Slate's Explainer: Sleuthing Research Lab Fraud

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Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how research institutions investigate claims of fraud in their research labs. A South Korean researcher recently admitted to fabricating data on breakthrough cloning procedures.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Investigations are getting under way this week into apparent fraud in groundbreaking stem cell research. Superstar South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk is accused by collaborators of faking a lot of his data, so now labs in both Seoul and Pittsburgh must conduct probes into the disputed claims. Well, the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondered: How do you investigate scientific misconduct? Here is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS (Slate): First, interview everyone who might be involved. In the United States, research institutions conduct their own inquiries into scientific wrongdoing. The probe can start with a small committee quietly interviewing witnesses. But a full-on investigation, like the one planned by the University of Pittsburgh into its role in the Korean research, may include a larger committee made up of people from outside the institution, like scientists from other schools and lawyers. The committee might seize notebooks, equipment and computer files and hold them under lock and key until the investigation is over. Dr. Hwang's computer in Korea has already been seized.

In some cases, investigators might want to search a scientist's home for incriminating evidence. Forensic scientists might be called in to detect evidence tampering. Analysis of the ink in a lab notebook, for example, might turn up back-dated entries or other mischief. The head of a lab can also secretly replace some key fluid in an experiment with water. If a researcher under suspicion still reports positive results, he's been stung.

When a federal grant is involved--which is not the case with the Korean stem cell research--the government can prohibit a scientist from receiving any federal money for a specified period of time, usually three years. Of course, a guilty professor can also be fired.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor, and that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

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