The Nature of Science and Scientific Fraud

Dexter Perkins, University of North Dakota


There are two parts to this exercise but they are stand-alone if desired. The first part deals with the nature of science: what is science, what does it involve, and what makes science good? It is aimed at one particular paper but any paper could be used. The second part is about a heinous case of scientific fraud and the legal action associated with it. Probing questions make students think about the most important factors, implications, and questions.


This can be used in any class, but it focuses on the philosophy of science, scientific integrity, and ethics. The specific case discussed deals with identifying and naming new minerals, so this is best suited to students who have completed a mineralogy class.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
An understanding of mineralogy is most helpful.

How the activity is situated in the course
This is one of about a dozen investigation/writing exercises that students do in our Critical Thinking class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
  • What is science?
  • What motivates someone to be dishonest?
  • What is scientific fraud?
  • How should fraud be dealt with?

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
  • Good critical thinking skills and analytical skills are keys.

Other skills goals for this activity
  • Writing is an important part of this assignment.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

  • It deals with an unethical individual, describing what he did, and asking students to explain why.
  • It also, to some extent, addresses the motives and ethics of the professors who unearthed the deception.
  • It raises the question of what should be done when fraudulent activity is discovered.
  • It questions, in a very limited way, what the implications are when someone is known to have lacked scientific integrity in the past.

Description and Teaching Materials

First, students read about what constitutes science. Then they analyze a paper and discuss whether it is science or not, and to what degree.
Second, they find out that the paper they analyzed was fraudulent. They discuss this and try to figure out the motives of all people involved.
Third, they review the legal action that occurred that led to a graduate degree being revoked and decide whether it was correct or not.

Finally, they decide if there should be any implications now that the legal action has ended and the degree has been revoked.

Case Study Scenario

Who is responsible when a student publishes papers that are based on "faked" data? What should be done about it? What were the motives of the student, and of the faculty members who uncovered the problems? What is the responsibility of the University involved, and what should the University do? The University awarded a graduate degree to the student involved, but the University was arguably negligent in letting the papers get published -- do they now have the power to revoke a graduate degree?

Teaching Notes and Tips

There is plenty of fodder here for robust class discussion.

References and Resources

A list of key references is provided in the handout.