Charlatans in the laboratory; Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. New York: Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $14.95.

You have to hand it to a certain Mideastern biochemist. He learned to make something out of nothing. The ''something'' was a scientific reputation and entree to prestigious US labs when he had a shaky academic background and no competence in research. The ''nothing'' is the junk that often passes for a scientific paper today.

By plagiarizing a mediocre paper from an obscure journal and sending it to another obscure journal as his own work, he amassed an impressive list of published research. Since few read the stuff anyway, he was accepted at face value.

Such are the clever charlatans who grace the pages of this important book.

Science writers William Broad and Nicholas Wade have brought together a number of cases of fraud and plagiarism to make the point that scientific research is far from being the pure search for truth it is touted to be.

They reveal it as the very human, career-driven, temptation-ridden pursuit it actually is.

They cite a few ancient cases as background - Newton fudged his numbers; Ptolomy stole some of his star positions. But most of the cases are modern, many having come to light in the past decade.

The authors use these incidents as a means to examine the state of modern research which has produced them:

Pressure-cooker laboratories where workers are driven to publish or perish tempt researchers to cut corners, faking data or stealing the work of others. The need to climb a career ladder, win prizes, and secure patents is likewise an incentive to fraud. A system in which laboratory chiefs co-author papers to hog credit while doing little of the work breeds lax supervision.

Add to this an elitist system whose leaders are blinded by the myth of scientific research as a self-policing activity, and you have fertile soil for fraud.

The authors have done a workmanlike job of presenting their material and analyzing the problem. They make some recommendations for reform that deserve attention:

Institutions should have formal procedures for dealing with fraud. Co-authors of papers should have had a major share in the research. Supervisors should actually supervise.

One wonders why such common-sensical measures were not adopted long ago. Happily some universities are beginning to set the needed standards.

But an important aspect of the problem is neglected. The authors focus hard on the system. But what of the individual? Honesty is an individual responsibility.

The book would be much improved by a chapter on the ethics of research and the responsibility of individual scientists to themselves and to society.

Yet, this caveat aside, the Broad-Wade book should be read by all who are interested in the scientific enterprise and its role in society. Most importantly, it should be required reading for every student who aspir

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