Bad Scientists

Five years later

When we find ourselves in unknown and potentially dangerous situations, we try to get as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, and add it to what we already know, in order to be in control or at least to anticipate what might happen.
For this reason, when a new coronavirus rapidly spread around the world at the beginning of 2020, in six months producing half a million (most likely underestimated) confirmed deaths and dealing a severe blow to the way of life of the majority of our planet’s human inhabitants, we all turned to the scientific community for reliable information; for a moment, pseudoscience, more or less fallacious beliefs and all sorts of superstitions seemed to have gone out of fashion.
The expectations of the ordinary citizen, regardless of country or origin, could be summed up by the need to obtain unambiguous information, quickly and without too many uncertainties, about what was happening or could happen, with regard to the measures to be taken to mitigate the damage and the therapeutic measures available or being developed and soon to be available.
The answers given by the scientific community, or rather by a multitude of members of each sector of the scientific community, were not long in coming: under the pressure of public urgency, tens of thousands of scientific articles were published, with revision times stripped down to a minimum, while at the same time even more provisional documents were produced and released as preprints, without being reviewed and therefore potentially erroneous.
Meanwhile, on the initiative of governments or spontaneously, committees sprang up, and the media – TV, print media and social forums – were overrun by unprecedented numbers of clinicians, researchers, virologists, modellers and experts of all kinds.
Thus, for the first time in a long time, the public found themselves directly before both the scientific community and its main “offshoot”, scientific publications; and soon it became horribly clear that both are quite different from what they had been expecting.
Researchers began to communicate in an uncoordinated way, giving contradictory information, even squabbling publicly, and all at frantic speed due to social forums; scientific publications, previously considered the cornerstone of scientific robustness, in some cases revealed such cracks as to be recalled from even the most prestigious journals.
Instead of receiving orderly information, however incomplete, that satisfied its needs, the public witnessed something akin to a communicative disorder, that of fragmentation and disagreement among researchers, of an extreme and rapid proliferation of often inconclusive or contradictory scientific articles and, in general, of a continuous supply of an enormous amount of information, only a fraction of which reliable and which is hard to distinguish from what is tenuous or downright wrong.
Communication bubbles, formed by individual researchers or by groups of researchers and their social forum ‘followers’ (or should that be ‘fans’?), have come into conflict with each other, amplifying the chaos, not least under the opportunistic thrust of the traditional media, which have won back audience thanks to these gladiatorial shows. The end result has been that, from an initial propensity to trust that had not been seen for a long time, researchers and the scientific community soon suffered a communicative reversal of almost unheard-of proportions.
Under these conditions, I have become increasingly convinced that it is more important than ever to go back to reflecting on the defects and limitations of current scientific endeavour, not to contribute to worsening its image, but so that, by illustrating certain perverse mechanisms, readers may obtain the cognitive weapons needed to defend themselves against such distortions; and also because, conversely, they make useful, honest research stand out even more, the kind of research that gets, and will get us out of trouble or which may at least help us avoid ending up in even worse trouble.
At the root of this communicative disorder lies the difficulty in distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong or fraudulent; the book that the reader holds in his hands is precisely an attempt to provide some kind of system for making this distinction, with a chapter that has been added to give a broader look at what, although not scientific fraud, poisons the world-wide research community.
Remembering, in the end, that science is better than the scientists and that it will, by its own design, prevail in the long run over the distortions of the human endeavour from which it is spawned.


Last chapter:

