The Sezen Files – Part III: And What of Sames?

July 15th, 2011

ChemBark InvestigatesBengu Sezen is a monster.  There can be no doubt of that.  She purposely fabricated data for self-advancement, showed utter contempt for the scientific community by publishing these lies, and demonstrated an egregious lack of consideration for her colleagues in her desperate and futile attempts to save her career.

Scientists who commit fraud on such a massive scale as Sezen are probably unsalvageable.  We can’t realistically expect to reform them or assume they will respond to reason.  Our only hope is to prevent these psychopaths from doing serious damage.  Now that the investigation is over, the biggest question in the wake of Sezen’s rampage of falsification is not “why did she do it?” but “how did the problem get so big?”  It is at this point that our focus shifts to her advisor, Professor Dalibor Sames. 

I think any analysis of Sames must begin by addressing—and largely, dismissing—two of the foulest rumors that have wafted out of Morningside Heights.  First, to my knowledge, there is no evidence that Sames actively participated in the fabrication of data—whether by doing it, ordering it, or knowing that it was done. Second, to my knowledge, there is no compelling evidence that Sames and Sezen were ever involved in a romantic relationship.  Such a relationship would probably have fallen under the scope of the school’s investigation, yet no (non-redacted) comments on the matter appeared in the Columbia Report.  This is just conjecture, but it seems like the romance rumor could have easily arisen out of the idea that Sezen was a “golden child” who was treated so well by Sames that “something must have been going on between them.”  Regardless, I am excluding the existence of such a relationship from the present analysis.

Now, where do we begin?

I am sympathetic to the weight of responsibility that advisors bear when it comes to policing their laboratories.  It is never fun to be the bad guy, and it is especially difficult to question the motives of colleagues who are working behind the scenes to advance your career.  Nonetheless, quality control is an important part of the job of research advisors, and they can’t escape this chore just because it is thankless.  Would you employ a janitor who did a great job cleaning offices and hallways but refused to clean bathrooms?  No.

I also realize that ferreting scientific misconduct out of your laboratory can, in many cases, be a very difficult task.  Some people are especially adept at deception, and while we expect advisors to remain vigilant, they can’t be omnipresent and we don’t want them micromanaging their students.  Any response by an advisor to a case of scientific misconduct must be judged in the context of how well the deception was hidden.

And this is exactly why so many people are outraged at Sames: the deception was not particularly well hidden and he responded to it poorly.  Sezen joined the Sames laboratory in December 2000, and by the end of 2002, she had published her first paper with fabricated data.  At this point in the story, I expect a sizable percentage of the community wouldn’t find any serious fault with Sames.  This one paper doesn’t constitute an enormous body of fraudulent work, and Sezen probably talked a good game to disguise her fabrication from Sames well.

On the other hand, the counterargument that Sames was at fault from the very beginning is also compelling.  It is reasonably clear that Sames did not conduct rigorous quality control of the work in his lab.  By all accounts, Sezen’s notebooks contained garbage, so he must not have looked at them carefully.  Sames must also not have had someone else verify Sezen’s new chemistry independently.  (If this safeguard had been in place, it would have been mentioned in the investigatory report.)  Before you start crying that such an expectation is absurd, consider that these reactions are very straightforward and don’t require complex intermediates.  Verification of the procedures, presumably, would have been relatively painless.  One should also consider that at the time, Sames was an assistant professor not far removed from an exceptional career at the bench; he could have easily run these reactions himself if he had wanted.  It doesn’t seem like he did.

If just that one bogus paper were published, I don’t think any school could take action against Sames because there is no accepted practice in the synthetic community for what advisors should do before reporting new methods.  Some advisors look through their students’ notebooks; most don’t.  Some advisors inspect their students’ NMR spectra; most don’t.  Some advisors have other lab members verify novel reactions; most don’t.  Unfortunately, Sames’ troubles don’t boil down to one instance of negligence, but a sustained atmosphere of negligence that allowed the situation to explode in magnitude over the course of three years.

Several of Sezen’s labmates reported difficulty reproducing the results of her first paper even before its publication in JACS.  Over the next three years, multiple students within the lab continued to report serious problems to Sames with regard to getting the chemistry to work.  Outside Columbia, scientists contacted Sames to report similar trouble.  Shockingly, instead of refocusing on the original set of reactions to nail-down a solid, reproducible procedure and bring an end to the concerns, Sames went on to publish *five* new papers with Sezen as first author, each reporting more new reactions that also could not be reproduced.

Of course, Sames had plenty to gain by doing so.  He was an assistant professor until his promotion in 2003, and like all young professors, he needed high-impact papers to advance his career and assist in winning grants.  When faced with the choice of slogging through the mud of the published chemistry or moving on to publish new work, Sames chose the latter.

The concerns raised to Sames went beyond the finicky nature of the reactions. The Columbia Report documents a number of instances where Sames was specifically informed of concerns with Sezen’s character.  In December 2003, a student told Sames that not only was she unable to reproduce Sezen’s work, but that Sezen was behaving oddly in that she kept changing her instructions regarding how to run the reactions.  These concerns were later echoed by another labmate who did not want to publish one of Sezen’s reactions in his paper unless he was able to reproduce it.  Sames was blind to these alarm bells—or chose to ignore them—for three full years.  Only in July 2005, when he was presented with the results of the infamous sting operation, did Sames actively move against Sezen’s misconduct.  At this point, his hand was all but forced; how could he not act? 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is that Sames dismissed multiple students from his lab, in part, for their inability to reproduce Sezen’s published work:

The Committee finds that Dr. Sezen’s actions had a significant impact on other researchers both within and outside Columbia University.  As discussed above, researchers made substantial and futile efforts, with consequent loss of time and expenditure of resources, to reproduce and extend Dr. Sezen’s research results.  Two graduate students, ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ were asked by ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ to leave his group at the beginning of the third year of their graduate study and one graduate student, ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ decided to leave the ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ after passing the second-year qualifying examination.   Each of these students spent much time unsuccessfully trying to reproduce and extend Dr. Sezen’s work.  ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ and ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ have differing recollections as to why the students were either asked to leave or voluntarily left his group.  The students believe that their lack of success with Dr. Sezen’s chemistry was a major factor, while ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ says that other factors were determinative.  The Committee is not charged to resolve these differing recollections and opinions, but it believes that the wasted time and effort, coupled with the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had severe negative impacts on the graduate careers of these students.

