Why I urge vigilance against scientific fraud

September 7, 2001

It seems that there is an "epidemic of falsification" in science, from outright fakery of results to the "massaging of data". Fortunately the phenomenon remains rare, involving only occasional bad apples in the barrel, with one estimate claiming just one fraud a year for every 100,000 scientists.

Fraud in archaeology is nothing new. Instances of mendacity by Heinrich Schliemann are well known, as are infamous cases of fakery such as Piltdown or Glozel. However, a new book by archaeologist Oscar White Muscarella suggests that more than 1,200 fake antiquities are displayed in the world's leading museums.

It appears that in recent times the phenomenon has been increasing and diversifying, as in all other branches of science. Some of this can be blamed on the increased "mediatisation" of the field, where it can be important in order to further one's career.

There are many kinds of dishonesty, such as claiming to have made discoveries of sites or research breakthroughs that are actually already known - the media seldom checks and generally prints what it is told. Meanwhile, some scholars seem to spend their time cynically conjuring up sexy soundbites about the past - often involving sex, drugs, cannibalism and the like.

The dumbed-down media deserves much of the blame. Many newspapers and magazines have grown reluctant to accord any space to archaeology unless the story is one that will "cause the textbooks to be rewritten". And to succeed on television, archaeology programmes need some kind of formula or "hook" involving "mysteries" or reconstructions or a race against time.

But dishonesty in archaeology can take many other forms for which the media cannot be blamed: the distortion or extremely partisan selection of evidence; exaggerated claims (such as that of being able to "read" rock art, a perennial favourite); the prevention of colleagues' access to objects or data; the prevention of publication by critics or opponents, together with blockage of their representation in the media; passing oneself off as having a higher degree or a more important position than one actually has; ferocious and bullying reactions to the slightest criticism, aimed especially at intimidating younger colleagues; failure to cite scholars who have already reached the same conclusions, or who have previously discovered or studied the same material (supervisors of research have been known to usurp the ideas and findings of their graduate students). And then there is plagiarism and, its computer-age cousin, the theft of other people's photographs through scanning and re-publication without permission or credit.

All of these problems doubtless permeate academia as a whole, but it is in archaeology that I have encountered all of the above to an increasing degree in recent years. Careers have been boosted, reputations made and enhanced, salaries raised and honours awarded because the perpetrators have indulged in these kinds of dishonesty. Too often, nobody has felt able or courageous enough to point the finger and expose them; no one, least of all the media, has checked the facts; and, anyway, most people find it hard to believe that scholars would lie and cheat so brazenly.

We need to be vigilant. The healthy reaction to a spectacular claim is profound scepticism and peer review. But it will be difficult to find ways of exposing fraudulent or improper behaviour, while avoiding the kind of blatantly false or vindictive accusations - such as racism or of doctoring data - of which we have also seen some notable examples in archaeology in recent years.

This is an extract from Antiquity magazine, the September issue of which focuses on the impact of the media on archaeological knowledge and practice. Details: http://intarch.ac.uk/antiquity

Paul Bahn is an archaeologist and writer specialising in prehistoric art.

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