February 06, 2006

The Matter of Hwang Woo-suk:
Our Take, in Science and in The Scientist

Having followed the unfolding Hwang matter with enough (misplaced?) intensity that the group here eventually wrote roughly 300 pages of postings over three months it became pretty much incumbent on me to try to synthesize what it seems to me the Hwang scandal says about scientific misconduct. So I did that by contributing my part to an effort with Mildred Cho and David Magnus, "Lessons of the Stem Cell Scandal," that appears this week in Science. The article is at bottom an attack on simpleminded condemnation of misconduct, built around a proposal for a new way of thinking about authorship:
...In complex, interdisciplinary research, coauthors must often rely on each other to vouch for authenticity. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors guidelines for authorship implicitly acknowledge this in stating that that "Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content" (9). Adopting the concept of a "contributor" advanced by Rennie et al. (10) would clarify and increase the accountability of individual authors. Rennie et al. also proposed the concept of a "guarantor" of a publication, an individual who takes full responsibility for the integrity of the entire publication. The guarantor model only works, however, in an environment where colleagues (especially junior scientists and staff) are free to probe and challenge results.

This underscores the importance of other facets of individual integrity--collegiality, communication, and sharing of resources. It has been speculated that a large, compartmentalized laboratory structure could have contributed to the ability to falsify data (8). Such structures, while perhaps encouraging efficiency, could inhibit free flow of information and dilute responsibility for the integrity of the work.

The actions of individual researchers do not exist in a vacuum but are affected by institutional factors (11). In South Korea, there was awareness of the need for ethical guidelines for research, as evidenced by the recent passage of laws about stem cell research and human subjects (12). However, the science may have been moving much more quickly than the ethical standards could be absorbed. For example, it was reported that 85% of over 900 biotechnology researchers surveyed in South Korea did not know what the Declaration of Helsinki was, and that 42% did not know about Institutional Review Boards (13). This study was conducted only in Korea, but may be indicative of an international problem. All research institutions need to assess awareness of ethical standards...

And in my piece for The Scientist, "Lies, Damn Lies and Scientific Misconduct," I focus on how scientists and the public each learn and understand scientific integrity:

Merriam Webster reports that in 2005, “integrity” received more hits than any other word in their online dictionary. It’s not clear how many more hits scientific integrity can take: An MIT researcher is fired for fabricating a dozen papers. A pharmaceutical company omits data from key publications about side effects. A South Korean stem cell researcher admits to a stunned nation that, “blinded by work and a drive for achievement,” he submitted a “fake it before you make it” article to Science. It appears that research misconduct has taken its place among the epidemics that scientists need to worry about?

An aphorism attributed to Mark Twain holds that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. At first the public points to a bad apple who paints mice or switches out slides, and fumes if the researcher conspires to hide it. But it takes a village to do big science: authors, collaborators, students, sponsors, regulators; different languages, different countries, disparate goals. A lone scientist can offer mea culpa, but fraud on the scale of South Korea’s almost always involves collusion and conspiracy, hidden in the complexity of the research. It is a nightmare for scientific journals, but more than anything it terrifies the public...

[Link: Read the rest; or hear The Scientist Podcast]

The effect of all our ruminations about Hwang? We seem to be helping him raise money...

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