Science will tighten standards after retracting stem cell papers

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 07 December 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:1189
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne
  1. 1New York

    The editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, said that his journal would tighten its review procedures and would work with Nature and other leading journals to try to identify fraudulent papers.

    He was speaking last week at a press conference with John Brauman, professor of chemistry at Stanford University, who headed an independent committee formed after Science retracted two papers by the South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk. The committee was set up to look into the way the journal handled the papers.

    Professor Hwang's papers reported the creation of stem cells from cloned human embryos and the production of stem cells matched to the donors (Science 2004;303:1669-74; 2005;308:1777-83). A whistleblower and South Korean journalists revealed that the papers were fraudulent.

    Dr Kennedy's editorial giving his response to the committee's findings was published last week (Science 2006;314:1353). The editorial, the committee's report, and related information are gathered together on the journal's website (

    The report calls for more stringent reviewing of papers and says that the journal should use a “risk assessment” that asks “questions about the probability that the work might be intentionally deceptive, or just wrong, and the consequences for the reputation of Science and science, and for other issues (public policy, intellectual property, academic credit).”

    It continues: “Papers that are likely to have high visibility, for example in climate, energy, human health, etc, should get special scrutiny.”

    Perhaps only 10 papers submitted to Science each year need extra careful investigation, said Dr Kennedy. He said that Science may ask authors to describe their roles in the study and may also ask for original data, images, or other material.

    Dr Kennedy and Dr Brauman said that even though better reviewing procedures were needed, Professor Hwang's fraudulent papers might not have been discovered. Dr Brauman said that the papers were very carefully reviewed and that Science's editors expressed “unease” about them. In its investigation the committee found a careful paper trail showing comments by editors, requests for more information, telephone calls, and requests for revisions to clarify the first paper. In the case of the second paper the authors and editors were more familiar with the procedure, so it went more smoothly.

    Dr Kennedy said, “Part of that unease was due to the fact that there were IRB [institutional review board] reports and reports with respect to egg donation … that we couldn't readily deal with because they were in a language [Korean] that we had to have translated.

    “We had some of them translated twice before we could be absolutely sure that they fulfilled the criteria. In fact it turns out that some of these [reports] were probably bogus.

    “If you receive a paper from a country in which neither language nor all of the cultural assumptions and understandings exist [in the same way as in the United States], that will present additional difficulties. On the other hand we don't want to engage in profiling. It would be really unfair if we started looking extra hard at papers from some emerging scientific powers in countries like South Korea.”

    Professor Hwang's papers involved several institutions, Dr Kennedy said. “We had every reason to believe it was a well functioning collaboration in which important roles … were being played by different players.

    “[The] fraud was so convincing that peer reviewers didn't catch it … Many US scientists who had heard the work described at small meetings in great detail by Hwang and his collaborators, and US scientists who had visited that laboratory in South Korea, were surprised and even astonished when the work turned out to be fraudulent … I'm not going to tell anybody that we could develop—even following the committee's good advice—mechanisms that will detect fraud 100% of the time.”

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