Archive for the ‘Sames-Sezen’ Category

Official: Columbia Has Revoked Bengu Sezen’s Ph.D.

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Following an inquiry from ChemBark whether Columbia had formally stripped Bengu Sezen of her Ph.D. degree, a spokesman from the university responded:

I can confirm that the University did complete the process and revoked Sezen’s degrees.  The revocation was approved by the Trustees in March 2011.

It is believed that Dr. Sezen still has a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg.

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

Friday, 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?

The Sezen Files – Part II: Unraveling the Fabrication

Friday, July 8th, 2011

ChemBark InvestigatesIn July of 2005, most people would have viewed Bengu Sezen as a promising young star of organic chemistry.  She had finished her Ph.D. at Columbia in less than five years, published several high-impact papers in the hot area of C–H activation, and secured a postdoctoral position at Stanford in the laboratory of esteemed chemist Chaitan Khosla.  But Bengu Sezen’s Ph.D. defense was not just the latest mountain conquered in her ostensibly stellar career…it was the beginning of her career’s end.

Sezen began grad school in August of 2000, and by the time she was done in 2005, she had produced six first-author papers.  It had long been known within the Sames Lab—and in the world of C–H activation research—that the chemistry developed by Sezen and Sames had issues.  Chemists were having trouble reproducing the results as early as the summer of 2002.  Sames had been contacted by several groups outside Columbia who could not get the reactions to work, and inside the Sames Lab, many students were having problems launching spin-off projects.  In response to these troubles, Sames directed Sezen to provide guidance to those who made outside inquiries, and she assisted her labmates in running their reactions.  Even with Sezen’s assistance, the results were inconsistent.  The most charitable assessment of the body of work was that the reactions were finicky or “sensitive” (to the conditions).

The gravity of the situation peaked in July of 2005, when Sezen defended her thesis and was going to leave campus for good.  After her departure, the other students in the Sames Lab would be forced to fend for themselves; Sezen would no longer be present to provide assistance.  To say that the stakes for the remaining researchers were high is an understatement.  Sames had previously dismissed students from his lab, in part, for their inability to reproduce Sezen’s published, peer-reviewed work.

It was at this time that one astute labmate noticed that the reactions only produced an appreciable quantity of product when Sezen had access to the laboratory in private.  Operating on the assumption that she might have been tampering with the reactions, the labmate set up dual copies of a run-of-the-mill example of Sezen’s chemistry, the conversion of imidazole to phenylimidazole.

At least, that is what the labmate told Sezen.  What he actually did was to set up one reaction with imidazole as the starting material and the other with N-methylimidazole.  The next day, when the reactions were worked up, the product expected of (plain) imidazole was present in both flasks.  The methyl label had vanished from the other substrate…a result that could only be explained by sabotage.

The results of the “trap” were relayed to Sames, who initiated a more thorough (but informal) “in-house” investigation.  The lab poured through her notebooks (aptly named “BS-I” through “BS-XI”) and her electronic data.  It was soon discovered that these documents contained very little information that made sense.  The reactions she appeared to run were reported in *very* scant detail, which was particularly odd for reactions that were supposedly as finicky to the conditions as hers.  The last date written in her notebook was 9 June 2003. 

During the informal investigation by Sames, someone in the survey team stumbled across spectra belonging to Sezen that had been altered with White-Out.  The altered spectra had also appeared in one of Sezen’s publications.  This was the springboard for a more thorough investigation of her NMR data.

It was soon discovered that Sezen never even had her own NMR account at Columbia.  She also had not placed orders for all of the combustion/elemental analyses she reported.  She did collect some NMR spectra: she signed the log book of various instruments and appeared to use the NMR accounts of departed researchers. 

In the analysis of the accounts that Sezen is believed to have used, several series of files were discovered that essentially showed (step-by-step) how she fabricated NMR spectra for some of her compounds.  The process went as follows for her 1H NMR spectra:  she started with a peak corresponding to methylene chloride, then to insert new peaks in her spectrum, she shifted and scaled the methylene chloride peak and added it to the parent spectrum using the instrument’s proprietary software.  Aside from the intermediate files that were found that essentially show the step-by-step process of the fabrications, a second tell-tale sign was that all of the signals had satellite peaks that corresponded to the JCH coupling constant specific to methylene chloride of 177 Hz.  She appears to have done the same with her 31P NMR spectra by cutting-and-pasting a peak corresponding to triphenylphosphine.