There are several reasons this section of the Columbia Report is particularly damning for Sames:

1.  Sames appears to punish several innocent students while allowing the guilty one to run wild.

2.  The action confirms that Sames knew that Sezen’s work could not be reproduced by several chemists in his own lab.

3.  The action suggests that rather than respond to the gravity of the irreproducibility and investigate it, Sames dismissed students from his lab (and in doing so, essentially silenced them).

4.  The fact that the Committee explicitly states that they were not charged with deciding whether Sames fired these students because of their inability to reproduce Sezen’s results raises a very important issue: while Sezen’s role in this scandal was investigated, we do not know whether Sames has been investigated.  Furthermore, it is noteworthy that this investigation was launched as a result of a complaint by Sames against Sezen.  Did Sames’ role as Complainant protect him from subsequent investigation?

Unfortunately, Sames negligence was not limited to Sezen’s graduate career.  Even after Sezen graduated, Sames continued to make questionable decisions:

Sames’s actions may have compromised the integrity of the investigation.  The Columbia Report notes that in the wake of the “trap” that ensnared Sezen, Sames launched his own investigation in which he and others in the lab looked through her notebooks and data that had been left behind following Sezen’s thesis defense.  Who knows what harm might have been done in this process?  Evidence might have been compromised or lost by the people not trained in proper investigative techniques.  Furthermore, when Sezen returned to the lab, she had to have known what was going on because her research materials were strewn all over the place.  When she returned, could she have disposed of evidence before anyone knew it was missing?  Sames first move in July should have been to notify the administration at Columbia so Sezen’s records (and his) would be sequestered.  Unfortunately, this did not occur until April 2006, a fact lamented by the investigatory committee.

Sames published correction notes under Sezen’s name without her permission.  Sames published addition/correction notices in JACS on 1 March 2006 to retract two papers and correct a third.  These corrections notes are published with Sezen as the first author, however, there is solid evidence that Sezen had nothing to do with writing them as: (i) she insisted publically her results were solid, (ii) a footnote in the Columbia Report says Sames only notified Sezen of the retractions on 26 March 2006, and (iii) following publication of the retractions, JACS altered the original wording to reflect that they were being made by the corresponding author. 

We know how Sezen has been punished, but what of Sames?  Sezen is (rightly) going to lose her Ph.D. because it was based on fabricated data.  Can Sames keep his job given his gross record of sustained negligence and the fact that a portion of Sezen’s work almost certainly factored in to Columbia’s decision to award him tenure in 2003?

The answer is yes, apparently, because it has been six years since Sezen was exposed and Sames doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.  While we don’t know how Columbia has punished Sames—if at all—we do know several punishments Sames has escaped.  He still has his job at Columbia.  He still has tenure.  He still is allowed to run his own research lab.  He still receives federal funding.  He is still allowed to publish in JACS and seemingly was never suspended from doing so.  Finally, he has evaded the vast majority of the acrimony surrounding the case.  Somewhere between 2005 and 2011, the beautiful work of Sames became the horrible work of Sezen.  How is it that a professor can be given the lionshare of credit for a body of good work when published, yet escape the lionshare of the blame when the work is proven fraudulent?

It is interesting to note that on 3 February 2006—right in the middle of the Sezen investigation—Columbia’s faculty altered its policy on scientific misconduct.  In this change, the following passage was completely deleted from the old policy:

III. Research

A climate must be maintained at the University where creativity and productivity in research are promoted in an atmosphere of high ethical standards. It is essential that the integrity of research be maintained at all times, since long-standing, often irreversible damage can result from breach of academic commitment to truth in investigative activities. Misconduct in research is herein defined as gross lack of integrity in conducting basic or clinical investigations involving dishonesty, knowing misrepresentation of data, and/or violation of accepted standards. Academic misconduct or fraud can destroy public trust in the academic community as a whole and in our own institution in particular; it can shatter individual careers; it can undermine sensitive relationships between investigators, students, and the public.

In modern collaborative research, the implications of academic misconduct or fraud go far beyond the individual; they also affect collaborators whose own work has been committed to objective search for truth. The specter of guilt by association may lurk in the background for many years to come. Therefore, joint authorship requires joint responsibility; each author claiming credit for the entire work must also be aware of joint discredit. Investigators in collaborative research projects each must make reasonable and periodic inquiry as to the integrity of and processes involved in gathering and evaluating data. It should be understood that overall responsibility for the integrity of collaborative research rests with the principal investigator. Senior investigators cannot be allowed to escape the consequences of the discovery of misconduct or fraud committed under their supervision.

Every member of the faculty has a duty to respond promptly to any well-founded suspicion of academic misconduct or fraud. Allegations must be made with caution; nevertheless, the results of long-standing misconduct or fraud are so devastating that potential irregularities must be brought promptly to the attention of the proper authorities. At the same time, the rights of those whose research procedures or results are in question from the standpoint of possible falsification or adulteration must be carefully protected while a careful and fair investigation is being carried out.

 

That was the policy in effect throughout the entirety of Sezen’s rampage, but in 2006, a Columbia spokeswoman said that the new policy (without the wording above) would be used to investigate the case:

University spokeswoman Susan Brown noted that Sames has responsibility as senior author for the retracted papers. She also noted that he had finalized the retractions in February and that they were officially printed in the Journal on March 8.

