Protecting Against Fraud in Science and News

In an article at (新语丝), Fang Zhouzi (方舟子) wrote about "Academic Fraud and The Rules of the Game" (学术造假与游戏规则).  Here is the translation of the relevant section here:

... Hwang Woo-suk's article was published in the American journal Science.  Hwang Woo-suk had deceived Science on two occasions, which should embarrass Science.  The editor-in-chief of Science said that he is thinking about changing the publication process for articles.  ...  Actually Science did not act improperly in this incident.  It followed the customary practice for scholarly journals in which articles are published after being reviewed by three peers.  When the peers review the article, they are mainly looking whether the evidence in the article is sufficient and if the results are significant.  They do not usually doubt if the author of the article is engaged in fraud.  So unless the fraud is too crude, an fraudulent article is unlikely to be found as such during the review process.

The editor-in-chief of Science said that he wanted to change the customary practice in the academic field by requiring other experimental laboratories to confirm the experimental results first before publication.  Actually, this approach had been adopted by certain scholarly journals in the past.  This would greatly increase the publication delay of the article and it is not conducive to academic exchange.  Therefore, the current practice is to publish the article first.  This is not to say that scientific results do not require the verficiation by others before being accepted.  The publication of the article is just the first step in getting the result accepted, and it does not mean that it has been fully accepted yet.  It will still depend on the verification by others.  Whether a result can be independently replicated will always be the sine qua non proof for a scientific result.  Although not all results will generate interest from others to replicate and in fact most results are not replicated, the important consequence is that when something is replicated, it is not hard to detect the fraud.

Publish first, then verify; if it cannot be verified, then you will be ostracized.  We trust you first, but if you betray that trust, we will deal with you severely so that you can no longer continue in the field of science anymore.  This passive approach constitutes the current rule of the game in science.  Although it cannot prevent fraud, it will guarantee that the cheaters cannot get away with it.  The cost of committing fraud is too huge so that people won't dare to do it.  Even if you can cheat to gain fame and profit for a moment, you will tumble down one day just like Hwang Wook-suk.

One reason that academic fraud is rampant in China is that the rule of the game is not being observed.  It is easy to get away with cheating.  The benefits are huge, but the costs are small (almost near zero).  Even if you are exposed, your position and fortune won't get affected.  Although China does not have any world-class stars in science, quite a few national-class stars in science have been exposed for committing fraud but which one of them were investigated or disciplined?  Which one had to face the public and apologize?  If Hwang Woo-suk were China's "Number One Scientist," he would probably still be doing nicely right now.

If Fang Zhouzi was writing about the rule of the game concerning fraud in the field of science, then would that rule also apply in news?  "We trust you first, but if you betray that trust, we will deal with you severely so that you can no longer continue in the field of journalism/news reporting anymore."

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that the answer is that the rule of the game is non-existent in journalism.  There are so-called media entities whose main job seems to be propagating false information; when exposed, they don't even bother to shrug and they just move on to the next lie.  Meanwhile, they are never held accountable by the general public, which can be divided into three segments: 

(1) A minute credulous segment which actually believes in the message; 

(2) A small segment who recognizes the mendacity but keeps quiet because the end result is desirable (note: there are numerous examples on this blog; for illustration, please see A News Report On The Fuxin Mine Disaster); 

(3) The vast majority who think that those particular media entities are a joke anyway, so why should anyone pay any attention to them?

As Fang Zhouzi implied, the damage of these attitudes towards journalistic fraud is tremendous on the field of journalism itself.  If you make the cost of journalistic fraud to be near zero, then the field would be awash with lies.  Why would the fraudsters stop, because they are accomplishing some (if minuscule) results?  And it is also a tremendous waste of the public's time and energy, because they have to screen each news report for trustworthiness.

You deserve the media that you want.  If you won't condemn the fraudsters, then you will have to suffer all the consequences.