Category Archives: Ethics

The questionable acts

Anatomy of a scientific fraud

Just drop everything, and read the NYTimes story (mixed with some analysis) about Eric Poehlman’s fraud which made him “only the second scientist in the United States to face criminal prosecution for falsifying research data.” Here’s the opening paragraph:

On a rainy afternoon in June, Eric Poehlman stood before a federal judge in the United States District Court in downtown Burlington, [Vermont]. His sentencing hearing had dragged on for more than four hours, and Poehlman, dressed in a black suit, remained silent while the lawyers argued over the appropriate sentence for his transgressions. Now was his chance to speak. A year earlier, in the same courthouse, Poehlman pleaded guilty to lying on a federal grant application and admitted to fabricating more than a decade’s worth of scientific data on obesity, menopause and aging, much of it while conducting clinical research as a tenured faculty member at the University of Vermont. He presented fraudulent data in lectures and in published papers, and he used this data to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health — a crime subject to as many as five years in federal prison. Poehlman’s admission of guilt came after more than five years during which he denied the charges against him, lied under oath and tried to discredit his accusers. By the time Poehlman came clean, his case had grown into one of the most expansive cases of scientific fraud in U.S. history.

The following paragraph, which appears in the second part of the long article, sums up the problem:

The scientific process is meant to be self-correcting. Peer review of scientific journals and the ability of scientists to replicate one another’s results are supposed to weed out erroneous conclusions and preserve the integrity of the scientific record over time. But the Poehlman case shows how a committed cheater can elude detection for years by playing on the trust — and the self-interest — of his or her junior colleagues.

Two other high profile cases of fraud in recent times — Hendrik Schön and Hwang Woo Suk — also make an appearance in the NYTimes story:

Most people involved in Poehlman’s case say that fraud as extensive as his represents an uncommon pathology, similar to what drove the South Korean scientist who claimed to have cloned human stem cells or the Lucent Technologies physicist who falsified extensive amounts of nanotechnology data. More frequent, according to a study published in Nature in June 2005, are smaller lapses in ethical judgment, like failing to present data that contradicts your previous research or inappropriately assigning author credit. Brian Martinson, who conducted that study with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, suggests that those gray areas, which many scientists inhabit at one time or another during their careers, portend a greater ailment for the scientific process. Minor transgressions, largely undetected and easily rationalized, can build up like plaque, compromising scientific integrity over time.

Do read the whole thing. It’s long, but well worth it.

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Depression, migraines and conflicts of interest

July 13:

The latest incident, disclosed in letters to the editor and a correction in Wednesday’s journal, involves a study showing that pregnant women who stop taking antidepressants risk slipping back into depression.

Most of the 13 authors have financial ties to drug companies including antidepressant makers, but only two of them revealed their ties when the study was published in February.

July 18:

the editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association said she was misled again, this time by the authors of a study linking severe migraines to heart attacks in women.

All six authors of the study have done consulting work or received research financing from makers of treatments for migraines or heart-related problems.

Here’s a profile of Dr. Catherine D. DeAngelis, the tough-talking chief editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

She is the first woman to edit the journal, commonly known as JAMA, in its 123-year history. Her résumé runs 25 pages, excluding minor details like these: On dull days she blasts the “William Tell Overture” across the cubicles, and the bird in her office ficus tree has a motion detector that makes visitors jump.

[…]

… Dr. DeAngelis said she had dug up conflicts she suspected, that she had questioned the authors, and that when she believed an author intended to deceive her, she asked that the author be disciplined by the dean of his or her medical school.

She also publishes corrections in which she names doctors who evade her rules. She said one such doctor from Harvard, whom she declined to name, called her in tears.

“This follows them the rest of their life,” Dr. DeAngelis said.

Further, she has tightened the journal’s guidelines, making authors sign statements that describe any possible conflicts.

“It’s very rare that it’s deliberate,” she said. “In most cases, they just don’t get it. But the rule is: You reveal, then let me or the other editors decide whether it’s relevant.”

Dr. Joseph B. Martin, dean of the Harvard Medical School, said he completely concurred with Dr. DeAngelis’s argument that doctors should disclose “more rather than less, and ideally everything.”

Dr. DeAngelis says she gets 6,000 submissions a year with an average of six authors each, and she cannot check them all. “I’m not the F.B.I.,” she said.

