“Willing To Do Anything for an Article in Science”

Interview: Georg Scholl – Illustrations: Miriam Bauer

Enormous departments and steep hierarchies are some of the fundamental problems that make the research community susceptible to fraud, according to the biochemist and research manager Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker who recently spoke with Humboldt Kosmos about responsibility and temptation.

Kosmos: Mr Winnacker, the number of scientific articles that have had to be withdrawn due to errors has increased tenfold in the last decade. Are you worried about the integrity of science?
Winnacker: I am indeed very worried. Also when I hear that 80 per cent of all clinical studies are not replicable. This is not acceptable, neither for public nor for private funders. In the United States, the Senate and Congress are already asking themselves why they dedicate public funds to supporting such nonsense. For the reputation of science, it’s terrible.

Kosmos: Are people losing faith in science?
Winnacker: That is the danger. Just think of the flaws in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Kosmos: You mean the erroneous prediction that the glaciers in the Himalayas would melt by 2035 ...
Winnacker: Exactly, the media highlighted the “glacier error” and the authors had to correct themselves. As a result, last year’s follow-up report hardly attracted the attention it deserved. And the climate sceptics said it was all falsified anyway.

Kosmos: There was also a lot of publicity at the beginning of last year about two articles in Nature by a Japanese junior professor who claimed that stem cells could be generated from normal body cells using citric acid – which would have been a medical sensation, but turned out to be false ...
Winnacker: ... and was discovered very quickly. Even before the the articles were published there were blogs saying something was wrong. In May, Nature withdrew the articles. The researcher had manipulated her data. That suggests nothing less than criminal intent. But I believe her environment was partly to blame.

Kosmos: In what way?
Winnacker: We are talking about a young woman in an environment dominated by extreme hierarchies in which young people in general, and women in particular, have very little say. I assume she had simply been left on her own in this system, in a field that is highly competitive. In this kind of research at the boundaries of knowledge, you are not given a million to research the immortality of a May beetle. You need a spectacular theme. She searched for one and apparently hit on a pretty stupid idea.

Kosmos: Why didn’t the co-authors realise what was going on?
Winnacker: Possibly because they hadn’t even read the paper. That is the curse of impact factors, which reveal how well you are represented in the renowned journals. Everyone desperately wants to publish an article in Science, Cell or Nature. And they are willing to do anything to get it. So if you can jump on the running board of a publication, all the better. But papers should only feature authors who have really been involved in the work and not someone who just happens to be the head of the institute and actually works on something completely different.

“If you can jump on the running board of a publication, all the better.”

Kosmos: It’s quite usual for the boss’s name to appear on the paper ...
Winnacker: Yes, although not as often as it used to be. If their names appear they have to take responsibility. That is why, as a university teacher, I must always be in a position to understand the experiments. I have to be able to inject an embryo cell myself in order to know that my postdoc cannot possibly inject a thousand a second as he says he can. You have to give advice and support to young people: when should I publish and where? Which meetings should I attend and which not? You have to listen to them and think up mechanisms which will allow them to present their science to older colleagues. You can’t leave them to stew in their own research juice.

Kosmos: Have German universities taken this to heart?
Winnacker: Some have, some haven’t. I still admire the American system. They don’t have these enormous departments we do. Nor the tendency to feel obliged to acquire ever more staff. If we are honest with ourselves, we know you can’t work with more than ten or twelve PhD students at once. If you build up an empire, a giant department, you end up with steep hierarchies and the boss becomes totally invisible. Flatter hierarchies are less susceptible to fraud.

Kosmos: And if you do suspect fraud?
Winnacker: Then you need mechanisms to deal with it. It can’t be right that people risk their careers just for pointing out errors. If, for example, a doctoral student notices that his boss is hiding something, and this boss is the dean of the faculty, then he has no one else to talk to except his own boss. Quite apart from the fact that a doctoral student in a medical or chemistry faculty would probably not even get as far as an appointment with the dean. He or she should be able to turn to independent ombudspeople who would be able to tackle even the dean of a faculty. There are a lot of them now, but not by any means everywhere.

