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Feb 11, 2006

And the Verdict Is...

… “research misbehavior”?

(awkward silence)

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.

6 Comments:

  • I think that it's a bit more complicated than you suggest. Schatten wrote a letter to Science asking that the paper be retracted well before any of the other authors did. He really stuck his neck out in so doing since he was, at that moment, alone. Look at the Hendrick Schon/Bell Labs scandal (and if you haven't done so, read the final report* of the Bell Labs audit; it's an astonishing example of an organization looking unflinchingly at its own errors). The senior authors on the Schon work took a whole lot longer than Schon to retract that work.

    * http://www.lucent.com/news_events/researchreview.html

    By Anonymous CD318, at Sat Feb 11, 06:05:00 PM  

  • You make a good point about this being a complicated issue, and I wasn't trying to simplify it. I think I explored many of the subtleties in my post, but I wasn't able to cover everything. Schatten early on did ask for the paper to be retracted (a request that Science originally denied), which was very responsible of him, but he also wavered on the details of his role in the work. This is such a difficult issue because all evidence indicates that Schatten did not intentionally do anything wrong, but he also was negligent in fulfilling his role as a scientist to carefully examine the data and how it was gathered. I think it will be interesting to see how the scientific community reacts to this case, because whatever the reaction, it will probably set a precedent for future cases.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Sun Feb 12, 02:15:00 PM  

  • As this is a very sensitive issue to the public at large, particularly those suffering from diseases with a promise of a cure through this research (no matter that this hope is fundamentally without much merit), I find the initial lack of due diligence appalling. I do not know what the norm is for the scientific community but the fact that the scientist "stuck his neck out" before other senior authors, does not ring especially laudable to me. How can we trust any data knowing that no one is really examining the results before publication? This is, to me, in direct parallel to Enron and other corporate scandals involving sloppy accounting or, in the vernacular, "cooking the books." Why this lack of oversight in the scientific community is accepted in such a blase fashion points out just how acceptable false data in this academic discipline is and leads to pharmeceutical disasters such as the recent Vioxx debacle that harms people very personally.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Feb 12, 11:23:00 PM  

  • Research misbehavior?! What, is he going to get a time-out?

    Whether or not there is an institutional punishment applied by Pitt, it seems to me some concerted shunning by the rest of the scientific community might be in order. Because when personal gain outweighs honesty (about who was responsible for the Science paper) and skepticism, the whole scientific community is hurt.

    By Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D., at Mon Feb 13, 07:39:00 AM  

  • he also wavered on the details of his role in the work

    I think the verb you want there is "lied".

    By Blogger Bill Hooker, at Tue Feb 14, 06:44:00 PM  

  • I would have a hard time working with any scientist that has been caught lying, or stretching the truth.

    I like Bill's idea of an extra burden of proof - which I guess they would have anyway. However this calls for an organization /commitee to handle such investigations, similar to The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, which I am not sure is feasible in the US.

    On a interesting note, regarding The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty - their power were watered down after they criticized Lomborg to only deal with publicly funded research and science.
    However, the Danish association of doctors and the Danish association of medicinal/pharmaceudical producers have just made an agreement in which the companies have to publish all research results, even when they prove that the companies' products are effectless (harmful effects have always been required made public, for obviously reasons).
    Part of this agreement places the research done by the company under the juridiction of The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty.

    So this is a case, where even though the Government is trying to water down the controls of the private sector, the private sector volunteers to be under the control of the state.

    By Blogger Kristjan Wager, at Wed Feb 15, 02:52:00 PM  

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