Nancy Rothwell

March 31, 2006

Public revelations of fraud or fabrication of data always attract much attention in the scientific press. This is followed by great angst and detailed examination by the institutions that employ the fraudster, the journals that published the work, and by the fraudster's colleagues, collaborators and students. In each case there is surprise and horror that such an event should have occurred, much navel-gazing and another set of new measures to prevent future occurrences.

Few scientific frauds have hit the headlines in the manner of that perpetrated by Woo Suk Hwang, claimed by the prominent scientific journal Nature as "perhaps the highest profile case in the sorry history of research misconduct". Hwang's group in South Korea published seminal work on the first cloning of human embryos. This was said by many to be a monumental task with major implications, and the Korean's success made headlines worldwide. But investigation revealed that Hwang's claims of human cloning were unfounded, and much of his data turned out to be fabricated. There were no human embryo clones.

Given that the medical and economic benefits of cloning human embryos are still a vision rather than a reality, the huge international impact of the discovery may have been a surprise to some. The consequences of the subsequent revelation that it was all a clever fraud were even greater.

Perhaps we all like a scandal. Aside from the extensive coverage in the scientific and general press, share prices of South Korean biotech companies plummeted and the country - which had even honoured Hwang with a postage stamp - acknowledged its national shame. In a recent Times Higher opinion article, Bob Laughlin, the Nobel laureate, likened the impact to the horror that would have been caused by a revelation that Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon had been faked. Laughlin's article also questioned the normally rigorous review process of such high-profile papers. He raises the important point that this probably isn't an isolated case, just a very high-profile one. The journals concerned with Hwang's work have highlighted the difficulty for reviewers of detecting cleverly hidden fraud (erroneous work is much easier to spot), and of course scientists want to believe an exciting story when it breaks.

Amid the angst of the scientific and wider communities, one question comes to mind.JIs it any surprise to find fraud of such a high profile? The stakes and the rewards in science are high and ever rising. In another recent Times Higher opinion article, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet (which subsequently identified a fraudulent paper of its own), claimed that the cause was money. Scientists are indeed faced with increasing financial rewards for success. Horton went on to suggest that "if scientists wish to earn substantial amounts from the private sector, then that is where they should go".

But his view is biased and represents only a tiny part of the picture. Scientific fraud is, it seems, surprisingly rare. An article in Nature last June suggested that less than 0.5 per cent of scientists (based on an anonymous survey) admitted that they had falsified data. This apparent rarity may be because scientists in the academic sector believe fundamentally that they work for themselves. Their institutions may pay their salaries, such as they are, and support their research, but most of us, if we are honest, believe we are our own masters and control our own destinies. This is an important pillar of academe, without which the university system would probably crumble catastrophically. So, as an academic, what is the point in making things up when you are only defrauding yourself? To most scientists, the real joy of discovery is about finding out for themselves. The second goal is international respect and an impeccable reputation, both of which are instantly eradicated by any revelation of fraud.

But we should not ignore the changes in science. Even in academe, competition for funding and for positions is more intense than ever. Potential rewards in the form of salaries, support and direct cash are higher than ever. Young scientists face increasing pressures to succeed, and we are all tested and reviewed in most things we do. In some fields, really big money is at stake. It may be suggested that the Hwang scandal is a feature of the East where pressures can be particularly high, and hence is less likely to happen in the West. I think not. Since the Hwang scandal, we have seen a major fraud revealed in oral cancer research, published in the leading medical journals by a Norwegian scientist. Unfortunately, fraud is likely to be an endemic part of science. As we demand more of scientists, we should not forget that they are normal members of the human race with just the same weaknesses and aspirations. And we should be prepared for the consequences.

Dame Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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