Act 1: breakthrough research in leading journals; a photogenic scientist; tributes from colleagues for his brilliance, originality and speed. Act 2: unreproducible experiments; suspicious data; editors withdrawing articles. Act 3: scientist skulking in disgrace; editors vowing “Never again!”.
Who is the star of this tragedy? Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean veterinary scientist whose faked reports about cloned human embryos stunned the world and who subsequently was unmasked as a manipulative fraud a year ago at this time?
No, Hwang only published fake research in one journal, Science. More about him later.
First, let’s talk about another fraudster, Jan Hendrik Schön, a 30-something scientist from Germany working at Bell Laboratories. Back in 2002, his papers about condensed matter physics featured on the covers of both Nature and Science. Had this work been authentic, it would have revolutionised electronics. But it wasn’t. After Schön was unmasked, Science, Nature and Physical Review felt compelled to withdraw an incredible number of papers — 21! — of which he had been the author.
Deliberate fraud is difficult to detect. However, every step forward in science is provisional until it is reproduced. A fraudulent paper will be impossible to reproduce and eventually a rogue researcher will receive his comeuppance. However, when Schön’s fraud came to light, a number of scientists asked whether factors other than misconduct had been at work. They pointed the finger at the journals themselves. “Nature’s editorial and refereeing policy seems to be influenced by the newsworthiness of the work, not necessarily its quality,” complained Philip Anderson, a Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has been called most creative physicist in the world. “And Science seems to be caught up in a similar syndrome.”1
The editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, not a man unduly vexed by self-doubt, rejected this slur. In an editorial in his journal, he retorted: “Reporters have also told us that individual scientists have charged us with being too interested in ‘flashy’ papers, and thus overeager to publish these. That is nonsense. We do want important papers of high quality, and our peer reviewers told us in no uncertain terms that these were both.” 2
Now it’s time to fast forward to 2006 and the next big hoax to see what Science learned from this scare. As nearly everyone now knows, Hwang Woo-suk, after pocketing millions in research grants, having a Korean postage stamp made in his honour, addressing star-struck colleagues at international conferences, and featuring on front pages around the world, turned out to be one of the worst frauds in the history of science. In two papers, both published in Science, he claimed that he had cloned a human embryo and created patient-specific human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines. In other words, his work appeared to confirm that cells from cloned human embryos could indeed lead to “miracle” cures.
Schön’s “discoveries” had their own importance, but it is impossible to overestimate the potential impact of Hwang’s. If true, they would have created an immense biotech industry. Governments would have gladly contributed billions of dollars. Millions of sufferers from dread diseases would have been given hope. Furthermore, confirmation would have eclipsed ethical misgivings about cavalier treatment of human embryos and mining women’s bodies for eggs. His claims, in other words, deserved careful scrutiny because so much — in medicine, in law, in public investment, in human rights, and in ethics — was at stake.
So Donald Kennedy clearly owed an explanation to the scientific community and to the world when Hwang’s work and reputation imploded. His journal duly commissioned a committee to investigate what happened and how protocols for detecting fraud could be improved. The results, published in its December 1 issue, deserve far more attention from the media and scientists than they have received thus far. They reveal a lot.
Most journalists parrotted Kennedy’s editorial response: that the journal and its reviewers had conscientiously followed the proper procedures and “made a substantially greater effort than for most papers to ensure that the science was sound”. In words which ought to worry all of us, Kennedy warns that “the environment for science now presents increased incentives for the production of work that is intentionally misleading or distorted by self-interest”. To detect this, the journal will divide papers into uncontroversial and controversial and the controversial ones will receive special scrutiny.
But Kennedy still felt that Hwang had been flying below the radar. “I don’t think that the [new] procedures we’ve been discussing so far would necessarily have caused us to not publish or to seriously doubt the publishability of these papers,” he told the Washington Post. And he suggested to his readers in Science that the investigating committee had not even given the journal a slap on the wrist. At worst, it was a case of “above average but needs to try harder”. The real problem was dealing with scoundrels like Schön and Hwang.