The first half of 2020 was marked by the onset of a global pandemic, such as the world had not known for a century. The tiny RNA virus known as Sars-CoV-2, of the coronavirus family, started out in China and triggered a disaster of global proportions, giving us the measure of just how little our species is safe from similar catastrophes.
Of course, the best arms we have to combat this danger are research and scientific knowledge. For this reason, Sars-CoV-2 acted as a powerful catalyst and accelerator of biomedical research on coronavirus strains. Nevertheless, it caught many of us off guard since, more generally, it also amplified the weaknesses of the community and of modern science, which it exposed in a most unforgiving light.
Five years ago, when I wrote Bad Scientists, my main aim was to investigate scientific fraud, in relation to the fabrication, falsification or plagiarism of scientific data; but bad science obviously extends beyond fraud in the strictest sense of the word; in many ways, the very system that encourages scientific scammers also encourages even more harmful forms of behaviour, which have proven particularly virulent at precisely a time when honest, solid, data-based science is needed more than ever.
I believe it is right to go back on those findings, in order both to draw the scientific community’s attention once again to the systemic defects that today are being shown up more than ever, and also to bring to the attention of everyone certain facts to remember when evaluating news that is relayed directly from the scientific literature and scientists to all media forms. Otherwise there is the risk that the perception of what we really know about a given issue will end up distorted.
Let us start by examining, one by one, the principal distorting factors that can debase the value of the scientific profession, starting from certain pre-existing conditions or, to put it another way, certain systemic distortions which I and many others have been denouncing for years now.
In the first place, I feel it is right to mention the detrimental effect that the emergence and bolstering of the massive and highly lucrative scientific publishing market have historically had on scientific production and debate. It should be remembered that one of the most profitable businesses today – much more, say, than Apple or Google – is that of the major scientific publishers, which get the maximum return on their investments and have a market of hundreds of millions of “consumers” worldwide. This market was set up through a number of very specific steps:

a) by replacing the old scientific journals, which previously served mainly as bulletins and reports of discussions that took place in academic circles, with a new concept of journal, the purpose of which was to present new items, as yet unapproved by the scientific community, in order to maximise interest in reading the articles;

b) by exploiting the brand name, i.e. the name of prestigious, historic scientific journals, in order to create entire chains of affiliated journals which tend to attract more publications when they share a famous name;

c) by creating a quantitative metric with which to assess institutions and individual researchers, based on the number of citations received and essentially therefore on the level of dissemination of the scientific publications, which are the vehicle for the citations, accordingly transforming scientific journals from reports on what the community was producing to arbiters of the quality of the science produced, certified through the citations received (a quantity that can only be measured with the collaboration of scientific publishers);

d) by minimising costs, essentially by eliminating labour costs, through transfer of management of the journals and the peer-review process to the scientific community, without however paying it for the work done (which ranges from production to evaluation and management of the journals), while taking advantage of the incentive given by control of the journals and peer review process as a way of furthering careers and managing successes in the scientific community itself (to the extent that sitting on an editorial board is now considered an achievement to be included on a CV);

e) the additional income made through the Open Source system paid for by the authors of scientific works, which provides a sure return not when a subscription is sold, but when an article is published, doing away with the need for any subscription marketing effort;

f) proliferation of the journals both through sectorisation and through differentiation of their strictness of acceptance standards, thus creating a niche for everyone, provided they pay;

g) dematerialisation of the journals, the large majority of which are now disseminated electronically and which only rarely have to be printed (in relation to the total number of articles sold).

