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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Scientists Who Cheat

There is no glamour in doing science.

Long, tedious hours in the lab. The frustration, the uncertainty, the heated arguments, the tears - I've seen them all.

I'm sure many researchers, including myself, fantasize about chancing upon a big discovery that will make a difference to our field, or even to the world.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature is boss. The most elegant hypothesis can be felled by a single spartan experiment.

After a string of negative results, it isn't funny any more. That is our lot.

Then again, some researchers won't let Nature get in the way of a great discovery.

They simply cook up their results.

One such case was recently confirmed. In the latest edition of Science (27 Jul 2007), a research group from the University of Missouri-Columbia has retracted their paper due to evidence of fabricated data.

The first author of this paper has resigned and gone missing.

There are many reasons why some scientists would engage in fraud, but I won't go into the details here. For a summary of possible motivations and some notable cases of scientific fraud, click here to read the Wikipedia entry.

Suffice to say, scientific fraud doesn't happen often and the ramifications are severe for those who are caught.

Instead of an in-depth and formal analysis, Fresh Brainz is bringing you a more personal approach - three cases of fraud that I was aware of during my six years of doing science.

To share with you some of my personal views, and the response of the scientific community at that time:

Jan Hendrik Schon

Specialization: Condensed matter physics and nanotechnology
Purported discovery: Molecular-scale organic transistors, unprecedented levels of induced superconductivity
Highest position reached: Scientist, Bell Labs
Period of fraud: 2000 - 2001
Fraud uncovered by: Other physicists (Prof. Lydia Sohn, Prof. Paul McEuen and others)

2002-03 - 21 scientific papers in Nature, Science and Physical Review journals were retracted
Sept 2002 - Fired by Bell Labs
Jun 2004 - PhD revoked (under appeal)
Oct 2004 - Sanctions against him by German Research Foundation

The first case of scientific fraud that I ever knew in detail was the Schon scandal.

In early 2003, I was a newbie research assistant, and my colleague told me Schon's story during lunch while chatting about the competitive environment in science.

About how a young hotshot physicist suddenly shot to fame by publishing paper after paper of impeccable results in top scientific journals.

In his hands, every experiment seemed to work perfectly. If his results were confirmed, we could produce incredibly tiny, high performance computers using molecular transistors.

A huge discovery.

Thus, despite his youth, there were serious discussions about nominating Schon for the Nobel Prize.

Then one day, it started to fall apart.

Schon submitted two manuscripts to the prestigious journals Nature and Science. They were supposed to be results of two different sets of experiments, done at different temperatures.

Unfortunately, because of his negligence (or sheer complacency), Schon submitted the exact same data curve to both journals!

A senior physicist noticed the striking similarity of the noise patterns in both curves. Although Schon tried to convince the editors that this was a honest mistake, suspicions were growing.

In addition, nobody else could repeat his results. In time more evidence of duplicate results was uncovered and an investigation was launched.

It turned out that instead of performing experiments, Schon was fabricating these perfect data curves using software.

He was fired.

His home university even tried to revoke his PhD degree, which he earned through genuine research.

Back then I had no idea how serious this was to physicists. Since I was in biology, the Schon scandal did not affect me directly.

Now I know that this and the Ninov affair shook the physics community severely. Deliberate fraud, often thought to be the sole preserve of life/social sciences, had infected the hard sciences as well.

Hwang Woo-Suk

Embryonic stem cell biology
Purported discovery: Technology to generate patient-specific stem cell lines
Highest position reached: Professor, Seoul National University
Period of fraud: 2004 - 2005
Fraud uncovered by: Online scientific community in South Korea, on websites such as

2006 - Two scientific papers in Science were retracted
Mar 2006 - Dismissed by SNU
May 2006 - Charged with fraud, embezzlement and breach of bioethics law

The most spectacular case of scientific fraud I know is the Hwang Woo-Suk debacle.

The massive scale of this story, the shattered hopes and loss of national pride that is entangled within - guarantees that it will be turned into a book someday.

Unlike the Schon case, the Hwang debacle had a major impact on the biology community.

In the beginning, no one had a clue.

When Hwang published his first paper in Science, people barely knew of the existence of his research group.

Then on 19 May 2005 (Sciencexpress), he published results on his technique to produce patient-specific stem cell lines - 11 human cell lines using only 185 eggs.

A rate of efficiency never before achieved.

This was a wake-up call for the entire community. Fellow scientists were stunned by his progress. I recall a meeting where stem cell researchers sat together to take his paper apart, figure by figure:

How did they do this? Was it because of their gentle technique to isolate the nucleus? Was it because they had access to fresh human eggs? How???

Everyone was impressed. I'll give you a concrete example.

One night at about 8 pm, a senior scientist entered our lab and seeing only me around (no, I wasn't hardworking, just slow) remarked:

Where is everyone? Why are they NOT in the lab? Do you realize that the Koreans are working around the clock to produce their results? What they are doing is 1000 times more difficult than what we are doing!

And I agreed.

At that time, I really believed that the Koreans were now leading the world in stem cell research.

Indeed, the South Korean government conferred the title of "Supreme Scientist" on Hwang that June. Nationalistic pride had been whipped up to a fever pitch.

Sadly, things began to unravel.

The first criticisms directed at Hwang were mainly ethical concerns.

Then, in a series of online discussions on science websites in Korea, other researchers observed some discrepancies in Hwang's data.

Some photos appear duplicated. Others, like this one here, overlap perfectly with previously published photos featuring ordinary stem cell colonies.

