Tiny fibs, little fudges and 900 entirely fictional patients

February 24, 2006

Are recent cases of scientific fraud in Korea and Norway unusual, or is fakery part and parcel of the scientific method? Anna Fazackerley asks researchers for the inside story

When stem-cell scientist Stephen Minger went to South Korea to meet Woo Suk Hwang, the celebrated cloning expert was signing autographs on campus. Hwang’s production of a stem-cell line from cloned embryos and the first cloned dog — an Afghan hound called Snuppy — had thrust his face not only onto the front pages of newspapers all over the world, but also onto special commemorative postage stamps in his home country. He achieved the sort of celebrity one associates with footballers, not with people in lab coats.

But the legend exploded. Last month, a panel at Seoul University, where Hwang worked, confirmed that he had faked most of his stem-cell research.

Looking back, Minger, who heads the stem-cell biology laboratory at King’s College London, concedes that Hwang’s celebrity status might have played a role in his downfall. “Hwang’s group did some good work, but I think it was blown out of all proportion in South Korea. He was a national hero.”

It is widely accepted that scientists are under tremendous pressure to publish — and to publish first. And one can imagine that Hwang felt that the eyes of his country, and perhaps the world, were on him.

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, says: “God knows what sort of pressure a scientist would have to be under to do this sort of thing, because it goes against the whole reason that people go into science. But there is a particular pressure that comes from being almost there. If you are one of the leaders, people expect you to pull off the next miracle.”

Yet few scientists will be comfortable with pressure as an excuse for fraud. After all, as Malcolm notes, the race to sequence the human genome was similarly high-profile, but despite the pressure and the huge temptation of scientific glory, no one cut corners.
“You can’t be so consumed that you would do anything to publish. If I didn’t get a paper in Science in 40 years, I wouldn’t go out and shoot myself — which is in effect what Hwang did,” Minger says firmly. “He has been stripped of his post at university. He has lost everything, to my mind.”

In reality it is difficult to dismiss Hwang as a total fraud because colleagues in the field agree that he is a very good scientist. When his results were investigated, many expected that the cloned dog, a notoriously difficult scientific leap, would be found to be fictional — but it wasn’t. Minger cites this as proof of the “immense expertise” of Hwang’s group. For him, there remain many unanswered questions.

“I’ve met him and I just don’t see it,” he says with exasperation. “His lab was like a factory and I find it impossible to believe that he would have been capable of manipulating all those people, of persuading them all to cheat.”

He maintains that the full story about Hwang — “the truth behind and beneath” — has yet to come out.

But Hwang’s is not an isolated case. There have been other examples of major scientific fraud in other areas of science. Indeed, just after Seoul University spoke out against Hwang, Norwegian doctor Jon Sudboe admitted that he had invented more than 900 patients in a mouth cancer study published in The Lancet .

Does this mean science is becoming corrupt? Academics are adamant that it doesn’t. They insist that just as there will always be the odd bent police officer or unethical doctor, very occasionally there will also be scientists who set out to deceive. It is almost impossible to stop them, but the important thing is that the scientific system, which relies on researchers repeating each other’s results, will ultimately find them out.

However, fraud is a broad concept, and some academics argue that some degree of deception is prevalent in all areas of research. Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, explains: “Fraud takes many forms. It isn’t just the blatant fabrication of data. I can’t imagine that there’s any scientist who hasn’t, from time to time, decided not to publish a result that he or she can’t interpret or that doesn’t fit with current views. You might call that sort of selective disclosure the acceptable face of fraud, but it does distort the progress of science.”

Patrick Bateson, former vice-president of the Royal Society, adds that often scientists are not even really aware that they are steering their results. “There are many cases where people get odd results and then exclude them because they decide the animals were sick or the test tubes were dirty,” he explains. “Many will admit that they have excluded data because they made the experiment too complicated.”

Bateson, who chairs a Royal Society group that is examining these ethical issues and will publish its results in the next few months, believes that scientists generally won’t accept that there is a problem. He is calling for a major culture change. But others dismiss this as alarmist, insisting that the majority of scientists are very rigorous in the way they work. The suggestion that scientists might be looking for a particular result angers Minger.

“Some people will redo an experiment until they get the right results but I wouldn’t call them good scientists,” he says. He adds: “You have to be selective about what you publish. Some people will publish any bit of rubbish just to get a paper. But most of us don’t want to work that way.”

Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University, argues that minor transgressions are a world away from big-league fraud. “I can imagine a young scientist cleaning up a graph a little bit or leaving a result out. But to completely fabricate that you’ve cloned humans is madness,” she says.

She maintains that the important thing is to have the correct reporting procedures should something go awry. When she was a young researcher, she suspected a collaborator of fraud, and swapped a sample to catch him out. But she did not report him. “I was only about 30, quite insecure and didn’t know what to do,” she explains. “Now if I was a bit dubious, I would confront the scientist, and if I knew for sure, I would report him or her.”

The exposure of major frauds is undoubtedly bad for science’s public image. However, key academics maintain that science can pat itself on the back for exposing them so quickly.

Hwang’s Science paper on cloned stem cells tailored to individual patients was published online in May last year. The paper was seriously questioned within six months, and he was forced to withdraw it by the end of the year. Sudboe’s study was discredited within three months of publication.

“If a piece of research is important, people will be constantly checking and querying and trying to repeat it. Hwang was so famous that his every burp was investigated.
You won’t get away with fraud for long,” Malcolm says. “Compare that with the business world. The deceptions at Enron took ten years to unravel.”

The drama surrounding Hwang has yet to die down, but Minger wishes it would.

“Away from the limelight, stem-cell scientists like me are just pressing on with our research and getting some good work done,” he sighs impatiently. “That is the real story, not this fraud stuff that keeps perpetuating itself again and again.”

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