Deception by Researchers Relatively Rare

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

The allegations arrive almost daily at the Office of Research Integrity, the federal agency with prime responsibility for investigating scientific misconduct. They come by phone, fax and e-mail. A few come in envelopes with no return addresses.

All are about cheating in one way or another.

Last year, 265 allegations came in. And while only a small fraction led to findings of actual misconduct, those mostly unheralded cases are remarkable for their similarity to the much more visible South Korean stem cell scandal, a review of federal records reveals.

Like the Korean case, they involve digital photographs manipulated to deceive, cells or tissues surreptitiously swapped, and eye-glazing data strings subtly rearranged.

Several scientists and ethicists said it is becoming clear that, if anything, Hwang Woo Suk was a rather typical faker. What made the case big was not the scope or creativeness of his lies, but the extremely high profile of the scientific field in which he chose to perpetrate his charade.

Despite all the recent hand-wringing, there may be precious few new lessons to be learned from the Korean debacle, several experts said. Even the journal editors who promised to beef up their screening of submitted manuscripts say privately they doubt there is a practical way to intercept the small proportion of scientists determined to cheat.

In the end, several noted, most research misconduct that comes to light, including Hwang's, does so for the most old-fashioned of reasons: Colleagues or former co-workers turn in the cheaters.

Those who perpetrate fraud in obscure specialties may go longer without getting caught and are unlikely to make news when they are busted, experts said. Those who perform their chicanery in the klieg lights of politically contentious fields can expect a quicker and more dramatic demise.

But unless the research involves real medical treatments -- not the case with embryonic stem cells -- the scientific impact of any single case is likely to be modest, experts said.

That is why many scientists do not buy the now-common reprise that Hwang's fraud has "set back" the field of stem cell research by years.

"Did we, for example, change our research plans or stop doing things because we thought Hwang was successful? The answer is no," said Douglas A. Melton, part of a Harvard team that is awaiting approval to begin embryo cloning experiments like those Hwang had supposedly done. "What happened in Korea hasn't sped up or slowed down our progress."

Notable cases of research misconduct blow through public consciousness with low-level regularity.

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