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« forces of nature | Main | taking the gloves off »


At the risk of responding to the catchy opening rather than the substance of the post, there was also a Law & Order episode along exactly those lines (advisor steals student's idea, student sends letter bomb to advisor, ends up killing advisor's ex-wife by mistake). The idea involved methods for searching for proton decay. The explanation given under interrogation about the various channels in which one might look for a decaying proton was much more clear than I have ever heard in an ordinary scientific documentary. (We're talking Michael-Moriarty-era L&O, if I may date myself.)

Considering that Law & Order reruns are featured nearly 24-7 on cable TV, you're in little danger of dating yourself. You just claim you saw it "in syndication." :)

I'm guessing the planned Web site won't suggest sending a letter bomb as a possible solution to the dilemma. I certainly hope note. Some things should stay in the realm of fiction.

I believe there was a case almost exactly like this at Columbia involving a math grad student. As I recall he filed a complaint, but the panel sided with the prof.

There was also an incident involving a prominent string theorist now at MIT who allegedly stole from one of his colleagues. This one was more or less hushed up.

The details of the Columbia case mentioned by the previous commenter can be found here:

The case is an almost exact replica of the hypothetical scenario you describe.

Hmm, I suppose this item is more about Piltdown Man than about Fleischmann and Pons.

Or is it?

Is it worse to be honest yet proven wrong, or deceitful yet believed?

Do the ends justify the means?

Sorry for the rhetorical questions; I may ponder this further over a DVD rental of "Rashamon" and a bottle of red wine.


Whoops, I think that's "Rashomon" in Ingles.


The post is about things like Piltdown Man AND Pons and Fleischmann, possibly even those wacky guys who made the crop circles, thereby inspiring all kinds of UFO rumors --all part of a big murky area where context can change everything. Here's a few more rhetorcal food for thought? Is it okay to deceive if you later claim it's a joke? Would you have copped to the joke if you hadn't been found out?

And I am one of those people who believe that the end does NOT always justify the means....

"Rashomon" is one of the greats, along with "Seven Samurai."

Interesting to read about the Columbia math dept case and the other hypothetical scenarios....

In my own field of condensed matter experiment, such an act of a professor stealing outright from a student is not only almost unthinkable, but in fact almost unworkable being that the nature of the work is usually very collaborative. Professors cannot hope to raise funds, teach, stay abreast of the literature, brainstorm brilliantly about data interpretation, etc. etc. and also babysit an apparatus 20 hours a day. There is no expectation of that, so there is no sense in which anyone would benefit from an idea or data stolen. The student typically gets first authorship and the professor the final slot. The community knows who is in charge of the lab.

Moreover, after you have your full professorship and a few prizes, prestige eventually accrues to those who have placed and promoted people in OTHER departments. If you are the sort where prestige and power matters much, such narrow self-interest is not served by hogging all the credit for oneself.

This is not to say that students are not mistreated in other nasty ways; by being overworked, having their summer stipends cut, getting displaced from first authorship on a paper for a postdoc, or never being sent to Tahiti on a conference boondoggle...but I think outright stealing essentially never happens in the US and Europe. I do know of a few ocassions in Asia where students were not included on a major paper after having made the discoveries themselves.

There's an interesting post today over at The Scientific Activist (courtesy of Nick Anthis) on Nature's decision to do a trial run of an online "open peer review" process.

That's definitely a comment thread worth following as people start to weigh in...

I've been thinking about this blog item (and watched Kurosawa's classic), and I've decided that It's All About Marketing.

For the most part, people believe what they want to believe.
Many people believe that the Earth and the Heavens were created in 6 days roughly 6,000 years ago.
Some folks believe that if they die trying to kill infidels, that they'll go to Paradise (featuring 72 hourii service).

With the right Marketing Strategy and Campaign, people can be led to believe such things as an invasion of Iraq is justified because the government there has close ties to al Quaida *and* posseses WMDs, that a Third Reich and Lebenstraum managed by the Nazis was a holy destiny, that the Monkees are a REAL band, that Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is a must-see movie, that Paris Hilton has anything of value to add to Western Civilization, that Darth Vader killed Luke's father, that we REALLY need a Constitutional Ammendment banning same-sex marriage, or that Woo Suk Hwang was able to make significant advances in transferring human cell nuclei.

Do scientists have higher ethical and moral standards as anyone else? We'd like to think so, but first and foremost, they're human, and as succeptible to temptation and compromise as any other person. As long as human minds have financial and political value, some people will continue to do damn near anything to get us to believe them. Marketers earn a living employing methods - some of them rather scientific - to do just that.

I believe I'll have another bottle of wine.


Be positively obsessive-compulsive when it comes to record-keeping, because you otherwise you won't remember precisely how you had the experiment set up when you come back from vacation!

bob isn't a squid, he's a cuttlefish

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