Kosmos: What drives dishonest researchers, apart from the pressure to succeed, and makes them run the enormous risk of being discovered sooner or later?
Winnacker: Craving for recognition, vanity? People become celebrities, the hub of media interest. There are colleagues who go for that sort of thing, think it is wonderful to suddenly have an official car or an office of 60 square metres instead of 20. But people who really believe they are as important as they want to appear can be found everywhere, not just in academia.

Kosmos: How do you explain the fact that people who have been found guilty of fraud admit their errors but deny forgery? Do they end up believing in their own manipulation?
Winnacker: Of course, you do have to believe in your own hypotheses. But you also have to be able to propose a new hypothesis when your experiments disprove the old one. That’s as it should be. But there are people who are so convinced of their experiments and theories that they shut out discrepancies, brush an inconsistent result under the carpet, or say, can’t be, the PhD student must have mucked up the experiment.

Kosmos: Scientific fraud sometimes only comes to light years later. In the interim, the cheats have honours and funding heaped on them. Why don’t the research funders realise what’s going on? After all, they review the applications submitted by the supposed luminaries.
Winnacker: Because we work on the presumption of innocence. Initially, there is no reason whatsoever to suspect anyone. After all, 99 per cent of scientists are reputable. Sometimes it is pure chance that you notice something, like one of our reviewers who read a passage in an application that sounded familiar. He checked and discovered that he was reading his own words, a passage he himself had once written in an application.

Kosmos: But you surely don’t want to rely on chance?
Winnacker: We hope that our reviewers are so good that they discover when something is not new or not plausible. We have to trust in the selfcleansing power of science. If it is really important, an experiment is replicated, as in the Japanese example I mentioned before. But when it comes to large-scale case studies this is not so easy.

Kosmos: For example?
Winnacker: Think of medical trials or sociological studies. They have to be organised very carefully using the double-blind method; you have to have sufficiently large, representative groups, and accrue scrupulously accurate statistics. To carry out a study like this twice just to control something is very expensive. And sometimes impossible. You can’t identically replicate a trial involving 2,000 individual patients.

Kosmos: Are reviewers dazzled by big names?
Winnacker: That is a danger. We advise our reviewers to ignore the impact factor or h-index and concentrate exclusively on scientific quality. This could mean rejecting a Nobel Laureate because even in these circles it can happen that one doesn’t have anything new to offer. If we were to rely exclusively on bibliometrics and prestigious awards, we really would be dazzled. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment of 2012 takes account of this. It should be signed and practised by all research organisations.

Kosmos: In that agreement, more than 80 leading international institutes and science organisations decided not to focus on bibliometric factors but on the merits of the research.
Winnacker: Yes, but how do you do it? And how do you prevent partiality in the face of big names? I really admire the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. They had never employed a woman until they started holding auditions behind a curtain. And suddenly, they had female musicians in the orchestra. How can we introduce such a curtain into science?

Kosmos: And?
Winnacker: Unfortunately, it is not as easy for us as it is for musicians. When you read a publication by an eminent candidate, you usually already know who has written it, even if the name has been blacked out beforehand. But in the case of young researchers you don’t know so well, it certainly can be done. When researchers are applying for really big grants there should always be a personal interview at the end of the process as there are for ERC Starting Grants. Then you usually notice if something’s amiss.

Kosmos: Do penitent transgressors deserve a second chance in science?
Winnacker: Of course, there will always be gamblers who simply take a chance and see what happens. So then their careers are over and they set up a company or live off their parents or marital partner. Returning to the academic system, where everything is based on trust, is hardly going to be an option. That’s something everyone who cheats should realise.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker
Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker  
Photo: private

Professor Dr. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was a founder member and the first Secretary General of the European Research Council (2007 to 2009); he was previously the President of the German Research Foundation. A biochemist and molecular biologist, he conducted research at universities in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States and was academic host to several Humboldtians. Since 2009, he has held the position of Secretary General of the international Human Frontier Science Program in Strasbourg, France.

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