Asked if she could give the rules even more teeth, perhaps even arrange with editors of other top journals to blacklist cheaters, she said, “Have you ever heard of the Sherman Antitrust Act? I’ve talked to three lawyers about that. They all said: ‘You want to end up in jail? Don’t go there.’ ”

* * *

Benedict Carey’s commentary on willful non-disclosures by scientists who should know better is here. The NYTimes editorial on these recent revelations is here.

Hwang Woo Suk admits wrongdoing

Finally! Here’s the Guardian:

For a paper in the journal Science, Hwang said he had told researchers to make it look as if they were basing their results on 11 cloned embryonic stem cell lines, rather than the two lines he believed they had.

Here’s the Telegraph:

“I admit to the suspicion of fabrication,” he told prosecutors, who asked him to admit he had altered data to make it look as if he and his team had created more stem cell lines than they actually had for a research paper. “It was clearly my wrongdoing,” Dr Hwang said. “I admit it.”

The hearing in Seoul also revealed the extraordinary secret attempts by him and his staff to deceive the world about their achievements.

He admitted to telling his researchers to go along with the fraud, to make it look as if data taken from two stem cell lines came from 11 cell lines.

In fact, prosecutors also believe that even these two cells lines were fake, brought in to the lab from outside by Dr Hwang’s team without telling him. They were not cloned stem cell lines, but lines from uncloned cells.

Scientific misconduct can land you in jail!

From this story about an academic researcher being sent to jail for using fabricated and falsified data in grant applications:

[Former University of Vermont professor of medicine Eric Poehlman] was accused of falsifying research in applications and papers for several projects, including the effect of menopause on women’s metabolism, the impact of aging, the study of metabolism in Alzheimer’s patients and the effect of endurance training on metabolism.

In a deal with prosecutors last year, Poehlman pleaded guilty in connection with one $542,000 grant. The government said he defrauded federal agencies out of nearly $3 million.

The Boston Globe reports Poehlman is only the second academic “charged with a federal crime for falsifying research results to get a federal grant”; the first was a “a University of Pittsburgh professor who was convicted in 1988 but did not serve time in jail.”

The Ward Churchill case

Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, recounts the story of the investigation by a faculty committee into allegations of academic misconduct by Ward Churchill, “Native American activist and professor of ethnic studies at [the University of Colorado at Boulder]”. It appears to be a balanced story, and there are lots of details there that I was not aware of (I wasn’t following this case closely enough, I suppose).

Janet Stemwedel, who’s “working the ethics beat at ScienceBlogs“, offers a crib-sheet on the important ethical questions in this case. She concludes thus:

It would have been nice if the University of Colorado had investigated the earlier allegations of academic misconduct. It would have been swell if the careful investigation that [actually] happened hadn’t been precipitated by a politically motivated firestorm. But given the facts in evidence, he has to go.

Papers retracted by chemistry professor: an update

Remember this post from three months ago? Now, we have an update by Kenneth Chang in the NYTimes. Prof. Dalibor Sames, the Columbia University professor of chemistry, who retracted two papers in March has now retracted four more papers. These papers were published in 2002 and 2003, and Sames was the lead author in all of them. Reason?

The retractions came after the experimental findings of the papers could not be reproduced by other researchers in the same laboratory.

The professor, Dalibor Sames, was the senior author of all the papers in question. Another author, Bengu Sezen, a former graduate student of Dr. Sames who received her doctorate last year, performed most of the experiments described in the papers.

Bengu Sezen, on the other hand, “has vigorously disputed the retractions. She said she had not been told that the papers were being withdrawn, and she questioned whether other members of Dr. Sames’s group had even tried to repeat the experiments.”

Janet Stemwedel, aka Dr. Free-Ride, has some more thoughts and an analysis of this episode. After examining the available evidence (all of which is from NYTimes, and through its reporter, Kenneth Chang, she has this to say:

Sames says others in his laboratory haven’t been able to reproduce Sezen’s experiments. Sezen says others in Sames’ lab already have reproduced them — and she’s willing to come back and perform the experiments herself under Sames’ supervision. No word on whether folks in other laboratories have tried to reproduce these experiments yet.

Sezen’s consternation here is understandable. The retraction of these papers seems to cast aspersions on her experimental competence, or on her integrity. But if it’s true that Sames didn’t contact her about the problems, that’s fishy.

