By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005
The stunning revelation that a South Korean researcher faked landmark stem cell experiments has sparked an intense new debate about the safeguards designed to prevent and catch scientific fraud.
While it remains unclear what motivated Hwang Woo Suk, the case has highlighted how the increasingly rapid pace of science, and rising international competition, may be intensifying the temptation to fake results, experts said.
"There is tremendous pressure today to be first. If you do something first, all the money and fame will come to you," said Adil E. Shamoo, a biomedical ethicist at the University of Maryland. "All that is an obvious seduction for doing something like this."
Such pressures may be exposing weakness in existing protections, allowing fraudulent conduct to go undetected and undermining public trust in science, others said.
"The system broke down," said Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. "We have to ask hard questions."
The stem cell fraud case joins a rogues' gallery of hoaxes that have shaken the scientific world periodically. From the 1912 Piltdown man claim by British researchers that they had discovered the "missing link" to a recent claim by U.S. researchers that they had discovered new basic elements, history is pockmarked with infamous cases of scientific fraud.
"The notion of a scientist faking data has, unfortunately, probably been around as long as there has been science," said Marcel C. LaFollette, a historian who studies and writes about scientific integrity.
The stem cell case has parallels with some earlier hoaxes, according to Alex Boese, who studies and writes about such cases. In the Piltdown man claim, for example, the British researchers may have been motivated in part by national pride.
"At the time, it was assumed that whatever country discovered the missing link would be the root of mankind," Boese said. "Maybe in this case South Koreans wanted to prove their scientific credentials."
With each new revelation comes a new round of questions about how well science polices itself and whether the system needs to be changed.
Currently, research is largely self-monitored through a patchwork of safeguards designed to make sure studies are ethical and conducted well. Universities, hospitals and other research centers have internal review boards that approve studies before they are begun to make sure they are ethical and well designed, then monitor their conduct. Scientists submit their findings to journals, which ask experts in the field to review them.
Some experts said that the system of checks and balances may not be as stringent in countries such as South Korea.
"We have a history of dealing with these kinds of matters, and we have gotten better at it. The Koreans are at a very nascent stage of dealing with these kinds of things," said Mark S. Frankel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The association owns the journal Science, which published the disputed work.
Other experts said the problem is far from limited to overseas scientists.
"Right now scientific fraud and misconduct is alive and well in this country," Shamoo said. "We don't have to go to South Korea."
The increasing complexity of science makes it more difficult for fraud to be detected, Boese said.
"As science becomes more specialized, it becomes harder for scientists to check each other, which makes it easier to get away with fraud," Boese said.
At the same time, the proliferation of scientific journals and the advent of the Internet have put pressure on the journals to publish papers more quickly, some say.
"Because of the expansion of the number of journals and rapidity of publication, there's more pressure on the top-of-the-line journals if they have something hot to get it into print," LaFollette said. "That puts pressure on the internal and external review systems."
Others said journals do not have the resources to catch outright fabrication. Their review systems are set up to judge the design of studies and the analysis of data.
"When a paper comes in from South Korea, you have to make the assumption that they are telling a true account," said Drummond Rennie, deputy editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association. "It is not a system for policing. It's a system for detecting whether the science seems good. It cannot be a system for policing."
Journal editors could, however, do a better job of holding all the scientists who put their names on papers more accountable, Rennie said. In this case, for example, a University of Pittsburgh scientist's name was on one crucial paper.
"The single thing the journals can do is make the authors visibly responsible for the work because, in the end, the editors can't be there," Rennie said. "Credit and blame go together."
The University of Pittsburgh is investigating the case.
Most incidents of scientific fraud are caught when colleagues in the labs of dishonest researchers come forward, Rennie and others said.
"It's almost always that," Rennie said. "They start to realize that something stinks."
Because of that, the best way to foster honesty is to teach scientists more about ethics by requiring courses in responsible research conduct in graduate school, Shamoo and others said.
"Unfortunately, research institutions and universities have not taken this issue seriously," said Shamoo, who edits the journal Accountability in Research. "They pay lip service to responsible conduct and research integrity."
"It's unconscionable" they don't do more, he said.
Beyond education, independent auditors could make spot checks in labs to verify data in much the same way the Internal Revenue Service polices taxpayers.
"If the IRS never conducted audits, what do you think would happen to people paying taxes in this country? If the public knows the IRS never conducts audits, don't you think there will be an increase in problems?" Shamoo said.
Although such procedures might help, nothing can eliminate fraud, several experts said.
"It's like theft. We can have every law there is, but we're never going to eliminate it completely. It's the same with fraud. There's always going to be some people who take the short cut," Rennie said.
Luckily, the stem cell fraud was discovered before patients were harmed or other researchers wasted years or even decades building on the work, which has happened with other instances of fraud.
The case did, however, cruelly raise the hopes of patients who might benefit from stem cell therapy and undermine the public's trust in science, experts said.
"The fact that this raised the hopes of patients and then did not deliver that promise has special poignancy," Zoloth said. "Science should be based on truth."