But a reading of the committee’s brief report presents Science’s behaviour in quite a different light. Apart from trowelling on praise and congratulations, it dug up some disturbing flaws in how the journal had dealt with Hwang’s articles:
“It is clear from the correspondence that the editors were aware of a major potential flaw in both the 2004 study and thus the 2005 work, namely the possible occurrence of parthenogenesis. This possibility should have been pursued and eliminated.” ~ The editors, in other words, were asleep on the job.
“The reviewers acquiesced in the authors’ textual explanations rather than sticking with their initial requirements for better data.” ~ The reviewers, in other words, were lazy.
“… the behavior and notes from ‘invited’ authors probably should have raised more concerns about the motivations of the Korean authors.” ~ The reviewers, in other words, were obtuse.
“…the additive quality of all of the surrounding issues with IRBs, consent forms, and authorship gave a general sense of unease to many editors, yet was not given sufficient weight in the context of whether to publish.” ~ The editors, in other words, smelt a rat, and did nothing.
Overall, it must be admitted, the committee’s tone was positive, rather like Yehudi Menuhin judging a primary school violin competition. The prickly bits were brief and swaddled in kindly encouragement. But perhaps the velvet glove approach had something to do with the grandees who had been invited to sit in judgement. The classic detective team has a good cop and a bad cop. This was a committee of good cops. Three of the six were current editors at Science. One was a former editor at Science, now working with the equally prestigious journal Nature. And the remaining two were leading American hESC experts, John Gearhart, of Johns Hopkins University, and Douglas Melton, of Harvard University.
Where were the bad cops? Why wasn’t someone from, say, the US Office of Research Integrity or, say, the journal Accountability in Research on the committee? And why Gearhart and Melton? As outspoken advocates of therapeutic cloning, they were less likely to pounce on errors than more detached or critical scientists. In particular, they were unlikely to ask whether Kennedy’s hostility towards the Bush Administration’s policy on hESC research, his distaste for moral scruples about it, and his strong personal support for it had clouded the judgement of the editorial board. (One assumes that neither of them, or anyone in their labs, had reviewed Hwang’s original papers, but reassurance on this score would have been welcome.)
In short, it is hard to imagine a detective team less likely to ask tough questions. Was Science just a headline hog? Were its editors’ suspicions steamrollered because of a partisan commitment to embryo research? We may never know.
Science’s reaction to the both the Schön and Hwang debacles has been immensely disappointing. It confirms that many scientists are unable to accept that their work, like everyone else’s, can sometimes be coloured by base emotions and weaknesses. First of all, vanity: the eagerness of Science to publish one of the biggest news stories of the decade smothered the smell of a rat. Second, arrogance: four years after the Schön affair, the journal will still not accept that newsworthiness is trumping quality. Third, defensiveness: Science picked a committee which could hardly fail to put a positive spin on the incident. Fourth, inflexibility: despite the immense ethical implications of hESC research, Science persists in treating it as something which is essentially ethically trivial. And fifth, self-deception: Kennedy’s upbeat editorial glossed over the inconvenient criticisms made by his own committee.
But there are deeper things at work here than personal bias. At the root of this whitewash is the self-righteous faith that science is an objective, value-free endeavour entrusted to a caste of pure and self-sacrificing truth-seekers. This is an ideal dear to Donald Kennedy’s heart. In an editorial last year he warned that American science was under threat from “religious conviction and partisan loyalty” — as if scientists themselves could never be partisan. He urged his colleagues not to lose their confidence in the achievements of the Enlightenment: “For much of their existence over the past two centuries, Europe and the United States have been societies of questioners: nations in which skepticism has been accepted and even welcomed, and where the culture has been characterized by confidence in science and in rational methods of thought.”
Unhappily, how his journal has dealt with one of the greatest blots on the credibility of modern science does no credit to the cause of the Enlightenment. Instead, it suggests that the culture should be highly sceptical, not of science, but certainly of Science.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.
(1) “Misconduct finding at Bell Labs shakes physics community”. Nature. 3 October 2002.
(2) Donald Kennedy. “Next steps in Schon affair.” Science. October 18, 2002.