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Science Fraud Peer Review

Science Fraud Peer Review

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Published by: aw1435 on Mar 13, 2010
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03/13/2010

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Science will stick with peer review
ANALYSIS
By Paul Rincon and Jonathan AmosBBC News science reporters
It was late on a Wednesday night in February 2004 that DrHwang Woo-suk and his entourage swept into the Grand HyattHotel in Seattle to meet the BBC.
 The South Korean scientists had just flown in to the US city toannounce an astonishing breakthrough: they had cloned 30 humanembryos and managed to extract stem cells from one of them.Their "advance" was set to take us into a new era; a new type of medicine beckoned that had the potentialto roll back the degenerative processes that rack the body as it ages.At that stage, Hwang was largely unknown; certainly those outside his field or in the general public wouldnot have heard of him.But as he sat there in the office patiently repeating his comments for all of the BBC's TV, radio and online outlets, it was easy to becomfortable with this man; his clarity, his purpose and his passionwere all impressive - and persuasive.We now know we were interviewing a fraud. Not only was that landmark 2004 work highly dubious, Hwang'sresearch published a year later on cloned personalised stem celllines was also built on fabricated data."This conduct cannot but be seen as an act that attempted to fool the whole scientific community and the public," said Professor Chung Myung-hee, head of the Seoul National University (SNU) panelinvestigating the affair.
Getting away with it
 We all have so many questions. Why did he do it? How did he expect to get away with it? And, was thereanything that could have, or should have, been done to pick up the great con much earlier.The last question, quite naturally, is being directed at Science magazine, which published the 2004 and2005 manuscripts; and at the process of "peer review" which it, andother leading journals, use to check papers before they publish them.That process is supposed to ensure that any study's methodology issound and that interpretation of data does not go beyond what can bereasonably justified.Science magazine is continuing its own internal review but its Editor in Chief, Dr Donald Kennedy, is doubtful there are any systematicflaws in the peer review process that made the Korean fraud anyeasier.
Science will examine itself inthe light of the Hwang affair 
[Peer review] is a bit likedemocracy: it's a lousysystem but it's the best onewe have
 Liz Wager, publicationsconsultantThe Korean's Seattleannouncement on cloning was big news
 
"We've had a couple of papers in Science in the last four or five years that plainly involved scientificmisconduct, ultimately discovered on investigation and publicised," he told reporters last month."We were asked questions about those papers and I said, editorially, each time that there is no way that the peer review system can be made proof against misrepresentation of data."It has been suggested that on particularly contentious or high profile research, reviewers should do morethan just read through manuscripts to check they add up; could materials also be submitted for independentanalysis and verification?
Extra checks?
 "You can only assess the science in terms of what is in the paper, and the data looked accurate," Dr StephenMinger, director of King's Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, UK, told the BBC News website."I know at least one person who reviewed the original paper, and they were convinced the data was real;and short of going to the lab, and physically inspecting the data yourself, and saying 'I want to see the cells,I want to do the DNA analyses myself' - you just cannot do that physically."On that, Dr Kennedy is in agreement. Insisting replication of data by an independent group be part of thereferring process would be a nightmare, he believes."I think that to install a procedure by which replication by a third party was required for acceptance of a manuscript would imposesimply an enormous load on our readership and the scientificcommunity," he said.Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at NewcastleUniversity, UK, commented: "We don't want to become bureaucratic, because that will hold up everything. But sometimesas a scientist, your biggest critics will be in the organisation youwork at. They're the ones you should look to for advice."The Newcastle stem cell expert said there should be internal review procedures within universities andscientific institutions to evaluate research before it is submitted to academic journals for peer review.Freelance publications consultant Liz Wager agrees there needs to be improved governance of scientificresearch by universities and institutions."This kind of thing has to be policed at the departmental and institutional level; they actually know what'sgoing on. They need to create an environment in which a whistleblower can feel safe."She added: "Once the paper reaches a journal, it can be one that is on another continent. The journal can'tinvestigate, speak to lots of other people involved or look at the lab notes."Peer review is good at calming down over-optimistic claims and improving the presentation, but theevidence shows it is really bad at picking out very major fraud."
Wider scrutiny
 Of course, when fraudulent scientific papers enter the larger literature, there is always the possibility thatthey will be exposed when other researchers try to replicate, or repeat, the findings themselves.
We think it would beharder for people toplagiarise work once you cando extensive word searchesand access more materialfree on the internet
 Robert Terry, Wellcome Trust
 
But Professor McGuckin says the community should not be satisfiedto leave it to this: "When you have something that is such amomentous breakthrough, we should find someone else in the worldto do it, too. And then we can be sure that it works," he said.It is a point recognised by Dr Elaine Ostrander. The canine scientistfrom the US National Human Genome Research Institute was asked by the journal Nature to check the validity of Hwang's cloned dog,Snuppy.She believes certain papers, because of their importance, may infuture be subjected to a far more vigorous form of peer review."In hindsight, you would say, 'yes' - this sort of validation should be done on this kind of a scientific breakthrough," she told the BBC News website, "especially in the case of the dog where there are well-developed and recognised resources out there such as microsatellite markers for paternity testing."Some scientists say that one of the benefits of the "open access" business model for journals - wherescientific papers are free for all to read in a web-based database - could be beneficial for picking up plagiarism and possibly other forms of misconduct.A great many scientific journals are subscription-based, so that readers have to pay to view research."We think it would be harder for people to plagiarise work once you can do extensive word searches andaccess more material free on the internet. You'll be able to spot where someone has lifted their work muchmore easily," says Robert Terry, senior policy adviser at the UK medical charity, the Wellcome Trust.
Oversight body
 When the US government set up the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in 1992, to investigate cases of misconduct in federally funded research, it saw an initial rise inallegations of malfeasance.This probably was not down to a real increase; it instead suggestedthat some significant proportion of scientific malpractice goesundetected. And some scientists think more oversight in other countries would be beneficial."Governments giving licences to work on stem cells could perhaps be better at monitoring how the work is coming out from their owncountries before it goes international," says Colin McGuckin.But, as Donald Kennedy suggests, there appear to be few options for fundamental changes to the peer review process that would make itharder for fraudulent papers to enter the scientific literature."Thousands of papers are reviewed every week, and peer reviewworks usually," says Ms Wager."There aren't any alternative models to peer review. It's a bit likedemocracy: it's a lousy system but it's the best one we have.
Snuppy (right) has beenconfirmed as the first dogcloneThe fall from grace wasinevitable

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