The first paper I published when I became a biologist was in the prestigious journal Nature, but it was completely wrong. I had used an unreliable technique to check the acidity of the chemical agent that I was adding to my sea-urchin eggs. I was devastated when I detected the error the following year and realised that my results were nonsense. I published a retraction as soon as possible but it still got into text books. But all that was long ago and my paper, like thousands of others, is confined to oblivion.
I am not alone in publishing results that turn out to be wrong. It happens all the time, not only among lowly biologists, but even among the high priests of particle physics. It is in the very nature of science that there is error which is gradually corrected by the community. Any paper that makes a significant contribution will be checked by others when they make use of the results and it is rare in the extreme for one set of results to dominate a field. Science progresses slowly by a curious remodelling of knowledge. While error can be disruptive in the short run, in the long term it is irrelevant.
Yet fraud is shocking, it is a betrayal of trust. Scientists operate under an unwritten injunction to be truthful and fair, but the United States Department of Health has considered it necessary to make this explicit because the scientific community may well have been too reluctant to deal with fraud and tended to bury it where possible. It can be traumatic for a member of a group or the head of a laboratory to discover fraud committed by a colleague. They just do not have the experience or structure to know how to handle it. But nor does anyone else as the recent famous case of the Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, which got seriously out of hand, would suggest. After 10 years, during which he and a colleague were repeatedly accused of presenting fraudulent material in a paper, and numerous investigations, which even included the attentions of the secret service, they have now been exonerated. …