Tuesday, 17 August 2010

scientific fraud, whisky, coffee, and fine food

Last week was taken up with the Cognitive Science conference in Portland. Much of the conversation centred around the revelation, revealed in the Boston Globe, of academic misconduct perpetrated by a famous Harvard professor. I had some small part to play in the revelation, having recently received the official retraction of a paper that he had previously published in the journal I edit (although it was published before my time at the journal). The retraction confirmed that there had been an internal investigation at Harvard - a much-needed piece of evidence in the face of Harvard’s initial stone-walling of requests for information. Shortly after the Boston Globe published their piece, Harvard relented and confirmed the investigation. Although I cannot reveal the information I am privy to, I have every confidence that the full details of the misconduct, and the findings of the inquiry, will shortly be made public. My own view in all this is that we should not be too quick to throw out the science perpetuated by this individual - there is little doubt he contributed some important and useful ideas to the scientific literature. But we should be quick to show that wilful misrepresentation (and misreporting) of data cannot be tolerated: Harvard need, sooner rather than later, to report the sanctions that will be imposed against this individual. It would be a travesty of justice, I believe, if he kept his tenured position and all that happened, perhaps, was that he would be barred from receiving federal (government) funding for future research - after all, there are many researchers who fail to receive funding simply because there’s too little to go around, and if the worst that happens to him is that he joins the ranks of the very many researchers who, for quite different reasons, also fail to receive federal funding, then that sends a dreadful signal to those researchers - fake your data, and if you’re found out, there’s no need to worry as you’ll just go back to square one, which is in any case where you are now. I concede that if Harvard are prevented, for whatever reason, from firing the man, it may be difficult to come up with appropriate disciplinary action (I dislike the word punishment, but ultimately, the example that has to be set requires just that). But the scientific community is watching, and Harvard may well be judged on how they deal with this.

The talk of scientific fraud did not distract me or various colleagues from talking science, planning science, and drinking some excellent whisky. I am now in Philadelphia, a regular port of call given my collaboration here (for which, as I mentioned in my last post, I just recently received funding - three years’ worth to collaborate with people in Philadelphia, New York, and a city that shares not very much with either of these two: Dundee).

La Colombe, which is almost just around the corner from my hotel, continues to be my favourite coffee shop, and recently added to the list of must-visit stores is Di Bruno - I could live there quite easily if they would just let me sleep in a quiet corner...