And the Verdict Is...
On Friday the University of Pittsburgh released the findings of a panel investigating the involvement of its own Gerald P. Schatten, the American coauthor on South Korean Hwang Woo Suk’s now discredited 2005 Science paper detailing the isolation of various embryonic stem cell lines achieved through cloning. Although it has was determined some time ago that Hwang intentionally fabricated data (Seoul National University recently fired him, and he now faces criminal charges), Schatten’s fate has remained largely unknown.
The conclusions of the Pittsburgh panel, though, probably won’t provide the closure that many were hoping for. In fact, the charges of “research misbehavior” may raise more questions than provide answers and could be interpreted as more of a cop-out, now leaving Schatten’s fate up to Arthur Levine, dean of Pittsburgh’s medical school. The Washington Post reports:
While these failings "would not strictly constitute research misconduct as narrowly defined by University of Pittsburgh policies" -- a definition that requires proof of falsification, fabrication or plagiarism -- "it would be an example of research misbehavior," the report concluded.
The panel recommended that the university administration "implement whatever corrective or disciplinary actions are commensurate with this finding." That puts Pitt's medical school dean, Arthur Levine, in the awkward position of deciding on the punishment for a faculty member he personally recruited in 2001 amid great fanfare -- and great expense, as he showered Schatten with millions of dollars in research resources.
The report encourages Pitt to revise its guidelines for ethical practices in research to leave no doubt that the kinds of activities Schatten undertook are unacceptable.
The panel concluded that Schatten did not participate in fraud and was not aware of any fraudulent activities until several months after the 2005 paper was published. Still, Schatten has done pretty much everything he could do to appear guilty, backtracking on several previous assertions and providing false statements, as documented by The New York Times:
When suspicions about Dr. Hwang's human cloning papers became public, Dr. Schatten was quick to distance himself. He told the Pittsburgh panel that he had written most of the text of the 2005 paper. Three weeks later, he told Seoul National University that he had not written the paper, the panel said.
After telling the panel at first that he was the senior co-author, Dr. Schatten later denied it, saying he was just one of two leading authors.
"This second version does not correspond with the fact, for example, that he is the one who responded to reviewers' comments," the panel said.
The panel, whose chairman was Dr. Jerome Rosenberg of the university's research integrity office, noted that Dr. Schatten's effort to distance himself from Dr. Hwang and his publications stood "in sharp contrast to the full participation of Dr. Schatten in the media spotlight following publication of the paper."
By failing to follow up on anomalies in what Dr. Hwang was telling him, Dr. Schatten, in the panel's view, "did not exercise a sufficiently critical perspective as a scientist." He also told Science that all 25 authors had read the manuscript before submission, a statement the panel called false.
Dr. Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, said Dr. Schatten's behavior was "a textbook example of divorcing credit for papers from responsibility and accountability." It is acceptable to discuss a paper's merits with an editor before submission, but not during the review, Dr. Rennie said.
So, it appears that all Schatten is guilty of is wanting to be in the spotlight a little bit too much and ignoring anything that would keep him from being there. That’s hardly a crime, and it’s dificult for any of us to say how we would react in the same situation. At the same time, Schatten’s lack of insight or oversight was a dereliction of his fundamental duty as a scientist and the aftermath has had been felt in the scientific community and beyond. Scandals like these shake the public’s faith in science, and for an issue like embryonic stem cell research that finds itself in such a politically precarious position, losing this support can have grave consequences for what research scientists will be able to undertake in the future.
Although Schatten has done nothing criminal, he was in a position to prevent a devastating case of scientific fraud. Instead of being the skeptic that he is called to be, he took the easier road that led to more personal gain, and the effect was far from trivial. I don’t know what type of discipline is appropriate in this case, but undoubtedly, all interested parties will be watching those who do make this decision very closely to see what type of message they are willing to send and what precedent they are prepared to set.