ARTICLE IN BRIEF
✓ Editors of scientific journals and scientists following the fraud case involving Dr. Woo Suk Hwang respond to recommendations by a committee created to protect the journal Science against future fraudulent science claims.
After falling victim to scientific fraud perpetrated by South Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang, DVM, PhD, of Seoul National University, the journal Science has announced recommendations aimed at preventing further occurrences. But editors of other scientific journals and scientists following the Hwang case told Neurology Today that these measures probably won't be effective, and may be unworkable.
In a teleconference on Nov. 28, Science Editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy, PhD, discussed four recommendations made by a seven-member committee created to protect the magazine against fraudulent claims in articles submitted to the magazine.
Committee members suggested that Science implement a formal “risk-assessment” procedure that would explicitly consider the probability that a paper selected for publication might be intentionally deceptive. Papers likely to garner public attention should get extra scrutiny, they said.
The committee recommended that the journal require all authors to specify their personal contributions to the paper; increase the amount of raw data offered to Science editors as part of the supporting material for papers; and establish common standards with Nature and other high-profile journals. “It would be undesirable to have authors choose a journal for submission based on standards, or the lack of standards, of the type discussed here,” the report states.
During the teleconference, John Brauman, PhD, the Stanford University chemist who led the committee, praised the rigor that Science editors brought to their analysis of the Hwang paper when it was submitted, and acknowledged that even with the recommendations devised by the committee, the fraud probably would not have been prevented.
“It might have been,” said Dr. Brauman, who also chairs Science's senior editorial board. “Or [Dr. Hwang] might have been deterred from doing this because he would have been asked for more explicit data, but scientific journals are not equipped to detect fraud. We believe, however, it can be deterred.”
The committee's report faulted Science editors for not following up on their early suspicions that Hwang's results may have been due to parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction in which the ovum develops into a new individual without fertilization, rather than to actual cloning.
“This possibility should have been pursued and eliminated, since the central contention of the 2004 paper was that a human stem cell line had been generated by nuclear transplant,” transferring the nucleus of an adult cell into an unfertilized oocyte, according to the report. “This central fact was not established. The reviewers acquiesced in the authors' textual explanations rather than sticking with their initial requirements for better data.”
The committee included three members of Science's external Senior Editorial Board – Dr. Brauman; chemist George Whitesides, PhD, of Harvard; and Linda Partridge, PhD, of the Department of Biology, University College London. Other members were Linda Miller, a former Science editor who is now the US Executive Editor at Nature; and two stem cell biologists, Douglas A. Melton, PhD, of Harvard; and John Gearhart, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University.
EXPERTS COMMENT ON THE REPORT
Even though the recommendations may not have prevented fraud, as Dr. Brauman acknowledged, one stem cell scientist familiar with the Hwang case gave Science credit simply for taking action.
“If someone has the intent to deceive, they will get through the most stringent filter,” said Evan Y. Snyder, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cell and Regeneration Program at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research at the University of California-San Diego.
“But I think it's admirable that Science took this case seriously and engaged in some careful introspection on their review guidelines. This is exactly what every journal should do. I think they did it in a responsible and rigorous manner, and I think things will be better for it. I think they're keeping up their end of the scientific process.”
Besides, Dr. Snyder added, no scientific finding is accepted as true by scientists until it has been replicated, and that would have provided the ultimate layer of defense against Hwang's fraudulent claims.
Robert Griggs, MD, whose term as Editor of Neurology ends on Dec. 31, called the recommendations “sensible,” but “difficult to implement.”
“They propose identifying papers that are high risk, but there's nothing practical in the report on how they propose to do that,” Dr. Griggs said. “And they say methods should be developed to clarify contributions of authors. I agree completely, but JAMA and our journal already want the authors to specify who did what. If the editors at Science had done that it would have helped to understand who was at fault, but I don't think any of the proposals would prevent another Hwang.”
Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the Program in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the University of California-San Francisco, said he supports the goal of making fraud more difficult to commit, but thinks the recommendations could end up making the review process more laborious. They also could be applied unfairly.
Dr. Kriegstein believes fraud is becoming a greater problem because two changes in science have converged: the improvement of software such as Adobe Photoshop, which can manipulate images and make them look convincing, and shrinking NIH budgets, which increase the competition for grants.
“As the pressure to publish escalates to publishing in the right journals, the temptation grows to take shortcuts,” Dr. Kriegstein said.
Therefore, blaming fraud on a few “bad apples” may overlook a more systemic problem in science itself. A survey of 3,427 scientists by the University of Minnesota and the HealthPartners Research Foundation found that up to a third of respondents had engaged in ethically questionable practices, ranging from ignoring contradictory evidence to falsifying data (Nature 2005; 435:7377–738).
The authors conducted another study that attributed the misconduct to the widespread perception among early- and mid-career scientists that responsibility, prestige, and financial rewards in science are distributed unfairly (J Empir Res Hum Res Ethics 2006; 1(1): 51–66).
“In the distribution of institutional rewards, more attention to the quality of research would foster better scientific conduct than rewards that appear to be based on the number and size of research grants, the ‘glamour’ of one's topics and findings, or sheer number of publications,” the authors state.
While no one excuses scientific fraud, virtually everyone – including members of the committee that devised new procedures for Science – admits that weeding it out is difficult, especially if it is widespread.
James Gordon, MD, FRCPC, FAAN, a neurologist at Northwest Hospital in Seattle and a member of the AAN ethics committee, supported the recommendations developed for Science, but wondered how practical they would be.
“The ethics of the case are simple – there's no conceivable justification for what Dr. Hwang did – but the pragmatics are difficult,” Dr. Gordon said. “The question is, is there any practical way of preventing it from happening again?”
WHAT DID DR. HWANG CLAIM IN HIS SCIENCE PAPERS?
In March 2004, Dr. Hwang and his colleagues published a paper in Science (2004;303:1669–1674) claiming they had generated the first line of human embryonic stem cells by transferring the nucleus of an adult cell into an unfertilized oocyte. These stem cells theoretically could be transplanted back into the donor without triggering an immune reaction.
In a second paper published a year later (Science 2005;308:1777–1783), Dr. Hwang claimed his team had generated 11 stem cell lines in the same way, derived from tissue contributed by patients with spinal cord injuries, diabetes, or an immune disorder. This extraordinary claim, which would have led to the creation of replacement cells for a host of disorders, made Dr. Hwang a national hero, and promised to catapult South Korea to the forefront of stem cell research. Many believed Dr. Hwang would receive a Nobel Prize for his work.
What was wrong with these claims? Young scientists in South Korea posted evidence on Web sites showing that the results of the 2005 paper had been fabricated, and that the stem cells created for the 2004 paper were the product of parthenogenesis – the division of the oocyte itself, which still contained its own genetic material.
One Web site showed that a photo published in Science and identified as one of Dr. Hwang's human embryonic stem cell lines was the same photo he had published earlier in a journal, the Biology of Reproduction, where it was identified as an ordinary embryonic cell line generated by a fertility clinic in the MizMedi hospital in South Korea.
Dr. Hwang retracted both Science papers, and was indicted in South Korea on May 12, 2006, for fraud, misusing government funds, and violations of bioethics laws.
In addition, Dr. Hwang collected 2,236 eggs from 122 women, compensating 71 of them, and he continued to pay for oocytes even after a law banned the practice in January 2005.
Dr. Hwang also misappropriated nearly $3 million, according to prosecutors, by creating 63 accounts under different names, covering up some of the embezzlement by claiming he bought pigs and cows for research.