Something fishy going on.

To cut a long story short, after a long and exhaustive investigation it was revealed that none of the patient-specific cell lines were real, not even the initial line reported in 2004.

It was one gigantic scam. But few people saw it coming.

Many Koreans refused to accept the investigation results, prefering to believe in conspiracy theories instead.

And despite evidence to the contrary, Hwang himself still insists that the technology to create patient-specific stem cells remains in South Korea.

To me, the Hwang debacle was a big disappointment. Scientific competition aside, it was still encouraging to see rapid scientific progress from a fellow Asian tiger, which can help accelerate the pace of stem cell technologies toward the clinic - if the research was even partially real.

Alas it was not to be.

Kaushik Deb

Specialization: Developmental biology
Purported discovery: Cell fate in the mouse embryo is already determined at the two-cell stage
Highest position reached: Post-doctoral fellow, University of Missouri-Columbia
Period of fraud: 2006
Fraud discovered by: Other biologists (Prof. Janet Rossant, Prof. Davor Solter and others)

2007 - Scientific paper in Science was retracted
Jul 2006 - Resigned from UM, currently uncontactable

Unlike the previous story, this latest case of fraud was suspicious right from the start.

This is because Deb and his colleagues published results that flew in the face of existing knowledge. In February 2006, we had a lab meeting to discuss their dubious data in detail.

For instance, they showed that a gene, called Cdx2, was expressed very early during mouse embryo development.

They claim that it is present in the one-cell stage embryo. But mouse embryos don't produce their own protein (zygotic activation) until the two-cell stage. So the Cdx2 should have come from the mother, through the egg. But the photos show no Cdx2 in the eggs.

Really weird.

In addition, the quality of the photos appeared too perfect to be authentic. Staining results were crystal clear with almost no background noise.

To make things worse, nobody can replicate their results. Most labs only see Cdx2 expression at the 8-cell stage.

A group of senior biologists alerted Science magazine when they realized that (yet again!) data in the study appear to be duplicated.

Take these two photos, for example, which were supposed to be of two different 3-cell embryos injected with a red dye for two different experiments.

If you ignore the red colour and just focus on the shape of the cells, you can see that they are identical embryos!*

Apart from a few embellishments in Figure I, even the specks of dirt around the embryo are identical.

The photo manipulation is so blatant that it's amazing.

But what's more amazing is that I didn't notice it until it was pointed out. Even though both photos are on the same page (in different sections)!

We trust fellow scientists to produce honest-to-goodness data, to collect sufficient evidence before they announce their earth-shattering discoveries.

However as Wikipedia observes, a few scientists...

... intend to introduce a fact that they believe is true, without going to the trouble and difficulty of actually performing the experiments required.


But not wise.

Would you like to know more?
The dark secret of Hendrik Schon
Korean cloning hero deconstructed online
- Magazine to retract MU study

*Thanks to AH for pointing this out.


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Sivasothi said...

Nice article, happened to read it at 5am and it was interesting!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Sivasothi,

Thanks! I'm glad you like it. I try to alternate between heavier articles (like this one) and more entertaining science fluff, so that everyone can find something interesting to read on Fresh Brainz.

Have a great day!

PZ said...

How can any scientist be so intelligent yet so stupid?

Surely they know that their fabricated data and experiments would not be able to be replicated and the truth will out?


ah said...

Yeah! Famous again!

Yeah, just amazingly blatant stuff from Deb et al.

There's quite a few more examples of scientific fraud and it is much more widespread than scientists like to admit.

Also two 'lesser' forms of fraud (as opposed to blatant lying) are fraud by incompetence (you don't know what you are doing) and cherry-picking (picking results that match your model, discarding the rest). Both are rampant in science.

What to do?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To PZ:

I'm not sure why. Perhaps they were blinded by ambition.

Both Ninov and Hwang continue to insist that their discoveries are real.

I guess they wanted to do a "pre-emptive strike" and claim a discovery before the evidence comes in, hoping to buy time to actually back up their claims. But they couldn't produce any results.

To AH:

Thanks for pointing the photos out at the meeting. All three cases here were felled by duplicated data. Amazing similarity, but as you say, hindsight is 20/20.

As for other types of fraud, well there is a saying in Hokkien (OK it's a comedy language, whatever):
Where there is people, there will be mischief.

Inside science they look bad, but this sort of behaviour is much, much more common in some other fields like...


kamel said...

Nice post, interesting stuff.

Lab Rat said...

These are only the high profile cases; many, many more cases go virtually undetected. I had to review a bunch of papers for a local conference, and among those few papers I had been handed, we found one that was outright plagiarism (off some course notes found over the internet, no less!), and another with some "data massaging". Both got tossed out, but they did not go without a fight.

The Schoen case was interesting - I had the good fortune to be in the next lab as Paul McEuen when it happened, so I got a blow-by-blow account of what happened. It was even funnier when BBC came down to do a documentary with re-enacted scenes. :)

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Kamel:

Thanks for the compliment!

To Lab Rat:

Ah you have first-hand info on the Schon case. Did the BBC shoot their documentary at the actual location?

Lab Rat said...

The crew shot a lot of laboratory footage at the Cornell physics department, and the interviews with the Bell Labs people was at Bell Labs itself.

It was a godawful documentary, at any rate. I still have a DVD of it somewhere; we laughed so hard when we saw it. I mean, grey goo? Come on!

The Bell Labs report is much more informative; it's probably still floating out on the net somewhere.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Most interesting. Thanks for the first-hand info!