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Scientific Fraud

16 August, 2016 - 14:30 -- John Burton
Basra Reed Warbler and young

For several years now I have been researching fraud and faking in a wide range of areas. My primary interest is in how duplicity affects my field, Restoration Ecology, but as is so often the case (with me at any rate) I keep getting side tracked. I got fascinated by fake antiquities in the nineteenth century market (which is still flourishing over a century later) and this led to an interest in 20th century fake paintings.  I was also very interested in fake ‘Indians’, the fake speech of Chief Seattle, and scientific frauds such as Piltdown man and the Hastings rarities

All the above are easy enough to research on the Internet, but one needs to be very careful in interpretation; in many cases the line between fakes, copies, and reproductions is blurred.  But the line is not ambiguous when someone deliberately sets out to deceive: that is fraud, particularly when it is for gain, whether or not it is for personal or pecuniary gain. One such example has been uncovered by World Land Trust Council member Richard Porter.

Richard is a friend going back into my serious birdwatching days of the early 1960s. After college and two years of ornithological expeditions to Turkey, Richard joined the RSPB and established their Investigations Unit. As former head of the RSPB ‘CID’, he is the ideal person to investigate fraud, and he is also an expert on the birds of the Middle East.

The contentious Basra Reed Warbler study

A paper was published on the ecology of the Basra Reed Warbler, a particularly rare species confined to the wetlands of Iraq, which named Richard in the Acknowledgements section despite him never being made aware of the study’s existence. The paper made a series of conclusions about the breeding biology of the bird without evidentiary support, such as “Males are often polygynous… Males usually occupy territories as large as approximately 1,500–2,000m² (possibly wider in reed beds with reduced visibility) so that they can practise deception by moving and attracting a second female, which does not realize that the male has already mated.”

Establishing polygyny (one male, multiple females) to this level of detail would require an intensive, long-term study, backed by a colour-ringing programme (how else would you separate males from females?) and placing camera traps on nests. No ringing scheme is in operation in Iraq and this claimed study was undertaken in just two years, at a time of serious tensions in Iraq, when such research would have been extremely dangerous.

After Richard brought this to our attention, 14 authors including Richard and myself submitted a Comment on the paper demonstrating the impossibility of such a study reaching the conclusions it did. Even more disturbing than the fraud or lack of contradiction during the editing process was that the supposedly reputable publisher has still not printed a refutation or withdrawal, only publishing our Comment and an Expression of Concern.

Scientific studies are rarely repeated

It is disturbing to come across fraud, because it is often very difficult to prove. The basis of scientific research is that methods should be explained sufficiently so studies can be repeated by subsequent researchers who will come to the same conclusions.

Unfortunately, experiments and field work are very rarely repeated for two basic reasons: first it is difficult to get funding to simply repeat research and second, in the case of research into wildlife undertaken in the field it is difficult, if not impossible to replicate exactly the original parameters under which the original research was conducted. Simple factors such as weather vary from year to year.

So we all need to be vigilant, and be aware that there is dodgy research out there and always question anything that does not seem right. I first had this brought home to me aged 12, when I repeated observations on jackdaws with which the great Konrad Lorenz had demonstrated inherited behaviour (which can be read in Chapter 11 of King Solomon’s Ring). My pet jackdaws did not exhibit this behaviour, an important lesson I have never forgotten.

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