Sunday, December 18, 2005

NYTimes: Scandal rocks the journal Science?

On Dec. 18, Gina Kolata wrote: The publication of that paper [on cloning from Hwang], celebrated by Science with great fanfare on May 19, has now turned into a debacle. And the mood in Science's editorial offices on the 10th floor of a gray marble office building in Washington has gone from elation to distress and exhaustion. Although Kolata mentions other controversies at Science, there is no mention of the scandal involving the publication by Science of fraudulent papers by Jan-Hendrik Schon working for Bell Labs.

Kolata gives a timeline for events in the Hwang paper:

For Science, the chain of events began on Tuesday, March 15, when the manuscript arrived by e-mail. It was clearly a high-profile paper, and its lead author, Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University, was known at the journal.

He had published a previous paper in Science, on Feb. 12, 2004, announcing that he had, with great difficulty, cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells.

Still, Science put this latest paper from Dr. Hwang's lab through the same process it put the nearly 12,000 other papers received this year, Ms. Bradford said.

Papers are sent to one or two outside experts on the journal's board of reviewing editors who advise on whether they are appropriate for Science magazine. Seventy percent of submitted papers are rejected. The others are sent to at least two additional scientists for in-depth review.

The reviewers comment on the paper and also assess its quality, checking off boxes ranging from "reject" to "publish without delay." About 25 percent of those reviewed end up being published. But the reviewers are not the science police, Ms. Bradford and outside scientists emphasized.

"We work on the assumption that the data are real," Ms. Bradford said. "The question is, Do the data support the conclusions?"

On May 12, after having passed scrutiny by three outside reviewers, Dr. Hwang's paper was accepted for publication, faster than the journal's average time from submission to acceptance, which is about three months.

When the paper appeared May 19, it met with enormous acclaim. Dr. Hwang traveled the world lecturing on his work and scientists trekked to South Korea to visit the lab and see how the feat was accomplished.

The first hints that something might not be right came in November. By Dec. 9, Ms. Bradford and her colleagues - Katrina L. Kelner, the deputy editor, who has an office next door; another editor, working from another city, whom Ms. Bradford would not identify; and the editor in chief, Donald Kennedy, who is at Stanford - were trying to get some answers. [Note: Kolata does not mention the issues of the one presentation on Korean television, and the issue of coercion by the Korean tv interviewers as to Korean researchers working for Prof. Schatten in Pittsburgh.]

As the weeks passed, Dr. Hwang, was hospitalized for stress but insisted that his group had really cloned human embryos and created 11 lines of stem cells, as his paper reported. But one of his co-authors, Dr. Roh Sung Il, said the data were fraudulent. [Note: Kolata does not mention the issue that only 8 cell lines existed at the time of the submission of the manuscript to Science.]

One question was whether photographs, described in the paper as being stem cells derived from cloned human embryos, were frauds. Dr. Roh said they were actually from a large computer file of stem cells and not derived from cloning experiments.

Of the photograph issue, Kolata wrote:

"We sent a series of questions to the authors," Ms. Bradford said. "How did this high resolution image get put together? Look at all your images. Go through your data. The same with the DNA fingerprinting: go through your data. What are your answers?"

But despite repeated calls and e-mail messages to South Korea, Ms. Bradford said Thursday, "We haven't gotten any answers yet."

Kolata does not mention the issue that a photograph of one cell line was used to depict more than one cell line.

Kolata discusses retraction issues, including those with with Pittsburgh researcher and co-author Schatten:

Dr. Kennedy said in news conference by telephone on Friday [Dec. 16]afternoon, "As of now we can't reach any conclusions with respect to misconduct issues." He also said that as of now the journal's editors did not know the exact reasons that Dr. Schatten and Dr. Hwang asked that the paper be withdrawn.

If the paper is withdrawn, Dr. Kennedy said, "There will have to be a retraction statement, and it will have to contain more than we now know about the authors' reasons for retracting it."

He added, "I can't state chapter and verse, but it is more than we have gotten now."

Of the need to obtain the permission of co-authors to retract, Kolata notes:
Ms. Bradford said that despite quite a bit of effort, she and her colleagues had been unable to get even e-mail addresses for all of the authors.
One wonders why Science did not obtain contact information for the co-authors prior to publication. Kolata does not mention the issue raised by co-author Roh that ONLY Hwang and Schatten saw the paper prior to submission to Science. One wonders how the co-authors can give permission to retract something they never saw (and thus could not have reasonably given permission to publish in the first place). Does the submission procedure to Science require the editors of Science to verify co-authors have seen the paper? At least at the USPTO, the Patent Office requires all named inventors to sign a declaration prior to the beginning of patent prosecution.

Of co-authors, Kolata quotes Laurie Zoloth, an ethicist at Northwestern University:

"What we do not understand is how one person could have hoaxed all 24 of the collaborators on the papers - all of whom seemed eager to claim the work as 'our' work at the time," Dr. Zoloth said. "Did we see only what we yearned to see?"

The actual information indicates BOTH Hwang AND Schatten were involved in the writing of the paper. Zoloth seems unaware that co-author Roh complained about not seeing the manuscript before publication.

The Houston Chronicle reproduced the Gina Kolata article within
the Chronicle on December 18.


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