Sames provided a draft report of his findings to Columbia in August 2005, and a formal complaint was launched against Sezen in a memorandum on 7 November 2005.  In the meantime, Sames contacted Chaitan Khosla and her postdoctoral appointment was put on hold.  The preliminary inquiry was finished on 16 February 2006, when a final report was submitted to Columbia’s Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.  Sames retracted his first set of papers from JACS on 1 March 2006.

Sezen’s defense was predicated on a strategy of long periods in duck-and-cover mode (avoiding the investigation), interspersed with short bursts of attacks.  In the period following her departure from Columbia until the scandal broke publically, she generally avoided answering e-mails and Columbia did not have a physical address where it could send her documents.  Sezen appeared to hand-deliver a written letter to Columbia in January.

When the retractions were posted in March 2005, Sezen came out of hiding to make public statements to the media in emphatic defense of her work.  She also said she first learned of the retractions after they had been published—a claim that may have some degree of veracity as JACS/Sames altered the wording of the retractions later that month.

Following the public blow-up of the story, Sezen started acknowledging (to Columbia) the fact that an investigation existed.  She acknowledged receipt of the Inquiry Report on 27 March 2006.  On 19 May 2006, she provided comments on the report and (astonishingly) launched a counter-claim that alleged her accusers fraudulently claimed they could not reproduce her work in a campaign to discredit her and steal her results.

After ducking attempts by Columbia to get her to submit to an interview in the summer of 2006, that August, she contacted Science, Nature, and the New York Times with complaints about Columbia’s handling of the investigation.  She also spammed these complaints to scores of professors at the nation’s top chemistry departments.   ChemBark saw—but never reported—one such e-mail sent to a Harvard professor in 2006.

Apparently eager to get to the bottom of the story and put the investigation to rest, Columbia went out of its way to provide Sezen with materials to review regarding the investigation.  It even retained the services of a law firm in Europe to provide a place for her to receive and review thousands of pages of documents.  Eventually, after several on-again/off-again cycles of interacting with the investigation committee—she claimed visa issues prevented her from returning to New York and she repeatedly called off telephone interviews—Sezen submitted to a telephone interview on 6 October 2006.

It is unclear when, exactly, Sezen mounted the defenses listed below, but her story included:

She denied that she had enrolled in a (second) Ph.D. program at the University of Heidelberg, then later recanted this denial.

She denied ever using the NMR accounts of departed researchers at Columbia.  She claimed her NMR account had the user name “bengu”.  The NMR facility manager reported no such account ever existed.

Regarding the missing data for her experiments, she claimed to maintain a supplementary set of notebooks with the details of her procedures.  (Who knows what information she thought worthy of putting in her eleven “real” notebooks?)  Similarly, she had supplementary binders of spectra that were not in Columbia’s possession.

She claimed that a company named “Duha Chemisches Katalyse-Labor” (a.k.a. “Duha”) successfully reproduced her work.  An official at the company named Ralf Decter sent Columbia an electronic message to verify Sezen’s claim.  The problem…the IP address of the computer that sent the message traced to the University of Heidelberg (where Sezen was studying in 2006).  An official at Duha (perhaps also Decter…the name was redacted) also sent a written letter to Columbia.  Columbia contacted the business located at the address on the Duha letterhead, and the person who responded said that he neither knew of Ralf Decter nor a company named “Duha”.  These entities were adjudged by the investigation committee to be fictitious.

Similarly, in what was perhaps an attempt to scare Columbia, Sezen claimed in January 2006 she had retained the services of a lawyer named M. Atkas.  M. Atkas wrote a memo to Columbia in February 2006.  Columbia could not contact Mr. Atkas and a search revealed no lawyer by that name (or his business, “Barrington Law Firm”) to exist.