Let us start with the first step. The role of scientific journals today has changed greatly compared to their original role of disseminating knowledge that had already been discussed and validated by large groups of scientists in academic circles. In particular, the key critical function of today’s journals is to lay claim to the first description of results and to receive the scientific credit that comes from doing so. To be given a job or to fund a laboratory, researchers must demonstrate how promising their research is through the recognition received from journals that have agreed to publish their results. This element – the function of “certifying” the relevance of a given research activity – attributes a prominent role to scientific journals and their editorial boards not just only in disseminating scientific knowledge but also in selecting it; this is obviously enough to give scientific publication massive promotion as an objective for researchers and research institutions, thereby greatly benefiting the market.
Having created “demand” among researchers – i.e. that of having as many as possible of the papers produced in their laboratories published – the second point now comes into play: the multiplication of the vehicles for these publications which, in the same way as commercial products, draw maximum advantage from the names of historic, prestigious journals, recognised by the scientific community as being generally interesting and useful. The mechanism is as follows: specific journals are produced that bear the original journal’s trademark for each sector: thus, for example, the journal “Nature” has “spawned” a number of other journals, such as “Nature Communications”, “Nature Genetics”, “Nature Biotechnology”, “Nature Medicine”, etc. Differentiation of the offer, just as in all markets where demand is on the rise.
If the products are different, however, it is also appropriate to differentiate their “value” in the eyes of the “purchaser”: this has been done with a metric called “impact factor”, which essentially depends on the number of citations received by articles in a given journal each year. In this way, the value of the journal is linked to a metric that does not necessarily reflect the quality of the published research, but rather the article’s ability to reach a wide audience of researchers, drawing citations from them, either because the story that is told is an interesting one (which does not necessarily mean it is scientifically robust) or because citing that particular work ensures that more citations will be received in return.
But if journals are evaluated on the number of citations they receive (which, from a commercial point of view, makes perfect sense, being a measure of their audience), why not evaluate researchers and institutions in the same way? An index, known as the H index, which is even used to evaluate the career promotions of individual researchers today, has therefore been adopted; inextricably linking the quantity of articles published by an individual to the judgment that the individual receives once again benefits the scientific publishing market, with the demand for publication thus guaranteed as a factor used to evaluate scientific endeavour.
Now let us move on to the cost aspect, the fourth point on our initial list: with demand for the product guaranteed, profit can be maximised by cutting costs. One of the ways in which this can be done is to incentivise work done for free by researchers. For not only do they produce what will be published (and which, in the end, they will purchase for the reasons already seen), but they are also used as free labour for journal management, i.e. they guarantee review of the articles submitted and steer the editorial boards of the journals. In actual fact, little needs to be done because if publishing is so important for a scientist’s career and recognition, the scientists will want to play a part in the process of selecting what is going to be published. There is intense competition to sit on the boards of the most important journals, and millions of researchers review their colleagues’ work free of charge for scientific publishers, or they oblige ever younger students to perform the task in their place (with the excuse that they are “grooming” them for a future role as active members of the scientific community).
The next point on our list is an extra step, intended to minimise not costs, but the risk of not being sold (already low for reasons outlined above). It takes the form of idea originally conceived to break up the scientific publishing market, in which scientific publications are made available to anyone free of charge (Open Source). Of course, the individual researchers who decide to adopt such a model may also be drawn by the fact that their publications, being accessible to all for free, are also cited more often; but what has really distorted this idea is that the authors of “Open Source” articles have been asked to pay as much as 5,000-6,000 dollars for each article, and the possibility that they have of asking the institutions they work for to refund them for these costs. By encouraging the Open Source model behind the apparently philanthropic decision to make scientific knowledge accessible to all, scientific publishers are actually guaranteeing themselves a profit at the time an asset is produced, regardless of whether that asset is then sold (in the form of a subscription to a scientific journal or the purchase of a single article). Thus the risk of not being sold is eliminated.