Given the importance of reproducibility to the scientific enterprise, maybe we need to start thinking about what sort of burden of proof needs to be met before new findings are reported — and what kind of burden of proof needs to be met before we declare findings irreproducible.

Hwang says he didn’t fake it, his underlings did

The disgraced scientist, Hwang Woo Suk, firmly believed his lab’s purported stem cell breakthroughs were genuine until confronted last year with evidence that they were faked, his lawyer insisted Tuesday at the start of Hwang’s trial for fraud. …

The opening comments by Hwang’s lawyer, Park Jong Rok, appeared to stem from Hwang’s long-running strategy of blaming the scandal on underlings in his research team.

From this story. Clearly, Hwang wants to blame his subordinates, and deny responsibility for the original crime of fabricating results. Yesterday’s Economic Times seemed to indicate that one of them said something to the effect that he fabricated some of the findings under pressure, and that Hwang was unaware of his shenanigans. [Sorry, I am unable to get a link to this story online].

Faked research on computer chip design

Here is the NYTimes story that broke the news. The quote below is from the follow-up story:

[A] top computer scientist, Chen Jin, … became a national hero in 2003 when he said he had created one of China’s first digital signal processing computer chips, sophisticated microchips that can process digitized data for mobile phones, cameras and other electronic devices. His milestone seemed to hold the promise of helping close the enormous gaps with the West in science and technology.

On Friday, however, the government said it was all a fraud.

The distinguished scientist, the government said, had faked research conducted at Jiaotong University and simply stolen his chip designs from a foreign company, then passed them off as his own.

It’s financial impropriety now

The aftermath of Hwang Woo Suk scandal has taken yet another bizarre turn. He has now been accused of financial impropriety too!

Prosecutors on Friday indicted a disgraced cloning scientist on embezzlement and bioethics law violations linked to faked stem cell research, officials said.

Government auditors said in February that it was unclear how he had spent $2.6 million of the $33 million in government funds and $6.4 million in private donations he received.

Nature has also covered this story.

The Seoul Central District prosecutor’s office in South Korea charged him with embezzling KRW2.8 billion (US$3 million) and using the funds to purchase a car for himself and gifts for politicians. He is said to have committed fraud by knowingly using fabricated data to apply for research funds. […]

Five other researchers on Hwang’s team were also charged with various offences, including one who, the indictment said, had deceived Hwang by claiming cells he gave Hwang were clones.

Finally, this last paragraph in the Nature story is intriguing.

Meanwhile a Buddhist organization claimed this week to have raised KRW60 billion (US$64 million) to support Hwang’s research efforts.

Is the peer review system broken?

The New York Times ran an article yesterday with the following opening:

Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in medical and scientific journals have called into question as never before the merits of their peer-review system.

The system is based on journals inviting independent experts to critique submitted manuscripts. The stated aim is to weed out sloppy and bad research, ensuring the integrity of what it has published.

Now, I can’t figure out how peer review can ever achieve the lofty goal of “ensuring the integrity of what [is] published.” I mean, as a reviewer, one can raise questions about research methodology, connections between the research results and conclusions, lack of attention paid to alternate hypotheses, etc. How can one catch someone who willfully fabricates research (a la Hwang Woo Suk)? The entire article seems to be barking up the wrong tree.

The article does contain some interesting stuff, particularly about some frauds that I didn’t know about. Here’s an example:

None of the recent flawed studies have been as humiliating as an article in 1972 in the journal Pediatrics that labeled sudden infant death syndrome a hereditary disorder, when, in the case examined, the real cause was murder.

Twenty-three years later, the mother was convicted of smothering her five children. Scientific naïveté surely contributed to the false conclusion, but a forensic pathologist was not one of the reviewers. The faulty research in part prompted the National Institutes of Health to spend millions of dollars on a wrong line of research.

There are interesting discussion threads over at Adventures in Ethics and Science and Uncertain Principles.

Is the peer review system broken?

The New York Times ran an article yesterday with the following opening:

Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in medical and scientific journals have called into question as never before the merits of their peer-review system.

The system is based on journals inviting independent experts to critique submitted manuscripts. The stated aim is to weed out sloppy and bad research, ensuring the integrity of what it has published.