Brown commented that the specifics of the investigation into the retractions are being kept confidential in order to facilitate the process and protect those involved.

In light of the changes to the Columbia research misconduct policy that the University Senate passed on Feb. 3 of this year, she commented that, “If misconduct is an issue … regardless of when the events happened, they will be dealt with under the new policy.” She added, however, that while the investigation into the Sames case and the revisions to the research misconduct policy overlapped in their time frame, they were completely separate events.

However, this statement stands in stark contrast to what is written in the Columbia Report on the investigation of Sezen:

Columbia University adopted its new Institutional Policy on Misconduct in Research (“Misconduct Policy”) in February, 2006.  The Misconduct Policy closely tracks the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Because the alleged misconduct occurred before the effective date of the new Misconduct Policy, the Committee applied the definition of research misconduct that was in effect when the alleged misconduct occurred…

Apparently, there is a double standard when it comes to judging students and professors.  I guess that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Apparently, students should be fired for failure to replicate fictitious results, but professors are to be rewarded with tenure for being so grossly negligent as to oversee the greatest case of scientific misconduct in the history of organic chemistry.  The fact that Sames has retained his position and is still in charge of an independent research group speaks volumes about the institutional ethics of Columbia University.

Where is the justice?

 

In Part IV of The Sezen Files, we’ll look at some of the lessons and questions the scandal has raised about lab management and the culture of academic research:

How can scientific misconduct be prevented?

What quality control measures should be expected of advisors?

What sort of accountability should be expected of advisors?  How much negligence is the scientific community willing to accept from an advisor?  How should professors be punished for negligence?

Should taxpayers be angry about the Sames-Sezen scandal?


76 Responses to “The Sezen Files – Part III: And What of Sames?”

  1. John Spevacek Says:

    I think mentioning the “romantic” aspect and then dropping it is tacky beyond words.

    Do you recall the whole “Why haven’t we had an official response to the rumor that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990?” website a few years back? This is the same thing. You can do better.

  2. Paul Says:

    You’ve got to be kidding…this rumor has been mentioned multiple times in comment threads and has always hung over this story. Also, I AM DISMISSIVE OF IT without any hint of sarcasm.

  3. You're Pfizered Says:

    Is there any evidence that outside researchers who tried to duplicate this chemistry contacted Sames? I’ve read that clearly there were issues with others trying to reproduce this chemistry, but did any professor contact him and specifically ask about this chemistry and the difficulty in reproducing it?

    If this were the case and Sames opted to ignore mounting external evidence that something was wrong, it goes towards him having to bear more responsibility for the advancement of the fraud.

  4. Hap Says:

    Ignoring it would also be problematic, since it’s been posited as a motivation for Sames’s unquestioning acceptance of Sezen’s results. (It wasn’t like Paul made it up himself or fetched out of “ihatethatevilbas%tardsames.com”.) It’s better to acknowledge that it’s a rumor with no support in fact – it doesn’t mean it’s not true, but you should not act as it were (and should probably act as if it were false without further substantial information).

    Like the birther rumors, it’s better to confront the rumors of romantic involvement directly and to dismiss them for lack of data than to pretend they don’t exist.

  5. Rhenium Says:

    Excellent point by point breakdown of the arguments against Sames. I am sure he is laying low and hoping this will all blow over, blaming Sezen for it all. The change to the policy on scientific misconduct is particularly damming, because who knows what fall out would have come down on Columbia.

    As it is he has tenure and will pray that the years cover this up. On an interesting note, googling “Dalibor Sames” turns up four hits all from Columbia and then two hits for the misconduct (Chembark is the fifth hit).

    Perhaps graduate students will vote with their feet, as that is the only way any justice might be obtained.

  6. CR Says:

    Well written article and you were fair in your criticism of Sames. I have commented here several times raising the same questions you have and still am dumbfounded nothing publicly has been stated regarding Sames. He should be fired, and an internal NIH investigation should be mounted concerning his knowledge of fraud and if found guilty should have to personally pay back the research funds.

    One criticism…using terms such as “monster” and “psychopath” might be a bit much considering she didn’t murder someone. Yes, in our community what she did was egregious; however, she didn’t truly harm anyone. Reputations yes, true physical harm, no. Sames, on the other hand, actually kicked students out of his lab. Based on her false work, yes; but it was still his decision.

  7. Unstable Isotope Says:

    I think the conduct of Columbia University must also be questioned. What is being done to make sure the unfairly dismissed students are made whole in some way. The previous comment thread implied that the students might have left anyway or are doing o.k. now. The parts highlighted here make it clear that their dismissal was unfair and related to the Sezen work.

    Is Columbia doing anything to protect their students? At my alma mater they have instituted a policy where you have multiple back-up advisors (a committee) so you could possibly take disputes and problems to them. They are still department members, but I think it is a step in the right direction.

    This whole incident just reinforces that there is a severe power imbalance in the grad student/advisor relationship. The word of one professor can kill your career.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    @You’re Pfizered:

    “Is there any evidence that outside researchers who tried to duplicate this chemistry contacted Sames?”

    See page 64 of the FOIA report:

    “3. As accounts of Dr. Sezen’s research were published, scientists outside Columbia University also reported to [REDACTED] (Presumably Prof. Sames) that they were experiencing difficulties in reproducing the work.”

  9. SB Says:

    It is interesting to note that with this entire fiasco, and uncertainty of Sames’ character, according to his Group’s website, there were SIX new members who joined his lab in June 2011. (three grad students and three post-docs).

