Monday, December 26, 2005

Stem cells and Jan Hendrik Schon

Unless you're living under a rock, you've heard about the scandal unfolding involving Dr. Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University. He is the world-famous scientist now accused of falsifying his stem cell research, the most recent paper of which had been published in Science. I want to point out something that has been entirely neglected in the media, as far as I can tell: the amazing similarity between this and the J. Hendrik Schon fiasco. For example:

* Huge impact articles in major journals, with talk of Nobel prizes.
* Multiple big-name coauthors who did not spot anything wrong.
* Progress in an exceedingly demanding field far in excess of reasonable expectations, yet attracting no suspicion at the time.
* The first hints of impropriety raised due to duplication of figures (!), a sloppy mistake virtually guaranteed to be noticed eventually.
* Immediate denial by the PI, with claims that the whole problem comes down to poor record keeping.
* Initial institutional announcements that while some particular result may be flawed, the body of work is still good, pretty much because the PI is a "genius".
* Claims by the PI in the face of mounting evidence of fraud that the results are true.
* Complete denial of any responsibility by the journal editors, who may or may not have downplayed negative referee reports because the results are potentially so important.

Interesting, eh?

The most important similarity in both cases, of course, is that they got caught - the scientific process did work, albeit slowly.

One other comment: I hate it when ethicists insist that the real problem is the lack of formal ethics training in the scientific curriculum. That is absolute garbage. Does anyone really think that Hwang or Schon didn't realize what they were doing was wrong? Does anyone really think that one more ethics course would have prevented either case? Come on. Seriously.