Yuan also calculated that, given the wide variability in the data and the relative precision required to find a true hit, it would have been impossible to arrive at any conclusions at all. By analogy, it would be like a pollster declaring a winner in an election when the margin of error was larger than the difference in the polling results.
“The overwhelming noise in the . . . data and the overstated strength of the genetic interactions together make it difficult to reconstruct any scientific process by which the authors could have inferred valid results from these data,” Yuan wrote to the editors of Nature in July.
His analysis attacks only the first portion of the paper; even if he is correct, the second part of the paper could be true.
Nevertheless, Yuan wanted Nature to publish his criticism, and following instructions from the journal, he forwarded his letter to Boeke and Lin, giving them two weeks to respond.
Just as the two weeks were to elapse, Boeke wrote to Nature asking for an extension of time — “a couple weeks or more” — to address Yuan’s criticism. Boeke explained that end-of-summer schedules and the multiple co-authors made it difficult to respond on time.
A day later, Lin was discovered dead in his office at National Taiwan University.
“Renowned scientist found dead, next to drug bottles,” the headline in the Taipei Times said.
Even in his death, the Nature paper was a kind of shorthand for Lin’s scientific success.
“A research team [Lin] led was featured in the scientific journal Nature in February for their discovery of the key mechanism for maintaining cell energy balance — believed to be linked to cellular aging and cancer,” the newspaper said.
If there was a suicide note, it has not been made public, and it is difficult to know what went through Lin’s mind at the end of his life. The apparent suicide and the e-mail to Yuan suggest only that Lin may have been distraught over the dispute; they do not prove that he acted improperly.
Shortly after the Nature paper appeared, Yuan hired lawyer Lynne Bernabei to challenge the way he was terminated at Hopkins.
In late August, Yuan asked the Nature editors again whether they would publish his criticism. Lin was dead, but Boeke and the others had had a month to respond, and Yuan hadn’t heard a thing.
On Sept. 28, a Nature editor informed Yuan by e-mail that the journal was still waiting on a fuller response from Boeke and that “experiments are being done and probably a Correction written.”
Such a correction has not appeared.
So as a last attempt, he figured he’d try the federal government, which paid for much of the research. But the government suggested that the threat to the federal research, if there was any, ended with Lin’s death.
“It is our understanding that these allegations are being investigated by Johns Hopkins University,” said the letter from the Office of Research Integrity.
Besides, it noted, the person responsible for the paper was Lin.
“Deceased respondents no longer pose a risk,” the letter said.
Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.