    What surprises me is that Sames can still manage to attract to researchers to his group. Obviously the story revolves around Sezen, but Sames lack of supervisory skills, and threats to students, and inability to mentor/assist his students as they voice their concerns should have been an eye-opener. Actions like this by a PI are deplorable… yes, grad school involves a considerable about of hard work and stressful moments, but the PI needs to be treating their students with more respect. In Sames case, they are the ones producing his work. We already know that he does not have a hands-on approach to the lab. He should have been questioning the results, and listening and working WITH his students, not against them.

  10. Facepalm Says:

    This certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nobody at Goldman Sachs has gone to jail or even had to give back any of the money they stole from America. Movie stars and pro athletes don’t suffer the same punishments that the rest of us do. This country has ALWAYS applied different rules to the elite and the common man.

  11. Redacted Says:

    To SB:

    Though it’s certainly surprising that Sames is getting PostDocs joining the lab, I can completely understand about new grad students in the late year of 2011. Incoming graduate students have no concept of what happened at all! Late last year when the ORI Decision against Sezen was finally made pubic, I wondered how many of the newer crop of students would be familiar with these ‘well known’ scandals we’re all so sick of by now.

    I printed out the hexacyclinol paper and handed it to a first year, asking for an opinion on the paper.

    “Neat chemistry!” was the reply.

  12. Unstable Isotope Says:

    Has Sames changed his management style since the Sezen debacle?

  13. Hoosier Wannabe Says:

    Dali won an award after this whole thing blew up:

    The McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award, 2008

  14. Hap Says:

    If Sames did something good afterwards, he should be rewarded for it. You should get punished for your wrongs and rewarded for your successes, in equal/proportionate measures – that someone did not apply that standard when they should have doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t apply it.

    I’m curious why Columbia put their “profs aren’t responsible for catching the malfeasance of their students” policy into effect. Had they already decided to tenure Sames, and simply wrote the policy to allow them to do so. while already realizing that Sezen was a bad habit that they needed to purge? If so, what did they see that made Columbia decide that Sames was worth it to them?

  15. Will Says:

    Hap – I guess the issue is what “consequences” mean in the context of the deleted passage. If the consequences aren’t properly defined (eg, dismissal, loss of tenure, censure, compulsory gen chem lectures) then the whole passage is pretty toothless.

    i agree it makes CU look pretty bad to change it right in the middle of the Sezen investigation, but CU has a very large faculty, and without knowing the composition of the rule-making committee (perhaps a white-knight defender of DS on the panel?) it’s hard to imagine the entire faculty senate de-toothing the provision in order to save an assistant chem prof

  16. Gregor Says:

    Wanna know why he is a full (promoted a few months ago!) prof and not on the street?

    1. Danishefsky – he doesn’t want his son to be fired. Behind the scenes he is a powerful corleone-like figure.
    2. Breslow – he had his own share of trouble with an Indian girl and 2 retractions in jacs and feels sorry for Dali.

    That’s it guys! It’s that simple. No more need for speculation.

  17. Hap Says:

    The timing seems funny, though, and if the passage was toothless, why change it? The change hints at things you might prefer be unnoticed. In addition, enforcing the old policy on Sezen while modifiying it for Sames is much more consistent with a change in polcy to protect Sames than with a coincidental timing in the change in policy.

    It seems like a long way out of the way for Columbia to go to protect Sames, but that’s sure what it looks like.

  18. Chemjobber Says:

    Gregor has the Occam’s Razor answer.

  19. See Arr Oh Says:

    “Some advisors inspect their students’ NMR spectra; most don’t”

    Heh. As someone who’s worked for two younger profs, I can tell you the really involved advisors can’t keep their hands or eyes OUT of your NMR binder! When stuff goes to press (finally), you can bet most will have double- and triple-checked the exact wording of your drafts and asked to see hard copies of all your data. In addition, I knew many grads whose advisors gave them a sample notebook page / NMR binder format, and expected them to adhere to that.

    Which makes it all the more surprising that DS, as an Asst Prof, would let 5 papers go to press despite doubts from other group members and without seeing the notebook entries.

  20. Ben Says:

    I don’t get why he’s allowed to get funding ever again. I get Gregor’s points on why his hasn’t been fired and wont be. But it seems clear that when another grad student in his lab couldn’t replicate her work it should’ve been looked into. The fact was he was using tax payer money to publish, and was responsible for ensuring the veracity of the results. I don’t see why the tax payers money should be wasted nor why the NSF shouldn’t black ball him for this.

  21. Chemjobber Says:

    Ben has a good point. Assuming that he’s actually getting grants funded, that means that his peers have decided to forgive him just as much as the Big Two at Columbia.

    Then again, is there a “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect to other professor’s thoughts about Sames/Sezen? If you had been presented with hard copies of Bengu’s fakes, would you have caught the satellites?

    I think this is a core weakness of the current peer review model (that gets trickles into intragroup interaction): you’re looking for incorrect judgments from the raw data and not someone trying to actively lie to you. If we all reviewed papers like we might treat a transaction over Craigslist, we might get fewer fakes but a lot less work done.

  22. Paul Says:

    It’s pretty amazing that Sames got the supplemental award for his NIH grant right in the thick of the investigation (p. 29). Also, how did Sezen manage to spend >$55k in supplies for these projects that she wasn’t really doing? (p. 6) Couldn’t she have used cheaper materials for her placebo reactions? At least the elemental analyses were free…

  23. Hap Says:

    The White-Out on the NMRs might have been a clue. I don’t know if I would have looked closely enough to see that all the peaks had the same shape, either.

    I don’t know that I would have caught JJLC’s synthesis, though – the lack of data would have been a problem, instanly, but until someone pointed it out (or unless I had to analyze it more closely – “here, look at this”), I don’t know how much thought I would have given it.

  24. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    SB,
    The fact that people still go to work for people like Sames, I feel, is more of an indicator of the postdoc/grad student supply rather than of ignorance and short memories.

