Adventures in Ethics and Science

Who’s duping whom?

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education there’s a piece on Gerald Schatten’s role in the Korean stem cell mess. It’s an interesting piece, written without Dr. Schatten’s participation — he’s keeping quiet while the University of Pittsburgh conducts its investigation of him. (Worth noting, from the article: “Pittsburgh began investigating Mr. Schatten, at his own request, with a six-person panel that first met on December 14.”)

Given Schatten’s non-participation in the article, the portrait of him that emerges turns on the impressions of his friends and acquaintances, past collaborators and competitors. We can only guess at what might have been going on inside Schatten’s mind at crucial points as events unfolded. But perhaps, at least for the purposes of trying to spare other scientists from the professional horrors to which Schatten now finds himself subjected, it would be useful to identify some questions Schatten ought to have asked himself. After all, if we didn’t think we could learn something from experience, what the heck are we doing science for?

A common theme in the remarks of the people interviewed for the CHE article is that, whatever fabrication Hwang Woo Suk may have committed, Schatten surely did not participate in it:

No one contacted by The Chronicle believes that Mr. Schatten helped create the fake data, or even that he knew about the fraud. But many insist that because he was listed as senior author on the paper, he must take responsibility for the data it contains.

“I think he made a big mistake by putting his name on the paper,” says Barry D. Bavister, a professor of reproductive biology at the University of New Orleans.

While Schatten himself seems to have a reputation as an honest and ethical (as well as ambitious) scientist, he had at least one prior collaboration in which ethical problems arose:

It was at Wisconsin that Mr. Schatten unwittingly experienced a biomedical scandal at close range. In 1993 and 1994, he experimented on human eggs and embryos that he had received from a fertility specialist at the University of California at Irvine. In 1995 that researcher was revealed to have taken the tissues without the donors’ consent.

The California doctor had told Mr. Schatten that the eggs had been collected properly, and a Wisconsin investigation found no improprieties in Mr. Schatten’s work. The experience apparently disturbed him. “I’m shocked and I’m sickened for everybody,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal, a local newspaper.

Schatten was disturbed by the ethical problem in how the tissue on which he was experimenting had been obtained. He trusted the doctor obtaining the tissue to behave ethically; by all accounts, that doctor was the one who screwed up.

So Schatten kept working on his research:

He also became interested in working with human embryonic stem cells. But he was discouraged by the regulations that prevent researchers from using federal grant money to study all but a few already-existing stem-cell lines. Mr. Balczon, his former graduate student, says Mr. Schatten began traveling to California, England, and elsewhere, looking for collaborators where regulations were more liberal or other funds were available. He first visited the Seoul lab in 2003, says Dr. Snyder, of the Burnham Institute.

Dr. Hwang sought Mr. Schatten’s advice, according to Dr. Snyder, because of the American’s experience working with nonhuman primates. “It was kind of a natural step for both of them,” says the Burnham researcher.

The fateful meeting. To hear Schatten’s supporters tell it, he had no reason to believe that Hwang was anything other than another honest, talented, ambitious scientist working in the same general area of research. Given the overlap in their interests, and the fact that Korea provided a more favorable political climate for human stem cell research, the collaboration seemed obvious.

Events seem to have shown that Hwang was not what he seemed. That might raise questions about whether Schatten was what he seemed — and whether he might have been complicit in the fiction writing that produced the disputed 2005 Science paper.

Mr. Schatten’s public modesty has led many American researchers to ask, Just what did Mr. Schatten do? Did he do enough to justify authorship of the now-retracted paper?

Many believe that he performed some analysis of the data and wrote the paper in English. (A member of the Korean team, Curie Ahn, declined a Chronicle request for comment on Mr. Schatten’s role.) If all he did was to write the paper, he should not have been named an author, according to convention. Mr. Bavister, of New Orleans, helped write the 2004 Science paper in English for the Korean group. “That alone does not deserve co-authorship, which is why I’m not a co-author,” he says. The acknowledgments in that paper mention Mr. Bavister’s help.

But Mr. Schatten’s name appears last among the authors of the 2005 Science paper, a position normally reserved for the senior author who oversees the work and vouches for its accuracy. “As senior author, he’s responsible for everything,” says Rudolf Jaenisch, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“There’s a lesson here,” says Mr. Brinkley. “We should all be very, very cautious about lending our name to publications.”

