, the public has generally been content to allow scientists to distribute funding and conduct their work with little political interference.  If this is to continue, we are going to have to police ourselves when distasteful matters arise.  To do so effectively, our community has to be informed accurately and completely.

With regard to the Sames-Sezen affair, Columbia has a responsibility to do more to inform the community.  It is unclear whether this will happen.  It the absence of candor by the university, scientific news organizations like C&EN, Nature, and Science must focus on uncovering the details of the case pertinent to the management of a research laboratory.  We require this information to move forward with a thorough analysis.  In the recent past, C&EN has done a terrific job communicating the details of unflattering stories like the Sheri Sangji tragedy and the Texas Tech lab explosion.  We learned a lot from those cases because of the detail reported in C&EN, and some schools have actually changed the way they operate in response to these lessons.  I hope C&EN‘s dedication and thoroughness in coverage extends to the Sames-Sezen case.

If those news organization won’t probe deeper, I certainly will.  I’ve got other priorities, of course, but a slow path forward is better than nothing.   I’ve got calls into the ORI to try to learn more about the case, and I’ve submitted an FOIA request for the documents related to the investigation.  Now that we are five years removed from the initial reports of the story, I am hoping that some of the people knowledgable in the details of the case are now in secure positions where they can come forward with more information.  If you have something to share, please let me (or some organization like C&EN) know.   I will protect your identity.  Never in the history of this blog have I outed a confidential source.  You can contact me by e-mail: paul (at) chembark (dot) com.

In the meantime, I have resurrected all of the posts that deal with the case from my former blogs (Endless Frontier and ChemBark 1.0).  I hope they—especially the comments/discussion—can serve as a rough guide to people in the media who are probing deeper into the story.  These posts can be found under the category “Sames-Sezen“.

28 Responses to “Sames-Sezen ORI Finding”

  1. Hap Says:

    1) “I’ve said it before and will say it again: if professors are going to share in the credit, they’ve got to be willing to share in the blame.”

    I guess that doesn’t apply if you’re about to get tenure at Columbia. That only applies to peons, not CEOs and professors.

    2) I don’t know if this is worse than La Clair’s natural product “synthesis” (that seems more egregious, with no SI and no investigation) or the “induction of ee by NMR” in Germany. What Sames-Sezen does have is lots of obfuscation and dishonesty, among a variety of institutions, and a highly disproportionate division of the blame (with the professor getting off scot-free, the grad student getting most of the blame (probably deserved, but), and the sacrificial lamb grad students becoming Christmas dinner 2005 at Columbia). It seems more unjust and unclosed than other recent scandals, and the blame for the lack of justice more widely spread.

  2. Matt Says:

    I agree with Hap.
    The PI is getting off scott-free on this one. It really shows you how separated most PIs are from the actual science going on in their labs. There is no management and no oversight. Publish or Perish. And if you publish fake data all the blame will go to your graduate student. Seems like there are lots of parallels like this these days (Hap mentions CEOs). Ignorance is not a reasonable excuse. In fact, the ignorance in cases like these is pretty damning of the fact that the PI (CEO/coach/manager) is not performing their duties.

  3. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    It’s going to be tough to implicate the PI. At most you can blame him for being negligent, but unless we know exactly how much he knew and when, it’s not possible to directly indict him for complicity or fraud. As we all know, no PI (except perhaps Woodward) minutely inspects every yield and every peak in the spectrum and in fact none of us want them to do that. The real zinger would be to find that a PI actively ignored an incriminating piece of data, but that’s very hard to prove.

    I personally believe it is unfortunately all too easy for a clever grad student to dupe a PI, especially a busy one who has his hands full with several projects. He or she could make up stuff in one paper and then build more lies on that in the next one. The thing is that science is a complex process, and it’s actually possible to make up stuff that’s logically internally consistent. All this could slip past a PI, although hopefully not an observant one. Again, in this case you could blame the PI for negligence and gullibility, but anything beyond that and you would need concrete evidence which would be very difficult to obtain. One of the reasons scientific misconduct is so important is precisely because it is so hard to generally demonstrate.

  4. Hap Says:

    If you fire grad students for their inability to reproduce another’s grad student’s work, though, that evinces more than the usual confidence in the original results – either you’re covering up the inability of others to reproduce the work or you have some reason to believe that the original results are correct and that the grad students are incompetent/dishonest enough to be fired. That seems beyond the usual level of confidence and complicity – it wasn’t just “My student came up with neat self-consistent results which turned out to be faked.”

  5. blue Says:

    I’m familiar with LaClair, but what’s the “induction of ee by NMR” in Germany refer to?

  6. Hap Says:

    Blue – ACIEE 33 (1994), pp. 454-456 (original) followed by same journal and year, pp. 1457-1461
    Ph.D. revocation ACIEE 43(2004), p. 2194

  7. Mitch Says:

    I’m pretty sure FOIA requests don’t work for private colleges. Plus, without a lawyer it becomes nearly impossible for a sole individual to enforce.