    There are just tonnes of people that are in graduate school or postdocing, even a guy who has been suspiciously involved this kind of scandal still has a line of people willing to risk their entire careers on him for the privilege of a an academic stipend.

  25. eugene Says:

    I know for sure my old advisor would have caught it. He spent forever looking at carbon sattelite couplings on my 1D spectra, especially with multiple compounds in them, trying to make sense of it all. That’s why I said at the time that Sames’ funding should be taken away and given to us instead. We could have used it to hire more good postdocs and would have gotten more useful stuff done.

    Bengu does have a lot of crystal structures over the years. It’s hard to fake that stuff. Apparently they are all not active in catalysis though.

    “Also, how did Sezen manage to spend >$55k in supplies for these projects that she wasn’t really doing?”

    Isn’t the way it usually works, is just to put supply money into the common group pool since everyone will be using a lot of the same stuff? There is no way to control for that and granting agencies know this and let you get away with it. It’s more like ‘supplies for the group’.

  26. excimer Says:

    “Bengu does have a lot of crystal structures over the years. It’s hard to fake that stuff.”

    It’s not that hard to fake crystal structure data. That is, if you understand crystallography, which 99.5% of synthetic methodologists could give two shits about…

  27. Dirt McGirt Says:

    “It’s not that hard to fake crystal structure data. That is, if you understand crystallography, which 99.5% of synthetic methodologists could give two shits about…”

    You mean “couldn’t”, right?

  28. luysii Says:

    Gregor — what does “1. Danishefsky – he doesn’t want his son to be fired. Behind the scenes he is a powerful corleone-like figure” actually mean. The statement appears to be in code readable only by the cognoscenti. As I said earlier, I was friendly with Sam 50 years ago. A good guy then and probably still a good guy — You imply he’s a Jewish mafiosi. Elaborate please.

  29. S Says:

    Possible assurance for those concerned about the dismissed students – 2 of 3 students to leave the group received PhDs in the department with different advisors. The third went to a position in industry.

  30. eugene Says:

    excimer: We used to have a saying that a publication in Acta E counts as -1 on your overall publication list. So think positive. At least the publication record of Zhong and Liu is improving and will continue to improve by the dozens of manuscripts! And there are a lot more metal complexes left for others to synthesize (true, some of them chemically implausible).

  31. 1234 Says:

    Paul,

    Many thanks for all of your hard work on this. I have followed this case with interest for some time now, and I can tell you that you are not wrong to at least ask questions (let alone have serious concerns) about Sames’ (and Columbia’s) conduct in this affair. I have been and continue to be surprised (and depressed) by how many people have a difficult time zeroing in on the key issues here. You have come closest to articulating these in a clear fashion and I want to augment some of your comments.

    Many people get hung up on the question of whether Sames knew about Sezen’s fraudulent activities and forged ahead regardless. The answer to this question will almost certainly never be known, and focus on that question keeps the focus away from something much more relevant. The relevant questions are simply 1) what were Sames’ ethical obligations at the first moment that he was made aware of claims of irreproducibilty (and we now have hard evidence that this first happened in 2002), and 2) did he fulfill them? If you believe that any PI in this situation is obligated to immediately say stop everything, none of this research goes forward until we get to the bottom of this, then there is no other reasonable conclusion to be drawn but that Sames did not do this. If you further believe that this ethical (and moral) imperative must absolutely be fulfilled BEFORE asking students who are making the claims of irreproducibility to leave the group, then there is no other conclusion to be reached but that Sames did not do this. We can glean from the report that Sames disputes the notion that the student’s were fired for that reason, but the report makes clear that the claim that they were fired for that reason is minimally credible if not very credible. The burden of proof has to be on Sames in this situation. Once again it is important to emphasize that Sames should not be in trouble here for firing students because they could not reproduce the results, he should be in trouble for failing to carry out his ethical obligations to get to the bottom of the claims of irreproducibility before firing the students. As you point out, all of this is even more greatly exacerbated by the fact that Sames NEVER of his own accord said stop everything, we need to get to the bottom of this. He was forced to do so, and one can only reach the conclusion that had that postdoc not set the trap, we would still be waiting for Sames to fulfill what for many of us is a clear and unambiguous ethical obligation.

    You asked at one point how has Sames managed to escape any and all consequences (as far as we know)? We already know the answer to this question. The Columbia administration has been in possession of this report for several years now and has done absolutely nothing about it (as far as we know). We can only draw one conclusion: the administration sees nothing problematic in Sames’ actions as outlined in the report, and does not believe that Sames failed to carry out any ethical obligations, which leads to the conclusion that they do not believe that Sames was under any such obligations. The truth is almost certainly more depressing: I would wager that Columbia’s lawyers are actually calling the shots, and their prime motivation is avoiding lawsuits brought by the fired students, and any action towards Sames by Columbia would constitute a tacit admission that he has done something wrong, which in turn would invite a lawsuit. Even if that is true, however, Columbia has still made a choice. They have made a choice that justice for those students is their lowest priority.

  32. Paris Is Burning Says:

    I love how on his website he has a link to an article he wrote for C&E News. “The MAGIC of Chemical Transformations”. It’s fitting that he used the word MAGIC rather than SCIENCE. As Max Planck noted, as people die, so do their causes. Dali’s supporters won’t be around forever, just as you and I won’t. Once grandpa undergoes the science of the body ultimately breaking down due to age and ultimately ceasing to function, it won’t be too difficult to replace a negligent PI with someone much better, especially considering all the crazy talent out there enslaved to post-doctoral study ad nauseum. Surprisingly, I often come upon many faculty members who know nothing of this story. It’s not gossip to educate others on what happened; it’s a moral obligation. Dali can change his hair and grow a beard, but he can’t change the past. One positive thing could come out of all this: Darren Aronofsky could make a great dark drama with the story as a backdrop.