Still, even scientists intimately involved in experiments might not be aware of fraud on their watch, particularly in the context of studies in which many scientists contribute to different parts of the research. The 2005 Science paper had 25 authors. “For someone who wants to deceive, it’s actually fairly easy,” says Mr. Donovan, of Johns Hopkins.

“The main thing he’s guilty of,” says Mr. Morrison, of the University of Michigan, “is a little greed, where the Koreans made this offer to make him senior author on a landmark paper, even though he didn’t really deserve the credit for it. Now, it’s also true that he doesn’t deserve the blame.”

There may be more relevant facts yet to come out, but this is enough to work with. Let’s accept the claim that Schatten was duped by Hwang. Could Schatten have avoided being a dupe? And, does Schatten bear some responsibility not just for being duped, but also for trying to dupe others?

Recall Schatten’s earier experience being misled by the doctor from Irvine as to whether donor’s consent had been obtained for the tissues on which he was experimenting. It’s not obvious whether Schatten asked the Irvine doctor if everything was on the level, ethically speaking, or whether he just assumed that it was. Either way, shouldn’t this experience have led him to ask explicitly about the ethical details in any future collaboration (including, say, the circumstances under which ova were “donated”)? Shouldn’t it have led him to consider additional means for verifying such information beyond the collaborator’s assurance? Having been surprised (maybe even duped) before on details of this sort, isn’t it only prudent to be much more cautious about these details, else risk being duped again?

Let’s assume Schatten had become more careful in his collaborations by the time he met Hwang. Let’s say Hwang gave Schatten all the reassurances he needed to hear. Was there any reason for Schatten to keep his guard up? Notice that, according to his former graduate student, Schatten was “looking for collaborators where regulations were more liberal”. As unreasonable as federal, state, and/or local regulations on stem cell research in the U.S. might be, Schatten was consciously seeking out collaborations with scientists working under different regulations than those to which scientists in the U.S. are accustomed. While regulations and norms are not always tightly coupled, it might be reasonable to ask whether scientists working in a different regulatory climate might also be making different assumptions about the norms governing responsible research. Taking active steps to identify the norms guiding Hwang and his research group — perhaps by making extended visits to this research group and hanging out in the lab for the mundane experimentation — might have been a very good idea for a collaborator coming in from a different regulatory (and possibly scientific) culture. At the very least, having an explicit discussion with Hwang about how things were done in his lab could have either yielded information about ways Hwang’s and Schatten’s assumptions about how to do responsible science diverged, or at least might have put Hwang on notice that Schatten had a thing for integrity — and might be a bad collaborator with whom to try to cut corners.

But, of course, from the information we have Schatten and Hwang didn’t have a full-fledged collaboration where this kind of checking would be appropriate. Rather than really being involved in Hwang’s research, reportedly, Schatten was just analyzing the data and writing the English version of the paper. The “technological advancements” — if any — of the Hwang group were all theirs; Schatten was just helping get them in print in a high-impact journal.

This would sound plausible if only Schatten’s name didn’t appear at the “senior author” locus. If, instead, he had been acknowledged in the paper for his help, the scandal would probably not be sticking to him at all.

I’ve blogged before about authorship issues and how they play out in this particular case. Here, let’s keep it simple: What kind of help might Schatten have thought he was giving Hwang by listing himself as senior author of the paper? What did Schatten think he was communicating (e.g., to readers of Science) by being so listed? And what did Schatten stand to gain by assuming authorship this way?

If Schatten didn’t view his contribution to the project as rather significant, why would he have accepted authorship of the paper rather than an acknowledgement? Yet, he claims to have been innocent of the unethical goings on — not just the coercion of ova from members of the lab, but the faking of data. Is data analysis and reworking of the paper enough to be listed as any kind of author here … or was part of Schatten’s contribution the power of his name, and reputation, attached to the research? Was Schatten using his own credibility to vouch for Hwang’s?

If so, by not getting a better sense of what Hwang was up to, it seems Schatten sold his credibility for too little.