  8. Mitch Says:

    Woops, Office of Research Integrity is a government agency.

  9. K Says:

    From C&E News:

  10. Jeremiah Says:

    The question you’re posing is…. If you do not beat this dead horse, who will?

  11. Paul Says:

    Please justify your assertion that this story is a dead horse.

  12. bad wolf Says:

    A great demonstration that “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.” The part of the story that always rankled me is its confirmation that the Prof takes all the credit, the student takes all the blame. While it is possible to pull dupe your boss, this seems an egregious case, and the idea that Sames is a pure victim of a conniving student is ridiculous. For instance, compare his motive (grant money, tenure) to hers (a degree). The students fired for not reproducing the work were the most obvious victims, then anyone who wasted time or energy trying to repeat it (who knows what other students or employees got in trouble for not being able to repeat it in other labs?). And Columbia for their really late and really dodgy handling of it all. “Justice delayed is justice denied” to throw in another quote.

    LaClair had no students or institutional affiliations that were hurt by his questionable work, so i don’t

  13. bad wolf Says:

    Woops, sorry about the many typos in the comment above. Anyway, i can’t help but think its an analogy to industrial CEOs, where we are (over)paying people to be in charge, then when things go wrong, where are they? The Prof gets a big salary, lifetime employment and accolades from his peers if things go well. If they don’t, it had nothing to do with him? If he wasn’t involved enough to head off problems, why was he involved enough to take credit and reap the rewards? It is almost as if we do not need professors at all.

  14. K Says:

    An interesting Blog: Retraction Watch

  15. Hap Says:

    The PDF of a discussion of the Sames-Sezen case linked to by Dr. Lowe is also interesting –

    From the PDF: “It should be understood that overall responsibility for the integrity of collaborative research rests with the principal investigator.” (Columbia’s Statement on Professional Ethics and Faculty Obligations and Guidelines for Review of Professional Misconduct). The PDF also claims that five people were fired for inability to reproduce the research.

    It seems like most of the conduct both by Columbia and Prof. Sames violates Columbia’s own policies on dealing with professional misconduct, yet they are the only ones who walk away clean. It seems unjust to me.

    I’m not real certain why Sames-Sezen’s a dead horse though – if the falsified research weren’t important, or the problems it caused had been dealt with consistently and openly, well, then nobody would be talking about it anyway. But that would have meant taking responsibility, and well, see above.

  16. Paul Says:

    @Hap: I have to imagine most of that PDF was researched by visiting blogs (w/o crediting them, I might add). I posted the same point in March 2006. I don’t know where the person got the concrete number of five people fired.

    And the dead horse comment from Jeremiah makes no sense. He should come back here and defend it.

  17. excimer Says:

    I’m angrier at Sames than I am about Sezen.

    Professors, by and large, are not leaders. They are bosses, but the terms aren’t interchangeable. A leader is someone who takes responsibility for the actions under their charge. That, in general, doesn’t happen in America. Through it all, there was nothing- not a thing- from Sames about this issue. If he had any cojones about him, any shred of integrity about him as a scientist, he would have issued an apology, a statement implicating himself partly responsible for this… and yet, nothing. He hides behind the ORI which incidentally does not place any blame on him. I find this cowardly and reprehensible.

  18. Hap Says:

    Sezen has gotten paid for her sins. Sames took the credit for the achievements in the papers but avoided responsibility when there was some to take (and he had no compunction about firing some number of his students when they couldn’t provide the requisite support honestly). I see no reason to feel sympathy for Prof. Sames, only anger.

    I am curious how they figured he had no responsibility in this, though.

  19. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Sames should certainly have issued a statement of apology, but I think that this whole set of beliefs about wishing that professors shared all the blame because they presumably share all the credit is too black and white. Sure, if there is a Nobel Prize most likely only the professor will get it (although there have been cases like this year’s physics Nobel prize where the postdocs and students shared it) but even otherwise it’s not that the students are not sharing any of the credit. They get to be authors on papers, get to present in conferences and have their names forever associated with the professor’s whenever they apply for a job (which in this case would be a bad thing). I am not saying at all that this is some huge favor that the professor is doing them since it should be the minimum one gets out of a PhD. It is also true that some professors try to grab all the glory, but it also makes the general statement that “professor gets all the credit, so let’s make sure we put his feet to the fire too” sound a bit hollow.

    And this is because the professor also shares the blame, whether he is formally indicted or not. Even if he is not formally censured, you think Sames’s career will ever be the same after this incident? He will forever struggle with this blemish attached to his name. It will affect his ability to get grants for similar work, it will follow his reputation whenever he goes to a conference, and it will certainly affect any consideration for a major prize with public visibility like the Nobel. While Sezen and the grad students lose, Sames does not stay untouched.