  33. Paul Says:

    One interesting difference between blog comments in 2006 vs. 2011 is that almost all of Sames’ defenders have disappeared. The details provided in the Columbia Report of the three years of complaints, the carelessness of Sezen’s records, and the student firings pretty much make any defense of Sames untenable.

  34. excimer Says:

    @eugene: Acta E isn’t so bad, if you know what to look for (hint: look for “peter jones” or “arnold rheingold”)

  35. Renee Says:

    Having read through the 167 page report, I was surprised to see how the focus is almost solely on Sezen and her actions, and barely on Sames and his in-action(s). Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The report paints him as some sort of interested observer, who was not obligated in much of any way to respond to the claims of irreproducibility, even those they came from outside Columbia.

    However, Sames’ in-action(s) allowed this fraud to spin out-of-control for three more years. At best, he was an enabler of this fraudulent activity. At worst, he has failed to uphold his ethical and scientific obligations to publish real results, and not those that he wished were true.

    I would agree that that both 1234 and Gregor above have their fingers on the pulse of what is going on here. The Columbia lawyers and university administrators have worked diligently to keep the focus on Sezen and off of Sames. And the two top professors at Columbia have protected one of their own.

    As an aside, Danishefsky does sound rather a lot like Don Corleone.

  36. Paris Is Burning Says:

    I have an idea. Someone should find out who was the chair of the department at the time people were being fired who couldn’t reproduce the results. Ask him if he knew anything about what was going on. I assume that when people have to change groups this comes up at faculty meetings. Did the chair know anything?

    Renee, one thing that supports your comparison is the fact that someone who had only 3 papers in total from his doctoral and post-doctoral work managed to get an academic position at Columbia. Maybe he’s great, but only 3 papers? Really? At a top 10 department? To be fair, perhaps too much stock is put in the number of papers, but still, it seems a little odd.

  37. pTsOH Says:

    @PIB: sounds like someone made Columbia an “offer they can’t refuse”

  38. See Arr Oh Says:

    “Ah, Dalibor, my old friend…..what can I do for you on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding?”

    DS: “Hmmm, tenure would be nice”

    Luca Brasi: “And may your first paper, be a masculine paper”

  39. Chemjobber Says:

    Sorry, SAO, my paisan, you’ve miscast DS.

    DS: A month ago my postdoc, he brings me the NMRs from her papers. 3 JACS papers! And she — she was my best student. My golden child. My uh — my best student, the one who got me tenure! Oh, Godfather, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.

    SD: You can act like a man! [slaps him on the face] What’s the matter with you? Is this how you turned out?

  40. See Arr Oh Says:

    @CJ: Touche. Leave the elementals. Take the cannoli.

  41. IrII Says:

    I had never even considered lawsuits. I am clearly far removed from the mentality

  42. wolfie Says:

    He tries to save his neck from Sames’s laywers.

  43. pTsOH Says:

    Sam Corleone is a meme

  44. milkshake Says:

    no, Son of Sam is a meme

  45. not bob Says:

    So apparently Sezen was actually coming in at night and dosing her labmate’s experiments with the expected products of their reactions, right up until she got caught. Think about how that would look to Sames (and to the other students). It would seem as if others _were_ successfully repeating the experiments, at least occasionally.

    Its still hard to overlook the fact that this went on for years, but maybe its not quite as black and white as people are making it.

  46. not buying it Says:

    Sorry, not bob, not buying it. It is black and white, no matter what you or any of the other apologists say. Sames was ethically obligated to fully investigate the claims of irreproducibility that were coming from within the group AND FROM OUTSIDE THE GROUP until the mystery was solved, full stop. He did not do that. For more than 3 YEARS he did not do that, while firing the very graduate students who were making the claims of irreproducibility. Nothing could possibly be more black and white. The fact that Sezen was particularly sneaky or clever and that catching her may have been very difficult is irrelevant, and does not absolve Sames of his ethical obligations.

  47. Hap Says:

    Even before the allegations of irreproducibility, no one checked to make sure that the reactions worked – as Paul said above, it would not have been hard to do so, and in methodology, the likelihood that chemistry interesting enough to get a notable publication is going to be tried by others is about 100%. In addition, if you’re going to go all in on research likely to change the entire direction of your lab, I would have figured that you would want to make pretty sure that it actually works.

  48. Anonymous Says:

    The reactions probably take <5 min to setup. After the first sign of irreproducibility, he should have been at the bench doing it himself. But sometimes we see what we want to see…

  49. mik Says:

    Interesting post — puts the News of the World scandal into perspective!

    I’m particularly interested in how this story relates to the myth of the genius professor, who grows in intellect and reputation with every citation and every dollar of funding.

    They travel the globe giving lectures, accepting prizes and appearing as experts on TV for work they often had little hand in (beyond spending taxpayer dollars and using their reputations to access the best journals).

    When the work turns out to be a big stinking turd — is that when the truth comes out?…

    “Nothing to do with me. I’m just the guy who signs the checks – a mere administrator. I wasn’t involved in the actual science!”

  50. hairpin Says:

    Long before the retractions and the “investigation” groups outside Sames’ group were discussing the irreproducibility. People outside the university were discussing it. Group leaders are expected to be sharper than Elmer Fudd. No excuses for the PI. Columbia is starting to look like the Bush administration during the 8th year.

  51. Processator Says:

    Sames should be fired from his job for negligent behavior. He knew something was up and he did nothing but keep publishing junk funded with Tax payers money.

    What I am not sure is why would someone ever want to work with him after this scandal. The chances that any perspective employer hires someone coming out of his group are very very slim. Not to speak about Columbia’s reputation has dropped below minimums. He should probably become a lecturer teaching chemistry but never ever publishing any research.

