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Academic Careers

The Damage that Cheaters Do

The notorious scientific fraud of former Columbia University chemist Bengü Sezen harmed a lot more than scientific knowledge, reports William G. Schulz in Chemical & Engineering News on July 7. The graduate work and Ph.D. prospects of three other young would-be scientists working along with Sezen in the lab of their mutual mentor became collateral damage in Sezen’s spectacular deceit.

Two “lengthy reports” by the university and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services reveal Sezen’s “massive and sustained effort…over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results,” Schulz reports. The elaborate and skillful deception, for which she was ultimately found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct, goes all the way back to the work for her Ph.D., which Columbia University is seeking to withdraw. 

But even worse than the harm Sezen did to science itself are the irreparable losses suffered by three innocent graduate students, who bore “the onus of not being able to reproduce [Sezen’s] work,” the report states. As a result, they suffered “severe negative impacts on [their] graduate careers.” Two of these unfortunate aspiring chemists “were asked to leave” and the third “decided to leave after her second year.”  Anonymous sources told C&EN that Sezen’s mentor considered her a “golden child” and “brilliant student,” Schulz writes.

You can read the whole article here.

Can anything good come out of this sad and sordid affair, which Schulz calls “one of the worst cases of scientific fraud ever to happen in the chemistry community”?  It’s probably too late to make amends to the blamesless victims of Sezen’s treachery. But perhaps other lab chiefs and universities can keep this cautionary tale in mind when evaluating the work–and especially any apparently anomalous results–produced by young scientists.