Now, I can’t figure out how peer review can ever achieve the lofty goal of “ensuring the integrity of what [is] published.” I mean, as a reviewer, one can raise questions about research methodology, connections between the research results and conclusions, lack of attention paid to alternate hypotheses, etc. How can one catch someone who willfully fabricates research (a la Hwang Woo Suk)? The entire article seems to be barking up the wrong tree.

The article does contain some interesting stuff, particularly about some frauds that I didn’t know about. Here’s an example:

None of the recent flawed studies have been as humiliating as an article in 1972 in the journal Pediatrics that labeled sudden infant death syndrome a hereditary disorder, when, in the case examined, the real cause was murder.

Twenty-three years later, the mother was convicted of smothering her five children. Scientific naïveté surely contributed to the false conclusion, but a forensic pathologist was not one of the reviewers. The faulty research in part prompted the National Institutes of Health to spend millions of dollars on a wrong line of research.

There are interesting discussion threads over at Adventures in Ethics and Science and Uncertain Principles.

Another interesting case

In this NYTimes story, Kenneth Chang reports on a paper being withdrawn by the leader of the group that did the experiments:

A Columbia University chemistry professor has retracted two papers and part of a third published in a leading journal after experiments performed by a graduate student could not be reproduced.

The senior author of all three papers, which were published in 2004 and 2005 in The Journal of the American Chemical Society, was Prof. Dalibor Sames; the graduate student, listed as an author on each, was Bengu Sezen, who left the university after getting her doctorate last year.

Chang further reports that there is an internal review ordered by Columbia University.

Two days later, Chang catches up with the ex-graduate student who did the experiments, and whose results are under a cloud:

The former student, Bengu Sezen, who finished her doctorate last year and left the university, said in an e-mail message on Thursday that she had not known of any controversy about the papers until a reporter asked her about it.

Dr. Sezen said that before the papers were published, other scientists in the group successfully performed the same experiments, even when she was not in the laboratory.

All of this sounds quite murky, and I guess we will just have to wait for more details to emerge.

“Research misbehaviour”

Nicholas Wade has been doing quite a bit of follow-up reporting (see the end of the post for links) on the Hwang Woo Suk scandal (aka human cloning scandal) and its aftermath . One part of the puzzle that hasn’t got too much of attention is the role of Gerald Schatten, the University of Pittsburgh researcher, and the lead author of one of the discredited papers on cloned human cells in the journal Science. The latest report from Wade has more dirt on Schatten’s role. It’s really dirty.

By convention, a senior co-author receives major credit for the research and carries major responsibility for the accuracy of the data. Dr. Schatten accepted Dr. Hwang’s offer, even though he had done none of the research and was not in a position to verify its accuracy. […]

At the same time Dr. Schatten accepted $40,000 in honorariums from Dr. Hwang and asked for a $200,000 research grant, which he hoped would be renewed every year.

While we are on the subject of cloning, let me link to Doug Natelson’s post from a while ago comparing this scandal with another big-bang scandal that shook the world of condensed matter physics: the Henrik Schoen scandal. Let me quote just two similarities:

* Huge impact articles in major journals, with talk of Nobel prizes.

* Multiple big-name coauthors who did not spot anything wrong.

***

Here are the other reports/analyses by Nicholas Wade:

Researcher Faked Evidence of Human Cloning, Koreans Report (January 10, 2006).

One Last Question: Who Did the Work? (January 17, 2006)

Lowering Expectations at Science’s Frontier (January 15, 2006)

It May Look Authentic; Here’s How to Tell It Isn’t (January 24, 2006)

More on the Hwang Woo Suk scandal

Just a quick set of links:

New York Times’ Gina Kolata has a report about the process by which a paper in Science is retracted.

Via slashdot, we learn of this crazy defence by Hwang Woo Suk; he has the temerity to talk about a long-planned conspiracy.

The most poignant reaction is by Elia Diodati (link via Tangled Bank #44) who identifies the biggest loser in this scandal: no, it’s not Hwang Woo Suk, nor his department/university, nor yet his collaborators. It’s not even the South Korean Pride. Then who?

the little guys slaving 20 hours a day over dimly lit lab benches are the ones who get the brunt of the stigmata. Imagine what it’s like to take the first tentative footsteps into the world of academia/R&D, only to see their graduate careers terminated with alacrity once their advisors commit unpardonable breaches of ethics or make similar blunders like putting all their eggs in a basket and gambling their entire reputation on a research project that simply didn’t pan out.

This is such a shame.