  52. AD Says:

    @1234: “… They have made a choice that justice for those students is their lowest priority.”
    My professor boss once said: ‘Don’t expect justice from me. If you want justice, go seek it from the courts.” This attitude must be one of the criteria needed for tenure. Assistant professors everywhere, take heed.

  53. Paris Is Burning Says:

    Just as kings in Europe became irrelevant, so goes the way of tenured Professors in the US. Why give a permanent position (and funding from tax-payers) to someone laced in fraud.

  54. I Was There 2 Says:

    Paris, the chair of Columbia chem during most of the time this thing went on was BJ Berne, a theoretical chemist. I don’t think a chair of a department as large as Columbia chem concerns him/herself too much about grad students being fired or switch groups, etc. I am curious, though, what his opinion about Sames’ conduct on the matter was.

  55. joel Says:

    Either way, it is nice to see that the old blog crowd (retread, secret milkshake, gene, homo lumo, etc, etc) is still around and seems to be doing well.

  56. eugene Says:

    I still read two or three chemistry blogs (mostly the Pipeline), but I comment a lot less. This is one of the issues that I commented on a lot on back in 2006/2007 so it brought me back out from lurking. I don’t know if we’re all doing well though. At least I have a job of sorts for now. I’m not sure I’ll be a chemist in the future though; especially with the economy of the entire west collapsing. And once you get out of chemistry, it’s almost impossible to get back in, but if that’s what has to happen… (basically I’ve already made my peace with that).

  57. European Chemist Says:

    I followed this issue avidly as a PhD student back in 2006, and commented every now and then. Just as Eugene, seeing what appears to be (?) its final chapters unravel, I too feel the need to come back and comment, especially having now become a PI myself.

    First, concerning the awareness of the community: as much as we would like to think that blogs are an easy way for students to stay updated on gossip, info and Nobel prize winner tips, the truth is the vast majority of grads and post-docs have NO IDEA of who is Bengu Sezen. And if they had to rate Dalibor Sames as a prospective PhD/Post-Doc advisor they would probably say “he is at Columbia, ergo he must be good”. Mostly considering that he has somewhat reshifted his lab’s focus away from synthetic chemistry per se. And as someone else pointed out above (and as I can testify to now as a PI), there is such an avalanche of people with PhD degrees desperately looking for Post-Doc positions that there should be no surprise that DS continues to receive a steady supply of (presumably very good) talented students.

    Second, as to Sames’ duties: no need to re-emphasize what was already mentioned here. It’s easy to let a whole area of research lie on the shoulders of a “unusually brilliant” group member and even to forego double-checking his/her experimental data. But it is NOT acceptable (at least to me) to ignore pleas from other group members and external colleagues who cannot reproduce the chemistry. As much of a nice guy as Dalibor Sames might be, the blatant impression given is that he just wanted to sweep this under the rug until he got tenure (or was more or less sure of getting it) – even if that isn’t the truth. Unfortunately for him, and as much as Columbia covers his tracks, time will probably only make this case worse (as it has with the infamously popular Carreira letter, which keeps resurfacing time and time again only to make Carreira look more and more of a monster each time).

    Third, relating to the JJLC fraud with Hexacyclinol (another one of the hot topics of those days… I’m feeling old now:) : I now routinely review papers from total synthesis to methodology. And no more than a month ago, I spotted some glaring inconsistencies between the final product spectra and the original isolation paper in a report on the “first total synthesis of xyz” (things like 13C signals shifted by more than 4 ppm, or a particular signal that simply did not appear) and wrote my referee report based on it. The editor sent me the rebuttal by the authors, who claimed all kinds of unfair treatment and tried to talk their way out of the obvious (and blatant) facts. Sure, it took me ca. 2 hours of time to carefully read the paper and review (most of) the experimental data + supporting info. And it won’t get me any closer to tenure. Needless to say, I was the only one of 3 reviewers who noted those inconsistencies – but the paper is apparently not getting published until that stuff is sorted out (according to the editor).

  58. Krishna Pillai Says:

    Responses compared: Columbia, Harvard and Imperial College
    Marc Hauser at Harvard had tenure, was found guilty of 8 counts of misconduct, was sent on a years “gardening” leave, was banned by his colleagues from teaching and has now resigned. The trigger for his resignation seems to have been the actions of his colleagues.
    Jatinder Ahluwalia at Imperial College was forced to resign after misconduct, moved on to the University of East London and resigned from there as well after his colleagues took the initiative.
    Sames is still around it seems. And perhaps here also the University will not withdraw tenure or ask for a resignation unless his colleagues and students act.

  59. Krishna Pillai Says:

    Correction to my previous comment: Jatinder Ahluwalia’s misconduct was at University college London while his PhD was from Imperial College. Apologies.

  60. European Chemist Says:

    Well, seeing how Armando Cordova is now a Full Professor at Stockholm makes me believe that the oddity are the cases where any form of punishment DOES happen.

  61. eugene Says:

    “Well, seeing how Armando Cordova is now a Full Professor at Stockholm makes me believe that the oddity are the cases where any form of punishment DOES happen.”

    That guy took a different approach from Sames. He went on full attack right afterwards instead of laying low for a bit. At the next ACS meeting where I was, he had a whole bunch of students and postdocs presenting posters with results with low catalyst loadings and difficult substrates that industry reps where salivating over and taking photos off. I remember one of the more portly postdocs also got his picture taken together with his poster and with an industry guy. I think this overwhelming display of “organic catalysis awesomeness” kept many who wanted to ask questions about the scandal away. Looks like both approaches work in the long run.

