Saturday, February 23, 2013

Science Fair Science Fraud

With over 2500 entrants, the occurrence of misconduct is a statistical likelihood.  I served as a judge for Behavioral and Social Sciences and I am pretty sure that I reviewed one of the problems.  The questions only came to me later. 

(Almost) every science fair entrant deserves special recognition.  Woody Allen famously quipped that 85% of success is showing up. The great majority of these kids made that mark.  The scoring and ranking was generally close.  Identifying the first place works was effortless as were the ones that ranked lower than fifth.  But overall, not much (if anything objective) separated third from fourth from fifth place.  We worked by consensus and discussion to discover and validate the rankings.  As a regional science fair the exhibits already passed previous judgings.  

Biotech and Life sciences broadly dominated the science fair. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, and computer science were present, of course, but animal science, plant science, environmental management, bioengineering, biochemistry, behavioral and social sciences, cellular and molecular biology, medicine and health eclipsed the physical sciences.

Among the many entrants, these were some of 1st through 5th place winners in the junior and senior divisions: 
  • The Effect of Temperature on the Activity of Catalase
  • The Effects Of Various Light Conditions On Bioluminescent Marine Dinoflagellates
  • How To Most Effectively Grow Algae For Biofuel
  • Biodegradable Packaging: A Cleaner Future
  • Zombie Plankton Apocalypse
  • Children's Blood Pressure
  • The effect of Capsaicin levels on E.coli bacterial growth
  • The Anti-Microbial Properties of Sauerkraut Ingredients on E. coli
  • Are horses auditory or visual learners?
  • Animal Lipid Vs. Vegetable Lipid Based Mascara
  • The Effect of Ginkgo biloba on Protein and Genetic Expression of C. Elegans
  • Desalination Using a Microbial Fuel Cell
  • Disease and Drought Resistance of Tomato Plants When Treated with Bacillus subtilis
Over all, I was greatly impressed. 

The Austin Energy Regional Science Festival is an affiliate of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.  Therefore, we comply with all of those rules and guidelines. 

Scientific fraud and misconduct are not condoned at any level of research or competition. Such practices include plagiarism, forgery, use or presentation of other researcher’s work as one’s own, and fabrication of data. Fraudulent projects will fail to qualify for competition in affiliated fairs and the Intel ISEF.


My problem was in the Junior Division.  Judging was on Thursday.  This morning (Saturday), I was pretty sure that the entrant did not employ the equipment, and did not actually run the experiment.  They made the whole thing up.  I asked about their Informed Consent forms and they said that they called someone who said that the forms were not necessary.  That should have tripped an alarm, but in the crush of judging, I only kept my questions to myself.  This morning, I added that to the evidence.  In my professional opinion as a card-carrying criminologist, this was an example of scientific misconduct and research fraud. 

Unfortunately, this problem is nowhere in the many forms we receive.  In the verbal briefings, it was said that in the past some students did not understand that they had plagiarized someone else’s work. Nothing like planfully competent research fraud was addressed this year or last.  Last year, I found a different problem, an example of the mass mediated hyper reality of crime. 

What I do about this, whom I tell, and what I recommend are as yet undetermined.

Previously on Necessary Facts
Science Fairs and Science Frauds (2012)

Teaching Ethics to Student Engineers
Misconduct in Science and Research
Another Case of Fraud in University Research
20% of Scientists Are Crooks
Four Books about Bad Science

Also on Necessary Facts


1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete