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Scientific Fraud, Not New, Not Rare, But Also Not Common

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No journal has an infallible mechanism for detecting scientific fraud, according to Science editor-in-chief and Stanford University president, emeritus, Donald Kennedy, PhD. "Scientific fraud is not new and is not rare," he said during his talk at a stem cell symposium held Jan. 20. "Luckily it's not common either.


The posting below looks at issues regarding scientific fraud. It is by Amy Adams on a speech given by Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science and president emeritus of Stanford University. It appeared in the January 25, 2006 issue of the Stanford Report. Copyright ? Stanford University. All Rights Reserved.


Rick Reis

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Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, explains in a Jan. 20 lecture why research fraud is so hard to detect. The journal recently learned that it had published faked stem cell findings.

No journal has an infallible mechanism for detecting scientific fraud, according to Science editor-in-chief and Stanford University president, emeritus, Donald Kennedy, PhD. "Scientific fraud is not new and is not rare," he said during his talk at a stem cell symposium held Jan. 20. "Luckily it's not common either."

The remarks were prompted by Science's recent decision to retract two papers it had published from South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk after the data in them was found to be fabricated. In the first, which appeared in the magazine in 2004, the scientist and coauthors claimed to have cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells. In the second, which ran last year, Hwang and his colleagues reported that they had honed the technique so that it would require fewer human eggs to produce a line of stem cells. These advances, if true, would have laid the groundwork for making genetically matched stem cells for human therapies.

The symposium, "Beyond the Embryo," was hosted by the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics' Program on Stem Cells and Society with the intention of reviewing some of the ethical and societal issues raised by both embryonic and adult stem cell research.

On Jan. 10, Science released a statement from Kennedy explaining that the journal would evaluate how the papers were reviewed and seek new ways to improve its procedures.

In the symposium's opening address, Kennedy elaborated on his initial statement by discussing the questions he's been asked over the past few weeks. The most prevalent one from journalists and the public was whether Science editors had any forewarning of the misconduct.

"We couldn't find anything," Kennedy said. None of the scientists who reviewed the papers raised questions and no journalist working for Science spoke with sources who suggested fraud. He said he expects in the future many people will come forward saying that they knew it all along, but none of those people spoke up in advance of the scandal.

If the journal didn't see the fraud coming, Kennedy said he is often asked whether this means the review process is flawed. He remains confident that it is not. "I don't think any reviewer could detect fraud if it was carried out by a capable scientist who knows how to walk the walk," he said.

Particularly in a journal such as Science, which sets a high bar for publishing only major scientific advancements, reviewers often have no way of assessing experiments that have never before been carried out. Instead, they must rely on authors to provide accurate data to support their conclusions. Kennedy said that most researchers do provide accurate data and those who don't are eventually discovered when colleagues aren't able to replicate the work.

Another question Kennedy said he is frequently asked is one that is not of interest to Science-that's the question of which of the many authors were involved in perpetrating the fraud. He added that some journals are considering requiring all authors on a paper to report what role they played in the research. He said that might eliminate some authors who are on the paper for political reasons but who didn't contribute to the research.

In the wake of the revelations about the stem cell findings, people have questioned, in particular, the role of one senior author on the 2005 retracted paper, Gerald Schatten, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, as he was not based in South Korea where the experiments were allegedly being conducted. In response to a comment from the audience, Kennedy said he thought this author did, in fact, deserve to be on the paper. However, he thought that requiring a written notice of participation might increase an author's accountability and therefore decrease the chance of fraud.

Moving forward, Kennedy said he didn't think the scandal would have fallout for researchers trying to treat disease using stem cells. "I think people will work as hard as ever to achieve their goals," he said. He does have concerns that some politicians may turn the scandal into ammunition against the entire field. If they do, it could result in less funding or tighter restrictions on future stem cell work.

"I hope devoutly that does not happen," he said.

Although the South Korean episode is the most prominent case of scientific fraud in recent years, Kennedy said that he doesn't think the field is any more prone to such incidents than any other areas of research. He said journals, including Science, should do what they can to look out for and prevent fraud in all areas of science to maintain the public trust.

Kennedy's lecture led off an afternoon of talks by scholars from Stanford and elsewhere. Topics included the ethics of egg donation, the realities of cord blood banking, the creation of chimeric animals and differences in stem cell policy between the United States and other countries.