I feel that nothing more needs to be said about the last two points on our initial list, namely the proliferation of journals (to satisfy all tastes and meet demand) and the further decrease in costs, due to the digitisation and dissemination of content via the Internet; on the other hand I am interested in stressing how the mechanism created via these steps to maximise scientific publishers’ profit has had significant consequences on the process of consolidation of scientific knowledge, all on account of the incentives given to those researchers who manage to attract more attention than others.
The situation is degenerating to the point where we are now witnessing the flourishing of an illegitimate market, generated by the competition for publication: that of predatory publishing and pseudoscientific publishing.
There are entire production chains of scientific articles based on bogus data, which can be purchased for a few hundred euros including publication, and there are plenty of scientific journals whose sole purpose is to publish whatever is submitted to them, without any revision, in exchange for payment.
This predatory market in turn puts the “traditional” scientific publishing market at risk; if, on the one hand, the result can be a “quality certification”, through the recognition of specific indexes (such as those due to databases and software such as Scopus, PubMed, ISI index, etc.), on the other hand there is no doubt that journals of lesser quality are being produced even by publishers such as Elsevier – to satisfy anyone – when they are not buying journals dedicated to pseudoscience or pseudomedicines.
Faced with the wide range of vehicles for his articles, and under the pressure of the incentives described above, it can be expected that an honest researcher will tend to publish as much and as quickly as possible (making as many attempts as possible to receive citations), and will try to get into journals that are considered as wielding greater power in terms of the number of citations they attract (i.e. journals of long-standing prestige and their offshoots), ultimately trying to get onto an editorial board (after which access to publication, through editorials, letters, comments, and so on, is easier).
A dishonest researcher (or more and more often often a club of dishonest researchers) will send papers with weak or fraudulent data for publication, invent stories to attract attention, seek friends on editorial boards so as to publish more easily, falsify reviews of his own works (making sure that the papers submitted are sent directly to him, rather than to independent reviewers) and, as a reviewer, will block competitors’ papers, perhaps even appropriating their results and their ideas in his own publication.
Note that, under the conditions listed above, where career and funding resources are scarce, dishonest researchers will tend to prevail in Darwinian fashion where there is no adequate system of control and punishment. And, unfortunately, such a control system today has a strong conflict of interest, given that vigilance and prevention occur mainly on a social basis. For it is the scientific community itself that investigates and establishes whether someone is behaving incorrectly and whether those who are guilty of such behaviour should be sanctioned by being ostracised. This means that if there are sectors in which there is no competition between groups of researchers of equal prestige and power, but there is instead a single, cohesive group of scientists at the top, punishments will at most be inflicted on members with little influence who are caught cheating, but fraud at the top levels, if it serves to hold on to control or if disclosing it is dangerous for the stability of the elite, will be largely tolerated.
Indeed, since the very mechanism of incentives to fraud based on scientific citation and the ensuing bibliometric evaluation is in the hands of the elite that controls scientific publication by controlling editorial boards, it may in the end be said that it is seen favourably, as a means of consolidating their academic and scientific power. In this way a bond is forged between the original interest, of a commercial nature, coming from outside the scientific community, and those who direct and control the scientific community at the top and who are keen to hold on to their role as gatekeepers.
In this way, scientific publication has become the goal, the yardstick, the instrument of power and source of gain of a broad community with multiple interests.

