Research Intelligence - Did Hoffmann take Nobel for the team?

Nobel row raises questions of who gets credit for research in an age of in 'hype'. Paul Jump writes

December 22, 2011
Source: Getty

The appearance of a website last week questioning the contribution of French immunologist Jules Hoffmann to the research that won him a Nobel prize casts another spotlight on the thorny issue of how scientific credit should be attributed.

Professor Hoffmann, an emeritus distinguished class research director with the French National Research Agency (CNRS) in Strasbourg, shared half this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with US immunologist Bruce Beutler "for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity".

But, as reported in Times Higher Education last week, Bruno Lemaitre, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, has claimed that he was largely responsible for the Nobel-winning project while he was a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Hoffmann's lab in the early 1990s.

According to the website set up by Professor Lemaitre, Professor Hoffmann was "far from the realities of experimental bench work" and had contributed little to the project, which examined fruit flies' immunity to fungal infections.

Professor Hoffmann's contribution, it says, was limited to discussing results and helping to write later drafts of the resulting Cell paper, published in 1996.

So how, 15 years later, did the Nobel prize come to be awarded to Professor Hoffmann?

Professor Lemaitre speculates that the answer lies in Professor Hoffmann's depiction of the project at academic conferences as teamwork and in his failure to "fully acknowledge" Professor Lemaitre's individual contribution.

According to Professor Lemaitre, this illustrates the power of communication in modern science - and the huge rewards on offer to those able to generate a "buzz" around their research and to "simplify" the story of how key discoveries were made to highlight their own contributions.

Peter Lawrence, a Medical Research Council emeritus scientist at the University of Cambridge, agreed that "hype and salesmanship" were increasingly - and erroneously - being seen as "a decent and even necessary activity for a scientist". He also lamented what he saw as scientists' apathy about declining ethical standards.

However, he noted that this was not a new phenomenon.

One particularly "extreme and tragic" example, he said, is that of Albert Schatz, who described in two separate papers how, as a PhD student at Rutgers University in the 1940s, he alone devised and carried out the research that led to the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin. However, it was his supervisor, Selman Waksman, who was awarded a Nobel prize in 1952 - despite, according to Dr Schatz, never having once visited the basement laboratory where the research was carried out.

Professor Lawrence, who has written widely about the sociology of science, said principal investigators should be listed as authors on papers only when they have made a significant contribution to the research.

Xavier Bosch, associate professor of medicine at the University of Barcelona, pointed out that the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors already promulgates criteria that require authors to have made "substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data".

But Professor Lawrence said such voluntary guidelines were not enough and called on granting agencies to agree and enforce - by the threat of disqualification from receiving grants - criteria setting out how the contribution of junior scientists should be recognised. He also called for the creation of a global ombudsman to whom wronged individuals could appeal.

Regarding the Nobel prize, Professor Lawrence's understanding of Alfred Nobel's will was that it should be awarded specifically for the "moment of discovery", which "could come to a graduate student just as well as a professor". He added: "I don't think people deserve Nobel prizes for running labs, getting grants and going to meetings."

Professor Lemaitre told THE that the existence of prestigious prizes such as the Nobel "probably" increased the temptation for scientists to take personal credit for discoveries in their labs.

But he valued the ability of prizes to grab media attention - however fleetingly - for science and to highlight the human stories behind the science. Besides, he added, it would be "naive" not to acknowledge that scientists are "mostly moved by the desire to be recognised by others".

Professor Lawrence also regarded the Nobel prize as important, because it could "illustrate for an ordinary and/or young scientist what is worthy of praise and emulation".

But is the Nobel committee's vetting of prizewinners sufficiently rigorous? According to Göran Hansson, secretary general of the Nobel assembly, an unspecified number of scientists are invited every year to nominate candidates in physiology or medicine. The nominations are screened by a six-member committee, with the help of "leading experts in the particular field in question".

"For candidates on the shortlist, this evaluation usually takes several years and involves several different evaluators, who prepare detailed written reports on different aspects of the discoveries by candidates. Individual contributions are scrutinised meticulously," he said.

The Nobel Assembly's regulations prevented him from revealing more, but he noted that the process "has been refined over 110 years" and "our decisions have gained broad acceptance in the scientific community".

Professor Lemaitre said the Nobel committee should make sure that candidates were judged by the right people; he believed that no panel of insect immunologists would have selected Professor Hoffmann. He also thought that the committee should personally interview all first authors of the major relevant papers before awarding a prize.

Such people, who, by definition, did most of the work in question, "know better than others what happened, and the contribution of our supervisors - probably much better than some academicians who have forgotten what research is".

But Professor Hansson said co-authors of nominees would have "obvious conflicts of interest".

According to Professor Bosch, if the committee were to interview anyone, it would be better to concentrate on junior members of candidates' labs, who would have "an unbiased opinion about the seriousness of the candidate, including their professional behaviour".

But Professor Hansson said conducting interviews would require the committee to reveal the identity of nominees, which was against Nobel rules.

Professor Lawrence said that things had improved considerably since Albert Schatz was overlooked, and that the Nobel committee tried hard to do the "forensic work" required to attribute credit appropriately.

"But this year I wonder if they got it right," he added. "Although I am not an expert in this field, many of my colleagues are and to give the prize to Hoffmann alone, as far as I have been able to find out, was a mistake."

However, Professor Bosch was more sanguine, noting that Professor Hoffmann and Professor Lemaitre had both made sustained contributions to the field in which the prize was awarded. "Perhaps in this case the fact that Hoffmann was the senior author [on the 1996 paper] made the difference," he said. "Maybe this is not fair but only two or three - not four - people can be awarded the prize. Such is life."

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