Sunday, May 3, 2009

Invented Publications

The German news magazine Spiegel reports on a major scandal at the University of Göttingen. An interdisciplinary group of sixteen scientists researching the rain forest in Indonesia had previously been awarded a prestigious "Sonderforschungsbereich" (SFB) by the German research foundation, DFG. The researchers were applying for an 8.6 million Euro extension of the research project.

But the external reviewers were quite irritated - they couldn't find many of the supposed publications listed on the report for how the first grant had been used. After an internal university investigation, it was determined that the publications did not, in fact, exist. The university withdrew the grant application.

There will now be more exact scrutiny of the money spent up until now, and whether it was used for the research or for other purposes. And another research group at the same university on biodiversity is currently under investigation for similar problems, according to the university president, who is worried as to how these incidents will affect the reputation of the university.

The University of Göttingen has been awarded "elite" status by the German government. On the one hand, it is questionable if this status is compatible with such goings-on, especially if they are regularly happening. On the other hand, the university is acting correctly in investigating the cases and in withdrawing the application. One wonders how many universities just sweep things like this under the carpet after rapping the knuckles of the parties involved.

One does, however, hope that the principle investigators will be degraded to cleaning toilets or some such punishment and not continue researching at full pay. I can't find a statement about the situation on the home pages of the university, but I do see that there will be a seminar on reputation management this coming week. I suppose the university will be sending someone to audit the course.


  1. Not nice. According to Tagesspiegel, they invented "submitted" manuscripts, not "published" papers, which does not make it morally better, but makes the attempt somewhat less idiotic. When I first read the shorter article in the Spiegel, I thought inventing publications an exceptionally stupid way to cheat, because it is bound to be discovered. With submitted papers, I can see how they thought they might get away with it. (Kudos to the reviewers for actually asking about these manuscripts.)

    My guess for how they will try to defend themselves: They will claim that inventing "submitted manuscripts" is a far lesser crime, because they are not as important as "real publication". Which would be a BS argument, of course: If they are not important, then (i) why include them in the report at all and (ii) why invent them if you don't have them?

  2. According to "Die Zeit", there were four papers that did not even consist of a single sentence. ("Bei vier Titeln sei in Wahrheit nicht ein einziger Satz zu Papier gebracht worden.") In my field, you do not submit papers that only consist of titles. You have to write real papers, although there is an annoying tendency to submit papers on what people plan on doing, not on what they have actually achieved.

    Papers that are submitted need to be denoted as such. Papers that are planned but not yet written are not papers, but pipe dreams, Hirngespinste.

  3. I am not trying to defend them, that was just my guess at what they might try. Obviously, one cannot pretend to "have submitted" a paper that does simply not exist!