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Trying to make sense of nonsense
Written for Significance
Years can go into getting a single science paper published, and as funding distributors often use numbers of published papers to asses a scientist’s work, upping one’s research output seems like a sensible thing to do when science budgets are tight. One time-honoured option to increase your research output is using salami publishing, – that is, reporting data gathered by one research project many times, sliced thin, in many different publications, so that it gets counted as many projects instead of one – but over on Mad Art Lab they have a better idea: fake it.
In just seven easy steps, they explain how you go from choosing a subject for your soon to be published research paper (they advise in their enlightening tutorial that it has to be both popular and wrong; they suggest “sticking needles in your skin cures disease” or ‘the efficacy of various good luck charms” ), to preparing and executing your multitude of experiments and then selecting the one anomaly which will form the basis of your paper. As it will be send to an obscure journal somewhere in the deep dark depths of the impact factor scale, you won’t have to worry about peer-review, just about publicity.
Because that is the ultimate aim of the scheme: get your research in the media. As the website Churnalism.com has shown, it is surprisingly easy to get news outlets to publish press releases verbatim if they sound convincing and interesting enough. When teamed up with independent film-director Chris Atkins, they even managed to get some of their own concoctions, such as a chastity garter which sends text messages to a woman’s partner when she is being unfaithful, onto the American morning news. And it is not just news outlets that are easily fooled. Just last year, Prof. John McLachlan showed how easy it is to get a completely made up research finding – it was, I regret to report, a buttock homunculus to be used in reflexology – accepted for a conference on integrative medicine if you have an impressive enough curriculum vitae attached to it.
Unfortunately, not all faked papers are part of a comic hoax, as Adam Rutherford tells listeners in his two-part radio documentary ‘Science Betrayed’ which aired on BBC Radio 4 over the last two weeks. From the Piltdown Man – an assembled ‘fossil’ consisting of the jaw bone of an orang-utan and the skull of a modern human – to Andrew Wakefield and the MMR scare, Rutherford investigates examples of scientists who may have followed some of the steps outlined by Mad Art Lab and the consequences of their dishonesty. The second part of the documentary is entirely devoted to Mr Andrew Wakefield, including an interview in which he denies having ever claimed that MMR vaccinations cause autism or any form of scientific misconduct on his behalf. The documentary is a very interesting listen and a definite recommendation for anyone interested or involved in any form of science.