Sezen claimed that purchase requisitions did not exist for many of her combustion analyses because she obtained them in free trials.  Columbia could find no vendors who offered free trials for elemental analyses.

Unsurprisingly, the full investigation by Columbia found Sezen’s defenses not to be credible.  Its final report enumerated many specific instances of plagiarism and fabrication (mainly spectra and elemental analyses) in great detail.  This report formed the basis of a similar report tied to the investigation of Sezen by the Office of Research Integrity.  In November 2010, the ORI cited 21 specific instances of misconduct in suspending Sezen from receiving federal funding for five years.  While Columbia stated last year it was moving to revoke her degree, it is unclear whether this has happened.

 

Up Next… The Sezen Files, Part III: And What of Sames?

The Columbia Report verifies ChemBark’s long-held claims that Professor Dalibor Sames dismissed students from his lab for failure to reproduce Sezen’s fraudulent work.  How has Sames managed to escape the fire?   

The Sezen Files – Part I: New Documents

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

ChemBark Investigates

Now that C&EN has blown the cover off of this story, I am rushing these posts to press.  I’m not sure when the next installment is coming; there is a ton of information to process.

ChemBark is now in possession of 167 pages of information directly pertinent to the finding of scientific misconduct against Dr. Bengu Sezen (formerly) of Columbia University.  The files relate to investigations conducted by both Columbia University (CU) and the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  In November 2010, ORI announced its finding that Sezen was responsible for 21 instances of scientific misconduct, and the organization subsequently barred her from receiving federal funding for five years.

The documents were obtained by ChemBark via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted on 29 November 2010.  The documents were finally sent on 22 June 2011—over six months past the date of the original request, but a mere two days after ChemBark mailed a friendly reminder to DHHS by U.S. Certified Mail.

The files have been heavily redacted by Carol Maloney, who is Director of the Division of FOIA Services at DHHS.  Very few names other than that of Dr. Sezen remain in the documents, including only one single instance of Dalibor Sames (Sezen’s advisor at Columbia and co-author of several retracted papers).  In making her redactions, Maloney asserted FOIA exemptions (b)(6) and (b)(7)(c), which are intended to protect the personal privacy of parties involved in the investigation.  Statements within these 167 pages of documents allude to the existence of more than 10,000 pages of documents related to the investigation.  While the set of documents obtained by ChemBark has been heavily redacted and only represents a small sample size of the body of documents that exist, the information contained in them paints a vivid picture of what was unquestionably a sustained rampage of data fabrication by Sezen, and later, an equally egregious campaign by her to avoid punishment.  The depth of the deception and its tragic consequences are manifest within the investigatory record, and at times, the machinations of Sezen seem so far-fetched and desperate as to be comedic.

In this series of posts, ChemBark will go through the details of the case most pertinent to the chemical community.  The purpose of this endeavor is to inform the community of the details of the case with an eye on analyzing what transpired and learning from it.  Fabrication of data might be the most heinous crime that can be perpetrated against science, and while “negative” stories like this one often paint our field in a bad light, we cannot afford to ignore them.  Almost six years have passed since the first reports of key details about this case were published on the predecessor to ChemBark.  Unfortunately, the coverage provided by traditional outlets for scientific news has been superficial and woefully inadequate.  It has obviously taken an extraordinary amount of time to uncover the details of the investigation, but a few delayed blog posts are better than nothing.  I have long maintained in previous coverage of this story that there is plenty for the chemical community to learn from this case, and these documents verify that.

Associated Documents

3 December 2010 – Acknowledgment of receipt of ChemBark’s FOIA request
8 December 2010 – Denial of ChemBark’s request for expedited processing
20 June 2011 – Follow-up letter to DHHS FOIA Office
22 June 2011 – Cover letter from DHHS with Bengu Sezen Investigation FOIA Materials
22 June 2011 – FOIA Materials for Bengu Sezen Investigation

Upcoming:

The Sezen Files – Part II: Unraveling the Fabrication
The Sezen Files – Part III: And What of Sames?
The Sezen Files – Part IV: Lessons and Lingering Questions
The Sezen Files – Part V: Wrap Up

Sames-Sezen ORI Finding

Wednesday, 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“.