Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik Schön Faked His Research Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In one of the biggest scandals in physics in many decades, Jan Hendrik Schön published journal articles—some with coauthors—at an astonishing rate of one every eight days, on average. However, the fact that his research findings could not be replicated by others raised red flags and prompted an investigation by a committee of his peers that found he had faked his data. The ensuing scandal raised a number of controversial questions about the limits of scientists’ responsibilities in dealing with intellectual fraud.

Summary of Event

In 1998, German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön went to work for Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and began scientific collaborations with his mentor, Bertram J. R. Batlogg, and others. By 2002, their collaboration resulted in more than ninety articles—most of them with Schön as lead author and many of them in leading journals such as Nature and Science. His productivity became legendary: During 2001, an investigative committee determined he had written a new paper—on average—every eight days. Schön came to be viewed in the profession as a star, on the fast track to a Nobel Prize. [kw]Schön Faked His Research, Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik (Sept. 25, 2002) Schön, Jan Hendrik Schön, Jan Hendrik [g]United States;Sept. 25, 2002: Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik Schön Faked His Research[03220] [c]Ethics;Sept. 25, 2002: Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik Schön Faked His Research[03220] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Sept. 25, 2002: Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik Schön Faked His Research[03220] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 25, 2002: Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik Schön Faked His Research[03220] [c]Science and technology;Sept. 25, 2002: Inquiry Reveals That Physicist Jan Hendrik Schön Faked His Research[03220] Batlogg, Bertram J. R. Beasley, Malcolm R. Solomon, Paul M. Lieber, Charles M. McEuen, Paul L. Sohn, Lydia L.

Such prolific research and writing would have been remarkable accomplishments for so young a scientist, even if the Experiments;faked experiments had been less revolutionary in their implications. Schön’s work seemed to show the way forward in the development of an electronics that would use organic (carbon-based) materials rather than the familiar silicon. Though other scientists also explored this area of research, Schön reported breakthrough after breakthrough in molecular electronics and superconductivity, which seemed to promise a short path to a world of nanoscale electronics.

Though many of Schön’s fellow scientists were in awe of his achievements, viewing him (in Paul McEuen’s phrase) as “the golden boy of condensed matter physics,” there also existed an undercurrent of suspicion as his startling results could not be replicated. His work probably would have been less eagerly received had he not worked at such a prestigious laboratory as Bell and with such a distinguished colleague as Batlogg.

As early as November, 2001, IBM scientist Paul M. Solomon had written a letter of profound criticism of Schön’s work with molecular field-effect transistors. Nature declined publication of the letter. Then, in April and May of 2002, things began to unravel rapidly for Schön, as his scientific colleagues—including Harvard’s Charles M. Lieber, IBM’s McEuen, and Princeton’s Lydia Sohn—began to notice reused data and graphs among different articles (some even in the same article) written by Schön.

In late May, at the instigation of the management of Bell Labs, a five-member investigative committee was formed; its chairman was Stanford University scientist Malcolm R. Beasley. The committee collected comments, accusations, and concerns about twenty-five papers (involving twenty coauthors) and identified twenty-four “final allegations” to examine in detail. In late July, the committee interviewed individuals at Bell, including Schön. The final report, made public on September 25, announced that a preponderance of evidence had demonstrated scientific misconduct in two-thirds (sixteen) of the cases examined, though Schön’s behavior in most of the remaining cases remained “troubling.”

The committee determined, first, that Schön had repeatedly substituted data; that is, he had reused data, sometimes in distorted form, in purportedly different situations. Second, the committee found Schön’s data often displayed unrealistic precision; that is, not real experimental data. Third, Schön’s results often contradicted known physics; seemingly impossible results demanded an extraordinary level of scientific caution that was absent from Schön’s papers. The revelations of the Beasley Report were shocking.

Responding to the devastating report, Schön acknowledged “various mistakes” and apologized “for these mistakes to the coauthors and the scientific community.” He insisted that he had “observed experimentally the various physical effects reported in these publications,” even though, after two years and considerable expense, others had not been able to duplicate his findings and he, too, had been unable for some months to duplicate them.

Schön’s motives remain unclear. Commentators cite pressure to publish as a direct motive for fabrication (and, by encouraging so many papers, an indirect negative influence on referees). Cordelia Sealy, editor of Materials Today, offered the oddest suggestion—that, for male scientists such as Schön, “publishing papers is a way to attract a mate.”