  20. Hap Says:

    Relatively, though he does – while he’s blemished, he still has a career and gets lots of money from it. He also has the chance to rehabilitate himself. Neither Sezen or the grad students who got whacked will have those opportunities. That equation almost guarantees that it will happen again – like banking execs what can take lots of risk and pay very little for their failures, the calculations militate towards making hay from research and not asking too many questions. I don’t think that is in the long-term best interests of science.

    If you get the lion’s share of the rewards for success, then you ought to share at least a proportionate level of blame. I think Chem at ETH is the counterpoint – it seems likely that he didn’t have anything to do with his student’s manipulation, but he accepted some responsibility for it and dealt with it openly. That didn’t happen here, and the lack of transparency again implies a lower level of blamelessness on Prof. Sames’s part than on Chen’s, which further magnifies the lack of proportionality in the penalties assessed.

  21. Hap Says:

    Oh, and in terms of “less is more” – it could be worse. One of the postdocs in grad school spent two and and half hours in seminar discussing nonexistent results. He actually showed ten minutes of how to manipulate PDMS, if I remember right. That’s some time I’ll never get back.

  22. eugene Says:

    I’ve kind of stopped caring about this case. It’s one of those tidbits that add to the arguments that have me considering leaving chemistry for a better career/life option, although that probably won’t happen since I enjoy research too much. These days, I’m only interested in the juicy gossip on the ‘special relationship’ between Sames/Sezen. What makes it even more frustrating was that I was told what ‘it’ was exactly a year ago by someone from the Sames group who was the one who found out that the results were fake and managed to convince the PI, but apparently I forgot about it in the meantime. And now I can’t track this person down to ask them again (I think they left the country actually). I really have no recollection of what was said on the topic even though this person was talking directly to me and we were alone in one room. This is a sign that my brain isn’t good enough for this science business anymore. Oh well, back to looking at NMR spectra…

  23. Hap Says:

    I keep hearing about that, and it explains things neatly (why people were fired over the research in the first place, the way the retractions were done, the lack of subsequent transparency), but if something happened, wouldn’t someone have heard about it? Either the people fired by Sames or Sezen would have reason to say so (or nothing to lose, anyway), and if people in the group had noted the existence of a relationship, I would have figured someone would have noted it somewhere (at least if they thought they could do so without being outed). It doesn’t seem like this whole fiasco was done competently enough that a relationship could have easily been hidden.

    I am more curious as to why Columbia chose to behave as they have – their lack of transparency suggests that they hitched their wagons to Sames and his group, and were willing to do what was needed to make inconvenient things (like their internal rules) go away. That doesn’t really make sense, considering you’re granting lifetime employment to someone with problems in their trial period. Are they better at picking professors, and confident that their long-term judgment is more accurate than the implications of the short-term issues, or what?

  24. Chemjobber Says:

    If indeed there was credible evidence of a special relationship, it is my understanding of US academia that Sames would have been roundly beaten about the head with it in public by the administration. Advisors probing their students is REALLY frowned upon.

    Then again, I have no proof either way.

  25. Hap Says:

    I knew at least one instance at another university where it was happening (though one of the people was then in our department), though people who knew mostly kept quiet because they didn’t want to hose the student. There are also instances where profs marry former students, though, in those cases, the relationship could have begun after the advising had ended.

    Student-advisor relationships seem like high-risk endeavors, though – in some cases (Fraser-Reid at Duke? I don’t know if that counts) it can (and perhaps should) end very badly. I can’t assume they don’t happen though.

  26. bad wolf Says:

    Actually, that’s another reason to make the student the fall guy. Who will listen to complaints of improper relationship/harrassment from a thoroughly discredited, cheating ex-student? Charges dismissed!

  27. eugene Says:

    Nah, it’s just juicy gossip with no basis. For now. Apparently I know the truth, but I need to go under hypnosis or revive brain cells killed by alcohol/indian postdoc poisoning me incident, to find out.

    But these relationships happen more often than you think. In my PhD institution there was a case of a married couple who were former advisor/post-doc. Back in the 20s or 30s in Germany, a particularly good student would be expected to marry the daughter of their advisor (there were not many female students back then). Going out with children of your advisor also seems somehow… inappropriate. But it happens today. USA is actually progressive in that this stuff is more frowned upon than back in Urup.

  28. Iamsphos Says:

    To say that Dali has no responsibility in this is illogical, but at the same time there is only a certain amount of policing a PI can do. If you figure that very famous groups can have greater than 30 members at some points, the PI can not possibly know about every thing that goes on in the lab. If the PI doesn’t have a trust for the work that is being conducted in his group than that leads to a bad situation as well. This is not to say that Dali did not know or was completely in the dark. Also, keep in mind that while Dali got his tenure he has also been an associate professor for a long time now. This, to me, is an indication that he has been blemished by this and will probably not be promoted to full prof. at columbia.

Leave a Reply