Having discussed the role of the scientific publishing market, it is now time to present a second distorting factor, which may also derail scientific discussion and push research in erroneous directions, often leading to scientific method being abandoned precisely when it would be absolutely necessary to adhere to it.
This factor is the possibility offered to any researcher by social media, and to many of them by traditional media (newspapers and TV), to communicate directly with the public. Bear in mind that it has now been demonstrated, data in hand, that communicating one’s results published on social media such as Twitter leads to an increase in citations received, on average four times higher, according to a recent study. For the same reason, the press offices of scientific institutions around the world compete to sign up journalists because, besides the fact that a story recognised as “sexy” and “important”, combined with the name of certain researchers, can guarantee them a good sequence of future publications in major journals, what they are currently working on will be recognised “high-impact” (at least until the public gets fed up with it).
The race for communication, ultimately triggered by the hunger for the impact of a citation and more generally by the need to make the public see what one is working on as being important in order to benefit from it when competing for funds, can also be disguised as an urgent need to communicate something important as a moral duty. In reality this urgency is highly damaging, since it leads to communication even before publication, and undoubtedly to the communication of scientific publications not yet assessed for their effective weight by the scientific community, but only – at best – by two or three anonymous reviewers (and hopefully not by friends of the authors).

With respect to the due considerations of those who would like the public to be informed of the results funded by public funds, this goes even further, because instead of providing consolidated and well thought-out information, duly trimmed to show what has been achieved in the best possible light, what we actually have is an incentive to send a message as soon as possible, one that is stronger and more attractive than all the others, like the frog in a pond that has to croak louder than the others to make itself heard. In short, here again a competition is triggered for the ability to reach and convince as many people as possible in the shortest time possible, without any interest in reaching a real understanding of what has been done.
Another consequence of the tyranny of time is immediate communication – i.e. communication that is not mediated by those who, through their profession or personal attitude, would be able to avoid polarisation of subject matter, cognitive traps and the researcher’s affection for his own result. At the same time, just as instant communication generates interesting shows for the public, this type of television and journalistic media feed and help the researcher’s communicative bulimia, born out of necessity, but which soon becomes a habit.
This distorted discussion has an effect not only on the public, but also on the researchers themselves who, in fact, are increasingly unable to examine their colleagues’ results properly, but find themselves superficially pursuing their communications, generating in turn communication based on impressions, beliefs and bias of their own and of others. Scientific debate, the key element of scientific endeavour that advances research, ends up being dispersive, futile and empty, quite apart from often heading in the wrong direction.
The third distorting factor to which I would like to draw the reader’s attention is the different model of preparation that has been provided to almost all recent generations of researchers, with glaring examples in the field of biomedicine, but to be found in all scientific disciplines.
Modern schools and universities, as well as the teachers that each of us has encountered in our lives, no longer shape individuals possessing the general foundations of the various scientific disciplines, but tend to encourage excellent specialists, with great experimental skills (for the disciplines requiring them) and who are, of course, reasonably capable of playing successfully according to the above rules – right from the outset of their career, since many research doctorates now require the publication of a minimum number of papers. We “no longer waste time” in providing either the language common to all science, which in essence is the basic minimum of mathematical analysis and statistics, or the general cognitive framework, which is that of scientific method and the logical and philosophical bases of science itself. This means that, for example, in my discipline – biochemistry and cell biology – generally speaking, there are very few people who understand what they do from a quantitative point of view, even at advanced career levels, where by “understanding from a quantitative point of view” I mean having as second nature the ability to evaluate the limits and uncertainties of their hypotheses and results, without having recourse to statistical formulae applied automatically (often mistakenly or in an incomplete way, moreover). Rarely will you find a molecular biologist capable of or interested in talking with a physicist, because both have lost the general intellectual framework within which to conduct scientific reasoning of common interest, and because at least one of the two – most likely the biologist, I have to admit – has not even mastered the basic terminology to enable him to express his reasoning in such a way as to be understood by the physicist. At CERN in Geneva or in a laboratory at Stanford, the physicist and the biologist will undoubtedly shine. But when they have to deal with a discussion on the COVID-19 epidemic and the future that awaits us, it will be difficult for their conversation to go beyond a level that is of little interest to either of them, and certainly not very productive – not because of their lack of preparedness, but because of their inability to communicate.
In disciplines other than physics or engineering, it was believed that computers could overcome the problem of the elementary command of the quantitative approach to reality; conversely, engineers and physicists embark every day on numerical exercises that ignore the very foundations of the physical reality to which they would like to apply them, as soon as they venture out of their specific spheres of ​​competence. In both cases, it is hard to reflect on what is being done, because they are lacking in the necessary mental coordinates, coordinates which epistemology, a common minimum grounding in mathematics, probability and life sciences provided for the majority, not just a minority, of members of the scientific community in the last century.
After all, how can we blame those who, in today’s scientific world, do not have the time to study anything other than what they need to publish quickly and “well” (i.e. in esteemed journals) in their discipline?
The fourth and final distorting element, which emerged with particular virulence during the recent pandemic crisis, is the effect of the politicisation of scientific debate.
Too many researchers find politics an attraction that is hard to resist because, beyond the few who intend to change career, many see it as offering an opportunity to influence a country’s governance in the best possible way – that is, by bringing consolidated facts and knowledge – and all the more so in an emergency situation.
