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Schön Shown the Door

By Alexander Hellemans, Contributing Editor

Investigation of star Bell Labs researcher stops just short of declaring his work bogus

15 October 2002—When charges surfaced earlier this year that work published by Lucent Bell Labs researcher Jan Hendrik Schön might be seriously flawed, the general hope and perhaps even expectation was that defects would prove minor or incidental and could be attributed to mere carelessness or overzealousness. With the release at the end of September of a blue-ribbon investigative report, all such hopes have been completely dashed.

"There is a massive tendency of misrepresentation and altering of data. It is almost unimaginable what happened," observes physicist Arthur Hebard of the University of Florida in Gainesville, accurately capturing the prevailing mood. (Hebard was one of the many who had tried to replicate some of Schön’s results.)

Over the past few years, the 32-year-old German-born physicist had produced a stunning series of papers at a rate of close to one per week, reporting what seemed to be seminal work in several fields: superconductivity in fullerenes and polymers, new organic field-effect transistors, and even a one-molecule transistor. Schön claimed to have done the work both at Lucent Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., and at the University of Konstanz, in Germany, and all the papers had coauthors.

Then, last May, several researchers drew attention to oddities in some of his papers—duplication of data in graphs, for example, and identical sections in different graphs supposedly representing the electrical behavior of entirely different samples. Meanwhile, concern had mounted among scientists having difficulty reproducing many of Schön’s more spectacular results [see "Identical Graphs Chart a Dubious Picture," IEEE Spectrum, July, pp. 20–21].

Lucent responded quickly and set up a five-member independent investigative panel, which was led by Stanford’s Malcolm Beasley and included IEEE Medal of Honor recipients Herwig Kogelnik and Herbert Kroemer [see interview with Kroemer]. Its report, released by the lab on 25 September, is a devastating indictment of Schön, who was immediately dismissed. At least by implication, the report also raises serious questions about Schön’s supervision and the laboratory’s management.


Conduct unbecoming
The panel scrutinized 24 cases of alleged misconduct and found clear signs of it in 16. "The evidence that manipulation and misrepresentation of data occurred is compelling," concluded the panel. "At a minimum, Schön showed reckless disregard for the sanctity of data in the value system of science."

The panel grouped the 24 allegations in three categories: "data substitution," "unrealistic precision," and "contradictory physics"; each of the allegations is discussed in detail in Appendix E of the report. A striking case of data substitution, for example, was the similarity in the graphs obtained from inverters created with self-assembled monolayer organic field-effect transistors (SAMFETs), single-molecule transistors, and pentacene transistors.

A case of unrealistic precision, highlighted in the body of the report, was Schön’s treatment of the breakdown strengths in the insulating layers of aluminum oxide that he used to insulate the SAMFET transistor channel from the gate electrode. The panel found that the breakdown strengths fit a Gaussian distribution to a highly improbable degree, suggesting that Schön had generated the reported strengths out of whole cloth, using equations.

As an example of results inconsistent with stated device parameters and prevailing physical understanding, the report cites measurements done on a unipolar inverter: though both transistors were n-types, the inverter’s reported behavior corresponded uncannily to what one would expect from a complementary inverter with one n-type and one p-type transistor.

An especially shocking finding was Schön’s inability to produce laboratory notebooks or computer records of his experimental work. Meticulous maintenance of lab notebooks is, of course, standard procedure in research and a sacred tradition at Bell Labs. "If you cannot document your results, they should not count," observes Paul McEuen, a physics professor at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.), one of the first to blow the whistle on Schön.


Collaborators cleared
The panel’s report completely cleared Schön’s collaborators—notably Zhenan Bao and Christian Kloc, as well as his superior Bertram Batlogg—of any scientific misconduct. Bao and Kloc were found to have supplied materials to Schön but not to have directly participated in his experiments [See "Who’s Responsible?"].

Schön’s inability to document the experiments leaves them, and the journals that published the articles they cosigned, in an awkward position. Should the articles be retracted, and what is the procedure for doing that? [See "Taking It All Back"]

In the absence of documentation, and in light of Schön’s inability to reproduce some of his own reported results when challenged by the panel, speculation is rife about what happened. Did he, in a panic, destroy computer data and lab notebooks wholesale? Or did he, in fact, never perform some of the experiments in the first place?

In a response to the panel’s report published as an appendix, Schön maintains that "all the scientific publications that I prepared were based on experimentation." And he has his defenders. Norbert Karl at the University of Stuttgart in Germany says he has "no doubt" that the experiments are real. "Those measurements are fitting into what we know," says Karl.

The more common view, though, is that Schön’s results fit what was thought was known only too well, and that they too well confirmed ideas of Schön’s mentor, Batlogg, of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich. Batlogg, himself a star, well known for his work in superconductivity, and a former head of the solid-state physics division at Bell Labs, signed 17 of the 24 disputed Schön papers.

To judge from the cautious language of the report, Batlogg’s role as a manager and cosignatory had the panel in rather a quandary. "The committee concluded that the coauthors...have, in the main, met their responsibilities, but that in one case questions remain that the committee felt unqualified to resolve, given the absence of a broader consensus on the nature of the responsibilities of participants in collaborative research endeavors."

Many in the community feel that Batlogg got away too lightly in the report, says Hebard—though, he adds, "if you read between its lines, then maybe he did not get off so easily."

In a statement that he circulated to concerned fellow scientists and also provided to Spectrum, Batlogg expressed contrition: "As coauthor I acknowledge a responsibility to ensure the validity of data in publications. I have learned, with the deepest of regrets, that the control measures I took in this extraordinary case were not adequate…I had placed too much trust in my collaborator. What had worked well in the past failed in this case of intentional wrong-doing."

To download the full report go to http://www.lucent.com/news_events/researchreview.html.

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