IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.
A little bit later in the hour, we'll talk about the year in science. But first, a look at a scientific scandal that continues to unfold. This spring, South Korean scientists led by Hwang Woo-Suk published a paper in the journal Science that showed that they had used cloning techniques to create 11 embryonic stem cell lines tailored to match individual human donors. The achievement was hailed around the world as a major breakthrough.
But things began to unravel in the fall. It was disclosed that at least some of the eggs used in the experiments were donated by women working in Hwang's lab, considered to be ethical breach. Then one of Hwang's co-authors, University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten, asked that his name be taken off the paper, citing concerns with the data. Following that, another of Hwang's collaborators said that he admitted to fabricating parts of the data--meaning Hwang did--and Hwang then asked that the paper be retracted due to errors. Last week, he resigned from Seoul National University. And just yesterday, Thursday, South Korea's top university said that Hwang had fabricated all of the stem cells he said he had cloned from individual patients.
So how does this happen? How can a paper with 24 co-authors, published in a major scientific journal--considered to be the pre-eminent scientific journal in the United States, Science--turn out to be a fraud? That's what we'll be talking about first this hour. And if you'd like to join us, our number is 1 (800) 989-8255.
Dr. Donald Kennedy is the editor in chief of the journal Science, and he joins us from the campus of Stanford.
Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Kennedy.
Dr. DONALD KENNEDY (Editor in Chief, Science): Good afternoon, Ira.
FLATOW: Tell us--walk us through this. Could you shed some light on us from your side of the desk and how something like this happens at Science?
Dr. KENNEDY: Well, the way the peer review system works is that a journal gets a manuscript, editors at the journal who are already experts in that field select outside reviewers if a preliminary judgment is that it's the kind of paper that ought to have peer review, and reviewers return very careful comments on the paper, suggestions for the authors and suggestions for the editors. And eventually, normally a hundred to 120 days later, the paper is published if it meets all of the tests that we put it through.
Dr. KENNEDY: This paper did. It was reviewed by real experts in cell and molecular biology and in stem cell biology. It passed, I would say, with flying colors. And, in fact, the critical reaction to the paper from the stem cell community was almost universally positive. So we missed it. That's the simple way to say it.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is it up to Science magazine or any journal to judge whether there is fraudulent work being published?
Dr. KENNEDY: Ira, we can't go into the labs and ask for people's data books. This is an enterprise that's really based on trust, and reviewers and editors basically trust authors until there's some reason not to. In this case, there did not appear to be a reason not to.
This is not the first case we've had during my six years as editor in chief of Science. We had a rather well-publicized case from Bell Telephone Labs, a wonderful scientific laboratory. This was one in physics rather than biology. It involved lots of co-authors and papers in multiple journals, including Science and Nature and Physical Review Letters. Nobody, even the co-authors, detected that one of the researchers, apparently possessed of techniques that were remarkable in all kinds of ways, had actually committed fraud, and an investigating committee, just as we have in this case, eventually untangled the mess.
FLATOW: I remember we even had the researcher himself on SCIENCE FRIDAY when the word come out.
So when did you or other people first realize--were there signs that there was a big problem going on here?
Dr. KENNEDY: Well, there were signs. There were a couple of scientists in South Korea, one of them not involved in the research, who had asserted that there problems. We discovered much later that papers reproducing some of the figures in the Science paper had been published in other journals that we don't normally track as carefully as we track the major journals, and it began to look as though there were a major fraud in progress here. There is an investigating committee at Seoul National University and, as you pointed out, Ira, its issuing its reports sort of seriatim...
Dr. KENNEDY: ...and the latest one was yesterday, and says that all of the human-derived, patient-specific cell lines are apparently fraudulent. We were waiting to see whether that investigation demonstrated that any part of this was survivable. It now looks as though it's not, and probably there will be a decision about formal retraction early next week.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what will that--what will--and what would it take for Science to formally knock the paper out?
Dr. KENNEDY: Well, normally authors retract papers, and in this case, the authors are trying to all sign onto an agreement to retract it among themselves. We want the language of that retraction to be rather specific about what was wrong, and that may require some negotiation.
The alternative to a retraction in which all of the authors agree to a full account of the problems with the paper and on a retraction is that we do an editorial retraction, and we simply say, both on the editorial page and in a communication link to the original paper, that our evidence and the evidence given to us by the investigating committee has convinced us that this paper simply can't be trusted.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. The fact that the fraud was uncovered, and it was uncovered in a way that a lot of times happens. Right? There was somebody in the laboratory who sort of blew the whistle on this one.
Dr. KENNEDY: I think...
FLATOW: No, go ahead.
Dr. KENNEDY: I think both in the laboratory and in one or two--perhaps two people who were on the outside who had some knowledge of the work who suggested that. But I think it was really a claim by a person who was familiar from the inside...
Dr. KENNEDY: ...with the research that broke that case open.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Is there--I mean, if you say that this is the normal way that business is conducted--that papers are reviewed in your journal and most other journals--then this is just something that might just happen again. There's nothing different, are you saying, that you can do in refereeing or researching the papers that come in?
Dr. KENNEDY: It could happen again, though I think rarely. We--one choice that was suggested to me by a reporter who was communicating with us about the problem was that peer reviewers ought to be really given access to some materials in the laboratory of the submitter so that a kind of personal hands-on check can be made. The trouble with that is that it imposes a kind of viscous administratively difficult procedure on peer reviewers and editors. It's kind of a public advertisement that the scientific community generally doesn't enjoy trust and, in fact, it deserves trust because 99 percent of the time what you get is perfectly trustworthy. So I think that to impose a procedure like that in order to prevent a few failures would be way too expensive.
FLATOW: What does this say about the work itself, the methodology, the engineering, the fact that it might still be useful, it might actually turn out useful products? Has that all been discredited, or can that can go on, perhaps with other research?
Dr. KENNEDY: Ira, we just don't know what elements of this story will survive the investigation. Certainly, most of the elements of the 2005 Science paper will not. There's an earlier paper that we published, also from the Hwang group, which looked very good to everybody and has been often cited--it was the first production of human embryonic stem cells from a human blastocyst--and questions are now obviously being raised about that. So the short answer is we just don't know yet.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what about the dog, Snuppy? Has that been backed up, or is that suspect now, too?
Dr. KENNEDY: I would think it is. The editors of Nature, which published that paper, have announced their intention to look back carefully into that, and, of course, we've done the same thing at Science to try to find out places where we might have been more thorough, might have been more questioning ourselves.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 'Cause I remember speaking about that. I remember when the paper was published and the way that this researcher became equivalent to a rock star in South Korea. The closest--we were talking about this just the other day. The closest I can remember in my lifetime to someone being that popular would have been Jonas Salk to somebody in the States.
Dr. KENNEDY: Well--and, of course, it's not insignificant that South Korea is an emerging scientific power with a population of people that take great pride in their own nation's achievements. And so he was a kind of folk hero, as you say.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Does South Korea suffer a really bad black eye on this?
Dr. KENNEDY: I don't think so at all. I think it would be a terrible shame to associate one case of research misconduct with the nation in which it occurred. We don't think less of either the physics community in the United States or Bell Laboratories for that particular--they were victims. And, in fact, the scientific community, in some sense, would be--will be a victim here if there's an untoward kind of sociopolitical...
Dr. KENNEDY: ...fallout from this.
FLATOW: `We told you not to study with those embryos,' or something like that.
Dr. KENNEDY: Right.
Dr. KENNEDY: Right, exactly.
FLATOW: Sort of a political fallout like that. So do you think that there's going to be one, or do you think that we can put this behind us?
Dr. KENNEDY: I hope it will be limited, but I think it's unavoidable that people who have been--particularly in this country, but also elsewhere--opposed to stem cell research will use this as a kind of argument that these people can't be trusted.
FLATOW: Yeah. All right, we're going to ta...
Dr. KENNEDY: That would be an unjust conclusion, I think, but never mind.
FLATOW: All right, Dr. Kennedy, stick around 'cause we're going to--if you will, and I know you will, thank you. We're going to take a short break and come back and change gears a little bit, talk about the top stories of the year; certainly, this is one of them. We'll bring in a couple of other observers on the scene, editors of science magazines, other science magazines. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.