However, in actual fact scientists and researchers are poorly equipped for political gamesmanship, unless it is a very simplified version of what takes place in academia. For this reason, they are used by politicians like playing cards and like jokers to be expended in establishing ad hoc committees, assigning appointments to experts in vogue and of the right persuasion, selecting those researchers whose words can help conceal a responsibility, confirm a choice that has actually already been made due to other interests or even give prestige to some commission or other.
The researcher believes he is making an impact, while the politician is the champion of compromise and adaptation to current circumstances. Before taking on impromptu appointments, researchers should therefore ask themselves why our country has no stable and institutionally appointed bodies through which the scientific community can make its voice heard in the political arena and whose leaders are independent of political appointment.
Instead, many scientists fall into the trap and into adulation; at this point, however, their words are seen by the public as being partisan, favouring the party that appointed them, naturally, and scientific debate is immediately tainted by political polarisation, producing as a reaction extreme hypotheses, absolute certainties, incompetent people, the rise of heroes and the fall of former stars.
Bodies that can provide the necessary expertise to the country in any situation should be set up systematically not by politicians, but by the scientific community; in Italy, and also in other countries, data, facts and scientific opinions are instead processed by bodies that are far from being independent of politics.
Without going any further into the analysis, scientific endeavour globally should have collapsed long ago, for the aforementioned reasons alone, suffocated by being pushed in directions quite different from that of the quest to understand how the world functions: so why has this not (yet) happened?
First of all, I believe we must invoke an essential characteristic of science – real science – and that is the fascination it exerts over our brains, or at least over a not insignificant number of human minds. Being able to understand how things are, probably due to evolutionary reasons that have shaped our brains in this way, presupposes a knowledge of how to tell the difference between choosing a worse explanation, the result of conceptual errors, bias and beliefs, for example, and a better one, that has been arrived at through a method that ensures the selection of what works best.
This intrinsic characteristic, which I believe can already be activated in the brains of the vast majority of children, but also in many adults, is ultimately what led to the very birth of scientific thought and its affirmation over other systems of interpreting reality, without taking into account the latitudes and populations involved.
The satisfaction of understanding: it may seem strange, but this may be the most powerful antidote to the many opposing forces that – despite driving researchers to hasty but brilliant conclusions, to fantastic accounts and preliminary results not based on data – makes at least some people who are dedicated to science relatively immune to the very strong corrupting power of the mistaken system of incentives that we have built up under the pressure of an extremely lucrative market. This satisfaction of understanding is what drives some scientists to want to fully understand research produced by others, irrespective of whether they are the authors of a given result. It is also why at least the main errors or frauds in science do not survive for very long, beyond the destiny and prestige of their followers.
Even now, I believe it is this that makes science better than any one scientist – the fact that is influenced by this fascination for understanding in itself, a fascination which is such a powerful driver that, if it were to hold sway in the minds of even just a few members of the research community, it could push them to spend time reading mountains of publications, making mountains of accounts, and also checking what others are doing, in the effort to really understand.
The second element that plays a role in defending scientific knowledge from the onslaught of the market and the communication spectacle is to be found, in my opinion, precisely in the appearance of online discussions between scientists themselves, and not just between the scientists and the general public. That which until a few years ago was a pioneering effort to create virtual environments for discussion, because researchers in search of visibility share their research on social forums, has become a confusion of groups in which the individual works published, or at least the most sensational of these, or those with the most practical or theoretical consequences, are dissected, digested and criticised at inconceivable speeds.
So, for example, in 13 days it was possible to demolish the pseudoscience on chloroquine and COVID-19 published in the “Lancet”, by sharing a global discussion, in stark contrast to the years that it took for the “Lancet” to retract another fraudulent publication – Wakefield’s report on vaccines and autism.
We must of course be careful because this discussion is beyond control also from the viewpoint of the method, and can lead to polarisation, virtual aggressions or other undesirable effects. But if it could perhaps be brought to a slightly more certified level, so that, for example, the general public would not be influenced before the discussion is over, and that scientists could not be pilloried by anonymous stalkers, I believe that it could at least partly put a brake on pure online “scientific marketing” to which certain people dedicate their time.
The wide-ranging, extended scientific discussion on immediately available data, in other words, only needs to find a more appropriate “home”, rather than taking place in the public virtual fora; I still believe that this is an opportunity, and that sooner or later a better format will emerge for what is happening on social media today.
And now, I would like to close by recalling the last of the elements that apparently allows science to resist the systemic corruption of its community: research, real, solid research which, albeit perhaps at a slower rate, produces solutions that have the great advantage of working or working better. For bad science is also in competition with good science, and one good scientific result – for example an honest piece of research, solidly anchored on irrefutable facts and numbers, which leads to a drug for Sars-CoV-2 – has the undoubted advantage of sweeping away even thousands of weak or fraudulent scientific publications, when the treated patients recover, while the solutions invented to force a way into the limelight, without an improbable stroke of luck, will fail.
The desire to find solutions, the curiosity to understand how things are and the ability to efficiently verify the predictions deriving from certain assumptions will continue to be wired into the brains of many human beings; and if the physiology of cognition of our species does not change radically, science as a method of acquiring knowledge, a product of that physiology, will still manage to make headway even in the maze of traps set by the society that we ourselves have created, even if we should temporarily lose part of the consolidated knowledge that we have acquired.
While it may be true that there have never been so many incentives for bad science, and that this costs us dearly in terms of the economy, health and bad choices, but as long as there is even just one inquiring mind who wants to understand how things are and who uses scientific method to produce better solutions than the others, bad science will not manage to destroy good research.




