The Alirio Melendez story broke sometime last week. In fact the story had for some time, apparently already been quietly whispered about along selected corridors of the YLL Medical School campus. There have been accusations about fabrication of data, and major scientific papers have been withdrawn and investigated. I really don't want to presume I know too much about the case, nor about Professor Melendez's guilt or innocance. But certain things are interesting to reflect upon.
The phrase 'jumping onto the bandwagon', comes readily to mind. The phrase, according to my fav source for info, Wikipedia, apparently came about because of activities related to a less than famous clown-politician in early American history. Apparently he had been extremely successful in exploiting the mass media technology platform of his time, the bandwagon, to exhibit his political ambitions. Soon every other politician wanted to jump onto his bandwagon to share his spotlight. Thus arose the disparaging phrase 'jumping onto the bandwagon'.
What's all that got to do with us?
Well, observers of the Singapore approach towards biomedical research excellence cannot fail to notice that we spend a lot (in fact massive) amounts of money on bandwagons. Some have disguised these bandwagons as whales so as not to be too obvious. Bandwagons are obviously quite useful when you want instant fame and recognition, but it is not based on reality or substance. Coming from our Singaporean success on planting instant trees there is a fallacious thinking among some that there is an 'instant success' equivalent for biomedical research. So we rush about frantically planting those instant whales.... sorry, I meant trees.
Research bandwagons have however been extremely successful in transforming the Singapore research reputation. Suddenly we have a Nobel Prize laureate among us (transplanted, of course). Lots of whales (recently some apparently in migratory mode). And suddenly our local researchers look good, and get to cavort on the world stage. Can't complain too much....since as local guppies we've had many covert opportunities to grow fat off some of the crumbs falling from the mouths of whales.
But the problem is fame gotten from being on bandwagons is not necessarily real, and can be fleeting. And when the bandwagon topples - voila, you have an instant mass grave.
It was an interesting exercising looking up the Melendez publications generated in Sinapore. Anyone can do it. Just go to Pubmed and search for 'Alirio' 'Melendez' 'Singapore'. Or if you are lazy, just click here. You will find a listing of 50 publications generated during his time in Singapore. These publication date between 2002 and 2010.
It was very interesting going through this publication list because you find a lot of research associations in the authorship lists. Apparently all these papers are now under investigation. And all these authors now become somewhat tarnished by their association with Melendez because of these accusations of academic dishonesty. Again, I don't want to presume the outcome of the investigations, and I do hope that it will not uncover any widely endemic dishonesty within the scientific community. But the authorship list for Melendez papers reads almost like a Who's Who in the medical school, and includes heads of departments, Vice Deans and prominent individuals in the office of the NUS Vice President. Interestingly Prof Barry Halliwell, who is NUS Deputy President (Research and Technology), and who has been cited as fronting the investigation into the Melendez publications is himself associated with at least 2 Melendez publications.
Mass graves? These tend to develop when over-populated bandwagons fall over. But more about this in another post.