Impact

As a result of the committee’s findings, Schön was immediately fired from Bell Laboratories. His activities since the scandal remain largely unknown. In June, 2004, his doctorate was revoked by the University of Konstanz, Germany, triggering debate over whether a doctorate is a scholarly achievement to which subsequent misconduct is irrelevant or a license to be taken seriously as a scholar worthy of tenure only if one’s behavior is acceptable.

In the wake of the Beasley Report, various retractions followed. Bell Labs withdrew half-a-dozen patent applications. A number of journals retracted papers written by Schön: eight papers in Science in October, 2002; six papers in the Physical Review journals in December; four papers (with seven more flagged for caution) in Applied Physics Letters in February, 2003; and seven papers in Nature in March, 2003.

The issue of coauthor responsibility was intensely debated. The Beasley Report left this issue unresolved, exonerating Schön’s coauthors of scientific misconduct but leaving the question (especially in the case of Batlogg) whether there had been inadequate oversight. Some professional organizations, such as the American Physical Society, revised their codes of ethics to place greater emphasis on collaborator responsibilities—but many issues remained unresolved. What is the role of trust in collaboration, and who is responsible for what exactly? If coauthors bask in the glory of publication, should they be held responsible when something goes wrong? The debate expanded from coauthors to journal editors, and to referees. Were journals too quick to support trendy research? Was the system of peer review itself flawed?

In 2004, two years after the scandal, questions remained. One big question was, as intellectual property attorney Lawrence B. Ebert reported, the “potential liability of Bell Labs, the coauthors, and the journals which published the fraudulent work to all those who . . . invested resources based on a belief in the work.” He questioned whether scientific journals are liable if they are “aware of problems with their published material, and yet do nothing to correct it.”

After the scandal, several journals publicized the tainted character of the papers they had published. Broader issues of quality control remain. In 2006, Jennifer Couzin and Katherine Unger noted that a paper of Schön, published in 2000 and retracted in 2003, still had been “noted in research papers seventeen times since” the retraction; they pointed out that “scientists often don’t know that the work they are citing has been retracted.” What the chairman of the Physics Department at Schön’s alma mater had characterized, in revoking his degree, as the biggest falsification scandal in physics in half a century was still not enough to prevent citation of bogus science. Schön, Jan Hendrik

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baura, Gail D. Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective. New York: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2006. Discusses the Schön affair in the context of other case studies in engineering ethics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “When Money Wasn’t King.” IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology 24, no. 2 (March-April, 2005): 15-16. A former employee reflects on corporate changes at Bell Labs that made the Schön affair possible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beasley, M. R., S. Datta, H. Kogelnik, H. Kroemer, and D. Monroe. Report of the Investigation Committee on the Possibility of Scientific Misconduct in the Work of Hendrik Schön and Coauthors. Lucent Technologies and the American Physical Society, September, 2002. This primary document, also known as the Beasley Report, explains the findings of the committee that investigated Schön’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Choy, Tuck, and Marshall Stoneham. “Was Schön Ever Right?” Materials Today 7, no. 4 (April, 2004): 64. Two physicists from London’s University College suggest that some of Schön’s ideas might be right-headed, even if his experiments were misleading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Couzin, Jennifer, and Katherine Unger. “Cleaning Up the Paper Trail.” Science 312 (April 7, 2006): 38-43. Emphasizes the difficulty, in cases such as the Schön scandal, of keeping the historical record accurate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ebert, Lawrence B. “There You Go Again.” Intellectual Property Today, July, 2004. Mentions unresolved issues about liability in the Schön case and reasserts the importance of Solomon’s unpublished letter to Nature (quoted in full in Ebert’s article in the June, 2003, edition of Intellectual Property Today).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Service, Robert F. “Pioneering Physics Papers Under Suspicion for Data Manipulation.” Science, May 24, 2002 “Winning Streak Brought Awe, and Then Doubt,” Science, July 5, 2002; “Bell Lab Fires Star Physicist Found Guilty of Forging Data,” Science, October 4, 2002. A series of reports in one of the leading science journals that provides a good overview of not only the events but also the physics involved.

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