  62. European Chemist Says:

    I actually know the PhD/PostDocs directly involved in the Blackmond/Cordova story. There were email exchanges during more than a year, and Cordova would sometimes appear to recognise that he simply copied the stuff Blackmond presented without understanding it (which is blatantly the case, it only takes reading the error-ridden spurious paper that he wrote and comparing it with Blackmond’s Nature paper to figure that out), but in the email immediately after that would then completely change his stance and reject vehemently any idea of plagiarism. And he went on like this over and over until Blackmond lost her patience. I suppose he was also dragging the discussion to secure tenure “a la Sames”?
    Amazing that people like Backvall tolerate a colleague with such poor scientific ethics. But maybe having a guy who does Organocatalysis in your Department compensates for everything else *pfffff*

  63. Simon Higgins Says:

    European Chemist, it’s good to know that I’m not the only referee left who actually scrutinises the supporting information data when refereeing a paper. I have also discovered ‘anomalies’ from time to time, that have lead me to recommend rejection. It is time-consuming, and in the face of the welter of work of dubious value that appears in the ever-expanding ranks of journals, one feels a bit like the little Dutch boy in the story, but someone has to do it!

  64. Bengü Sezen – A “Master of Fraud” at Columbia University « The k2p blog Says:

    [...] No doubt there are extenuating circumstances but for this deception to have continued for a decade does not do any credit to her supervisor Prof. Dalibor Sames. Whether Sames has been subjected to any sanctions by the University is not clear. His role has been the subject of many posts and one “inside story” is available here. [...]

  65. Henry Says:

    I guess I look at it this way: there is no way in hell that what happened in either the Sames or Breslow groups would happen in my group. NFW. I look at the spectra, I ask for details and notice inconsistencies, I ask for control experiments that check what is going on, I require that the results make sense, and make sense in ways that a graduate student is not going to guess. From day one I tell students that I do not trust them, not because they will lie to me but because they make mistakes. They all do, that is perfectly normal, and if you do not look skeptically at all of the data that students bring you, you will publish things that are wrong. I have heard people suggest that this could happen to anyone. That is a bunch of baloney.

    If the environment was one where a monster like Sezen could flourish, then NOTHING was being properly checked. What else was published that was wrong due to ordinary mistakes? Are things being checked properly now? No offense to some of the readers, but graduate students are students. They are not professionals yet and they are not the ones that are responsible for getting the science right. That job is the advisor’s.

  66. My Advice to Breslow | ChemBark Says:

    [...] is probably the fullest extent possible. Her reputation is absolute garbage. On the other hand, it appears that Sames has suffered no significant punishment for his role as a negligent manager. He ignored [...]

  67. KayDubs Says:

    I’m still hung up on the “why did she do it” question. Has anyone floated the hypothesis that perhaps Bengu was in love with Dalibor (but not vice-versa)? Perhaps this was the reason she had a strong motivation to do whatever it took, including lying and cheating, to make his theories about catalysis look as strong as possible. And maybe Dalibor was too flattered to be fully rational.
    This has all the makings of a great made-for-TV movie…

  68. Chemjobber Says:

    KW: There has been plenty of speculation on hanky-panky between the two, with precious little proof.

  69. Chemjobber Says:

    And by “precious little”, I mean “zero.”

  70. KayDubs Says:

    Ok, so there’s no proof, but then again, do instances of unrequited love usually leave much of a paper trail?
    The other thing is that I think we’re being a little hard on Sames. Yes, I agree that there was negligence, and yes, some pretty egregious stuff happened on his watch, but let’s not forget that we all have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Sames didnt. I’m no chemist (I’m just a physicist who attended CU and who happens to be fascinated by this story!), but I can imagine that what Sezen did was both unprecedencted and unthinkable. “Unthinkable” means just that– it was dang near impossible for Sames or anyone to even think that Sezen was up to what she was up to. The lack of a precedent meant Sames had little reason to even suspect anything.
    Had I been in Sames’ shoes, I seriously doubt that I would have fired anyone for failing to reproduce the results, but that’s just because firing people for stuff like that isnt my style. Plus, I am pretty certain that I would have been quite slow to alert the authorities and call for a formal investigation. And I might have even been slower than Sames to publish the retractions.
    Of course, now that I know the world contains people like Bengu Sezen, I think I’d behave very differently.
    The long and short of it is, I do think Sames could have handled it better, but I dont think he deserves punishments as severe as what some of the commenters are calling for. But I will concede that he does deserve SOME form of punishment.

  71. latex Says:

    sames is a member of illuminati that is the case and colombia is the jews gem school. what do u expect, a jew to punish a jew ? that is impossible they are all the cause of the problem in the world as hitler pointed out.

    I bet sames was aware of sezens fraud and I would be suprised if he did not encourage sezen to do this fraud.

  72. Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being | Just Another Electron Pusher Says:

    [...] The stress of grad school can affect one’s mood, leading to bouts of depression and low self-esteem. The pressure to be productive and innovative in one’s research project can also be an element among many which may help encourage (or at least fail to discourage) some aberrant mental behavior. [...]

  73. An Interesting Position at Columbia | ChemBark Says:

    [...] Discipline, you say? Great. I can think of a few chemists at Columbia who need to be disciplined (1 [...]

  74. Anonymous Says:

    […] o se lo curra, o lo echan. Pondre un caso sangrante por aquello de la muestra y el boton The Sezen Files – Part III: And What of Sames? | ChemBark El tal Sames es un profesor de la universidad de Columbia que tenia a cargo una estudiante (Sezen) […]

  75. télécharger gta 5 vice city Says:

    you’re really a just right webmaster. The site loading pace is incredible.
    It sort of feels that you are doing any distinctive trick.
    Moreover, The contents are masterwork. you have performed a magnificent process on this topic!

  76. mobile games Says:

    Wonderful website you have here but I was wanting to know if
    you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics discussed here?

    I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get suggestions from other experienced individuals that share
    the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

    Thank you!


Leave a Reply

*