The book in brief
The integrity of research has been tainted in recent years by ever deeper cracks and scandals have broken out of the confines of the scientific community, reaching the traditional media and lending support to those who try to delegitimise the only reliable medium of knowledge of the natural world: scientific method.
In reviewing stories of fabrication of bogus data, cases of falsification and plagiarism, Enrico Bucci shows how the ability to understand is the most powerful antidote to the many forces that, over time, have pushed researchers to brilliant but hasty conclusions, to fantastic tales not based on data, for instance the “Frankenstein” style molluscs of Giuseppe Gioeni d’Angiò, unmasked by Babbage in 1830, the passage of comets that never actually happened but which were very well documented by Jean Auguste D’Angos, the alleged “adjustments” of Mendel’s data revealed by Ronald Fisher, the Leibnitz-Newton controversy over publication dates, and the fabrication of data by Russian chemist Viktor Ninov to invent new chemical elements.

If we were to stop here we could be amused or terrified by the bad scientists the author speaks of, but these questions would remain unanswered: if the incentives to commit scientific fraud are so strong, and the control mechanisms so ineffective, just how widespread is fraud? And, therefore, just how contaminated is scientific literature?

Basing himself on statistical data, Bucci comes to a disturbing conclusion: 15% of scientific publications are hiding a greater or lesser degree of fraud. Out of ten million researchers, around 1,260,000 would appear to be dishonest. When evaluated with statistical parameters – number of publications and citations – researchers are both victims and executioners at the same time, prisoners of the “publish or perish” infernal circle.

When Sars-CoV-2 spread around the world in early 2020, the responses of the scientific community were not long in coming. The pandemic acted as a powerful catalyst and accelerator of biomedical research: tens of thousands of articles were published, often without the necessary revision. Research attained a new dimension, leading to a proliferation of predatory and pseudoscientific publications, further compounded by the fact that every researcher can communicate directly with the public, via social forums, newspapers and TV, in a polarised and often politicised manner.

For this reason we must embrace scientific method, which has given us an impressive quantity of facts and descriptions that are consistent, universal in the quantitative language used and unified within a general framework which, though constantly evolving and open to improvement, is by far the most impressive cultural construct our species has ever produced.

The book is written in a very accessible language, and is organized as follows:

• Five years later (new introductory chapter)
The Covid-19 pandemic, the scientific community’s response and the communicative disorder.
• Why we believe electricians and scientists, a very basic understanding of what science is, so to let people understand clearly its value.
• Knowing sin: what is fraud in Science?, a definition of scientific misconduct by some international examples, to let the reader understand which how scientists twist the truth when they commit fraud.
• The reward for fraud: power, a career and money, discuss what motivate scientists into committing a fraud.
• System factors: mechanisms for assessing and picking out bad scientists, how the current structure of the scientific enterprise is inherently favoring certain types of misconduct.
• The extent of the disaster: facts and figures, the reader “touch with his hand” the damages produced by the scientific misconduct, well over the customary interpretation of scientific fraud as being a simple waste of money.
• A new immune system: how to save research, how the scientific community is reacting, who are the people facing the problem and what are they doing to introduce a new way of discussing any scientific result, so to increase transparence and decrease frauds.
• The bad science pandemic: the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how bad science goes beyond scientific fraud as such and spills over, with serious consequences, into the race for communication on social media, the loss of a language common to the different scientific disciplines and the politicisation of the scientific debate.
• Conclusions: a final appeal to the reader, in appreciating and defending the beauty and the value of Science.
• Appendix: a summary of the main concepts