Adventures in Ethics and Science

“Research misbehavior”

Catching up on news that broke while I was doing stuff: the results of the University of Pittsburgh investigation of Gerald Shatten’s conduct are out. As reported in the New York Times:

Dr. Gerald P. Schatten, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh who was involved with Dr. Hwang Woo Suk and his discredited claim to have cloned human cells, was accused yesterday of “research misbehavior” by an investigative panel appointed by the university.

That’s right, not research misconduct (which has a more or less standard definition, at least from the point of view of federal funders of scientific research like NSF and NIH). Research misbehavior. My interpretation of this verdict: “We can’t nail you on a high crime against science (i.e., fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism), but you were sleazy in your conduct.”

And, judging from the findings of the panel investigating Schatten’s conduct, the sleaze was rather relevant to Schatten’s reliability as a member of the community of science.

Continuing from the NY Times article:

The panel’s report, from which the university released just a summary, outlined the commingling of interests that developed after Dr. Schatten met Dr. Hwang in December 2003 at a conference in Seoul. Dr. Hwang told Dr. Schatten that he had cloned human cells, but that Science had just rejected his paper.

Dr. Schatten volunteered to help revise it, the panel said, and “lobbied hard for publication of this paper in Science, without any direct knowledge of the veracity of the data.”

The paper was published in March 2004. The two men then began planning the 2005 paper, the report said, and early in the process Dr. Hwang invited Dr. Schatten to be the senior author.

So far, this looks innocent enough. One scientist tries to help another get his results into print where they can be of use to other scientists in the field. Sure, Hwang would also get acclaim for such a splashy result. And seemingly, Hwang was offering Schatten “guest authorship” to thank him for his troubles. We’ve discussed this before. But, unlike a muffin-basket, authorship is not a gift that comes without responsibilities:

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.

Schatten could hardly be innocent of the knowledge that senior authors bear this kind of responsibility. Perhaps he should have asked for a muffin-basket instead. Except, it appears, he was aiming for a bigger payoff:

Dr. Schatten entered into the relationship with Dr. Hwang “not only to help a colleague whom he admired,” the panel said, but also to gain some “reputational enhancement.” He nominated Dr. Hwang for foreign membership in the National Academy of Sciences and a Nobel Prize.

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.

So far, I’m happy to say that this behavior is primarily a matter of greed (for research monies and “reputational enhancement”). If that were all, I’d be happy to shrug and say, “Eh, human foibles.” But there’s more:

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.

(Bold emphasis added.)

In other words, the panel found that Schatten lied. He lied to a scientific journal. He lied to investigatory panels. He lied as the scientific community was trying to figure out the reliability of high profile scientific results.

While some (not me!) have argued that it might be OK for scientists to, erm, stretch the truth when communicating with lay people, the project of science — of a community of scientists doing research and publishing it to build scientific knowledge that the whole community can use — only works if the people doing it are committed to the facts. The empirical evidence the Pittsburgh panel amassed seems to show that Schatten lacked that commitment. Perhaps the lies in which he was caught lay along the self-aggrandizement/saving one’s skin axis. Perhaps this is no reason to think that he would actually lie about what he observes in the lab. But given that publishing brings with it the opportunity for “reputational enhancement”, isn’t it a gamble to take Schatten at his word about future manuscripts?

If the empirical evidence shows that Schatten is a liar, it seems to me that the burden now falls on him, from here on out, to present evidence of his reliability. I’m a firm believer that people can change their behavior. However, “credulous” is not an adjective the community of scientists wears comfortably.

Just a bit more from the article:

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.

The editor of Science, Dr. Donald Kennedy, said, “If that’s a sin, the jails will soon be full.”

The lobbying for the 2004 paper “was not out of line, but it was toward the edge,” Dr. Kennedy said. The lobbying, he added, had no influence on the publication decision, because Science had already invited Dr. Hwang to resubmit his paper.

