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Research Scandal May Hang Up Future of Telecommunications

October 06, 2002|A. MICHAEL NOLL | A. Michael Noll is a professor and former dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.

The scandal at Bell Labs involving the fabrication by Jan Hendrik Schon of scientific results may well be the final period in the history of that great research institution.

Yet the issues unearthed by the scandal extend beyond Bell Labs and are indicative of systemic problems in the scientific profession itself. One such issue involves the practice of multiple authors of scientific papers.

The coauthors of a paper must accept responsibility for the truth and validity of the content of the paper. But in many scientific disciplines, multiple authorship has become a means to give credit to one's colleagues who have contributed to the work but who are not responsible for the content and claims of the paper. This practice should stop.

Bell Labs should lead the revision of the abuse of coauthoring and encourage a return to the use of acknowledgments in papers to make it clear who did and contributed exactly what to the scientific work. Like chief executives who are now required to sign off on the veracity of corporate financials, all coauthors of a scientific paper should, in effect, sign off on the veracity of the scientific results and claims in the paper.

The committee of five independent experts formed by Bell Labs (headed by physicist Malcolm Beasley) was thorough in its lengthy investigation of the allegations of "scientific misconduct" by Schon and concluded that he "committed misconduct in 16" of the 24 allegations that were investigated. The committee sidestepped the issue of coauthorship and also seemed cautious in chastising Schon firmly.

The management of Bell Labs should be responsible for ensuring the truth and quality of the research performed there. It is almost unbelievable that no one witnessed or saw any of the key experiments, working devices or data to confirm Schon's claims.

It was as if management and Schon's colleagues and coauthors were asleep--or overly keen for publicity and occupied with other issues (such as the price of parent company Lucent Technologies stock). This could not have happened at the Bell Labs of the past, in which management and colleagues would have been breaking down lab doors to witness outstanding discoveries with their own eyes.

The last few years have not been good for fundamental research in telecommunications at Bell and other labs. The emphasis has been on practical, short-term, product-related work and also on publicity to confirm the premier role of Bell Labs in the Lucent empire.

The continuing restructuring of Lucent, coupled with its financial crises, have resulted in empty labs, the transfer of colleagues to other companies and resignations. Morale is low, not only at Bell Labs but at other telecommunication research laboratories.

Manufacturers such as Lucent depend on fundamental research for their long-term future. But the short-term success of manufacturers will be determined by today's products and the ability to manufacture them inexpensively and profitably. The vast majority of the work done at Bell Labs involves the design and development of these products and systems.

Clearly, Lucent can survive in the short term without the basic research of Bell Labs. It is the long-term future of telecommunications that will be the real victim. That future depends on the innovations in new fundamental knowledge.

In the past, many of these innovations came from Bell Labs, such as information theory, the photovoltaic solar cell, radio astronomy and, of course, the transistor.

Without research at Bell Labs, where will the future be?

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