Of course, one could argue that nowhere on the paper does it explicitly state that Schatten was the “senior author,” even if people might make that assumption from the placement of his name. However, this assumption is an utterly predictable assumption. If it would be a bad assumption for readers to make about Schatten in the 2005 Science paper, he should have found an unambiguous way to indicate that he was not the senior author.

Removing the ambiguity, though, might undercut the “credibility” contribution Schatten’s name and reputation brought to the project. In other words, some level of deception on Schatten’s part about Schatten’s own level of involvement may have been intentional. If it was not intentional, it was utterly forseeable and reflects at least a carelessness with the truth.

And given that the ambiguity about Schatten’s degree of involvement stood to increase his scientific capital back when the results seemed legitimate, it looks like either Schatten decided to loan out some of his credibility to recoup some prestige, or like he might be too gullible and unaware of the complexities of reading the authors line to be allowed to practice science without a guardian.

It’s one thing to be duped by a scientist whose lab is thousands of miles away. But to portray yourself as the dupe when you have, consciously or not, duped readers about your level of involvement in and accountability for a major achievement coming out of that lab — well, either you have to work on some self-awareness issues, or maybe you didn’t try too vigorously not to be duped.


  1. #1 Polly Anna
    January 28, 2006

    “I take it very personally”—Dr. Free-Ride, 26 Jan. ?06

    Taking credit for work that one did not do (faked or that of others) by active authorship or indirect authorship is merely another form of plagiarism independent of the validity of the material.

    “Evil” for all the reasons you laid out and more.

    Those who promote and accept plagiarism including the journal owners, the editors, the reviewers hiding behind anonymity, and the reward and funding system are equally culpable.

    If I sound too much like Ward Churchill regarding breadth of responsibility on this issue, it’s because I’m hurt, offended and a little mad for a polyanna who still believes that science is most productive as an individual intellectual enterprise and in educating independent responsible scientists beyond dependent technicians. Technicians well designed and qualified to blindly keep the data output, pub number, citation rate and grant dollar flow up as well as the ego fed at any personal cost to serve the big scientific plantation system.


  2. #2 Hal
    January 29, 2006

    “Of course, one could argue that nowhere on the paper does it explicitly state that Schatten was the “senior author,” even if people might make that assumption from the placement of his name. However, this assumption is an utterly predictable assumption. If it would be a bad assumption for readers to make about Schatten in the 2005 Science paper, he should have found an unambiguous way to indicate that he was not the senior author.”

    In fact, it was explicitly stated in the paper that both Hwang and Schatten were the corresponding authors of the paper. So, there is no excuse for Schatten. As you wrote before, Schatten also asked Science to remove his name from the paper before Hwang eventually agreeing to retract the paper, as if that was all he needed to distance himself from this mess.

    Quoting “General Information for Authors” of Science:
    By submitting a manuscript, the corresponding author accepts the responsibility that all authors have agreed to be so listed and have seen and approved the manuscript, its content, and its submission to Science. Any changes in authorship must be approved in writing by all the original authors.”

    One way of preventing authors from getting credits they don’t deserve as well as minimizing the damage caused by fraudulent coauthors is to specify the contributions made by the coauthors in the paper, as Nature encourages:
    “Nature prefers authors to be listed without details of relative status, but instead to specify the contribution made by their co-authors in the end notes of the paper. Nature strongly encourages coauthors to specify their contributions in this way.”

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    January 29, 2006

    It doesn’t appear that Schatten was involved outright in any fraud (although time will tell), but I thought this was interesting. The Chronicle article notes:

    The Pittsburgh panel expects to conclude its work in February, according to a university spokeswoman. It is investigating the 2005 Science paper and the Nature paper about the cloned dog, even though the South Korean panel found the animal to be a real clone. The Pittsburgh panel is not investigating the 2004 paper on monkeys, in Developmental Biology. “I don’t think there’s any reason to question the authenticity of the data in that paper,” says Dartmouth’s Mr. Compton. “The experiments were performed in Pittsburgh.”

    I think it’s pretty strange that they’re not investigating Schatten’s Developmental Biology paper, considering that the application of Hwang’s technique led to such a sudden success in cloning monkeys, an area that had apparently given Schatten a lot of trouble before.

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