Memo to Dr. Kennedy: We’re not (yet) jailing people for sinning; you have to do a crime to do the time. There are loads of sins — behaviors we agree are despicable — that are perfectly legal. But, given Kennedy’s comment, while these behaviors are despicable, they are prevalent (else the jails we’d be filling are very small).

Could this mean that it’s time for the community of science to stop tolerating these sins? Is it time, perhaps, for some serious shunning of scientists with more casual relationships with the truth? Stern talkings to? Strongly worded letters? Let the sinners into your lab, but follow them around to make sure they don’t swipe anything?

By all accounts, Gerald Schatten is a very talented scientist. These incidents, however, make it look like he is no longer a reliable truth-yielding instrument. Can he still be of value to the scientific community?

Naive philosopher that I am, I believe in the possibility of redemption. At this point, Schatten’s best option might be to undergo a transformation — not just in his ability to stick to the truth, but also in the relative importance he grants to the goodness of the shared body of scientific knowledge versus the prospects of individual “reputational enhancement” — and make it his mission to help others to avoid the pitfalls he jumped into.

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Of course, Nick Anthis has interesting things to say about the panel’s verdict, too.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    February 14, 2006

    Perhaps this is no reason to think that he would actually lie about what he observes in the lab.

    Maybe not, but I wouldn’t work with him. Or publish him without seeing the raw data — preferably repeated by another lab.

    Come to think of it, there might be something in that: if “research misbehaviour” is going to mean anything, perhaps anyone convicted of it should have to face additional burdens of proof, at least for a time, in getting their research published.

  2. #2 paul
    February 14, 2006

    If you had to shun all the scientists who lied every now and then, I’m not sure, alas, how much of an establishment would be left. The upper reaches of the scientific enterprise seem rather more like those of politics than one would like.

  3. #3 Abi
    February 15, 2006

    Suppose X lends his/her name to a paper without having been an active participant in the research behind it. Suppose further that X is also the lead author, commensurate with X’s ‘stature’.

    I don’t understand why this isn’t a crime — a fraud — against science. Why would it be a ‘mere’ misbehaviour?

    It’s interesting that Paul (in Comment #2) mentions politics. Just imagine the penalty that a politician is likely to pay if he/she was caught lying! Similarly, would the court accept the argument (say, from Enron’s former CEO) that he just ‘lent’ his signature to all the documents, and that he really was not in the loop?

  4. #4 dlamming
    February 15, 2006

    It’s clear that he crossed a very serious line – but you’re also right, in that he pretty much he was just a little “sleazy” but didn’t commit a crime. It seems pretty much just like Clinton – if he did lie, it was during the coverup of something that was unbecoming and unethical, but was not in and of itself a crime.

    That said, when you associate with people who falsify data, people are going to start to wonder…

  5. #5 dya
    February 21, 2006

    I am amazed to see people justifying means with ends. Is there a fine line between a scholar and a crook? What a nonsense.

    Do you find any evidence that Einstein or Hawking lied about their theories?

    Just to hear someone saying “If you had to shun all the scientists who lied every now and then, I’m not sure, alas, how much of an establishment would be left.” is simply beyond belief.

    Someone told me once that brilliance cannot be learned. Scientists must accept their limits and at least be faithful to science, if they are not very gifted.

    What has this world come to?

  6. #6 hwang
    March 14, 2006

    schatten is the smarter crook.

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  8. #8 e.a.greenhalgh
    August 1, 2006

    You all seem to miss the point. Scientists are given money after signing asurances to tell the truth. If a scientist lies it is not a small lie , it can deny people their very lives. Note, I am a blacklisted scientist who would not lie, see http://www.cancerfraudbadbiotech.com who has survived cancer because of my theories, BUT how many people have died because these theories were blocked so fraud could be covered up. Look , if you are going to claim your research is important to saving lives, then you better tell the truth or go to jail. If not don’t do serious research. Go write honest science fiction for Star Trek or something where real people don’t die. Thank you. E.A.Greenhalgh