Without honesty science loses authority, power

Prof D. Gareth Jones asks whether we, the public, can trust what scientists write and say. What about the cases of scientific fraud that appear from time to time in the media?

Never trust those who make staggering claims that seem to be too good to be true - as in other areas of life, they will let you down.

One of the most notorious cases of scientific fraud of recent years was that of Woo Suk Hwang, who in 2004 claimed to have cloned a human embryo and not only that but had produced stem cells from it.

This was universally seen as a breakthrough of momentous proportions, one that opened up a glittering array of possibilities within reproductive science and regenerative medicine.

Not surprisingly it was accompanied by enormous fanfare.

Unfortunately, all was not well, and it soon emerged that there had been a string of unethical incidents including fabrication of core data.

The intense disappointment elicited by the whole incident resulted from a number of factors.

An exciting scientific breakthrough appeared to have come to nothing, and the potential for exciting treatments disappeared into thin air.

The vista of repairing diseased organs and tissues with stem cells from the patients themselves seemed to be a mirage.

Adding to the murkiness of the affair was the manner in which the human eggs had been obtained.

They had been donated by young female researchers in his lab, a clear conflict of interest, since the women may have been coerced into ''donating''.

Not only this, some donors had been paid for their eggs. Finally, it was admitted that junior researchers had been ordered to fabricate data, placing them in an untenable moral position.

Thankfully, fraud on this scale is not a regular occurrence, and it is never straightforward.

But how was this fraud exposed? As nearly always happens, it was a junior researcher who went public with his concerns. In this instance, the individual's identity remained secret for eight years.

The whistleblower's suspicions were aroused by the speed with which some of the new data and publications were appearing in what is a very difficult field technically.

The whistleblower, Young-Joon Ryu, became deeply concerned when he learnt a clinical trial on a 10-year-old boy was on the horizon.

Promises that this boy would be able to walk again after a spinal cord injury incensed him, since the scientific data were nowhere near good enough for the procedure to produce this result.

Unfortunately, as so often happens to whistle blowers, he was ostracised for some time before he could again find paid employment.

Fittingly, he also completed a PhD in bioethics and safe research. He continues to be the butt of negative comments.

Woo Suk Hwang is not typical of all fraudsters. Most disappear into oblivion, their scientific careers in tatters.

Dr Hwang, however, still has a laboratory where he and others clone animals, notably dogs, along with cows and pigs.

They publish their results in respectable journals, and to all intents and purposes are doing good science.

Even the cloning of a human stem cell line from a cloned embryo was accomplished in 2013, albeit by different researchers in quite a different lab.

What can we learn from this sad episode?

First, there is never any excuse for fraud, and it is tragic its incidence appears to be increasing at an alarming rate.

I teach a session on scientific fraud to a class of advanced undergraduate science students towards the start of each academic year.

I use case studies of fraud, and each year I use a completely different set of cases that have come to light over the previous 12 months. I never have difficulty in finding new examples.

Second, the tragedy of fraud is matched by the generally self-correcting nature of science. Fraudsters generally get found out.

And even if they don't, their ''results'' will disappear since no-one is able to repeat them.

Third, fraud does science a grave disservice. Truth and honesty go hand in hand, and without them science loses both its authority and its power.

If we cannot trust published results, the scientific enterprise collapses. Deceptive science is not science.

Fourth, in the biomedical and clinical areas, fraudulent results misguidedly raise the hopes of thousands of desperately ill patients with their false promises of cures and spectacular advances.

When the deception is exposed or when the ''cures'' turn out to be useless, the hopes of patients are cruelly shattered.

The take-home message is that you should not believe everything you read or see in the media (and even sometimes in the scientific literature), particularly when it purports to provide dramatic cures to devastating illnesses or injuries.

Never trust those who make staggering claims that seem to be too good to be true - as in other areas of life, they will let you down.

We should be grateful for whistle blowers - those who expose the suspected fraud.

Unfortunately, they have a very hard time and generally suffer as a result of their actions - even when ultimately proved correct.

Every effort should be made to protect genuine whistle blowers and ensure that their careers are not ruined by their ethical actions.

Unfortunately, no-one has yet found a satisfactory way of doing this. But we need to be cautious.

Not all whistle blowers are exemplary. Some are a menace, acting anonymously, covertly shadowing researchers in attempts to uncover research misconduct, or sending numerous accusatory emails to journal editors.

It is such a shame that the pressures in the current research environment are so severe that people are driven to take short cuts, to publish too rapidly, and occasionally to fiddle the books. Surely, there must be a better way.

Prof D. Gareth Jones is an emeritus professor of anatomy at the University of Otago.

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