News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

University clears scientist of misconduct but says his conduct was misbehaviour

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7538.382-d (Published 16 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:382
  1. Jane Parry
  1. Hong Kong

    The University of Pittsburgh has cleared Gerald Schatten, director of its department of obstetrics, gynaecology, and reproductive sciences, of any scientific misconduct in his collaboration with the disgraced Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk. The university's research integrity panel has investigated Dr Schatten's role in a paper published in Science (2005;308:1777-83), which was one of two withdrawn by the journal in January after revelations that they were based on falsified data.

    Although the panel concluded that Dr Schatten was not involved in the falsification of data and that he was not aware of the misconduct that led to Professor Hwang's resignation from Seoul National University, it accused him of shirking his responsibilities as co-author of the paper.

    Its criticism of Dr Schatten centred on why he did not take greater steps to ensure the veracity of the data supporting the paper's claims. During the course of the investigation, Dr Schatten also sought to downplay his role as senior author of the paper, but his attempts to deny that he was not strictly speaking a senior author were dismissed by the panel as disingenuous.

    “Taken together with written comments to the committee, this appears to be part of a concerted and deliberate effort on the part of Dr Schatten to further distance himself from Dr Hwang and their joint publications. This is in sharp contrast to the full participation of Dr Schatten in the media spotlight following publication of the paper,” the panel wrote in its investigative report summary.

    “Regardless of the adjective used to describe Dr Schatten's co-authorship, whether senior or not, he did invest a tremendous amount of time and energy in working over the several drafts of the manuscript, more than in many papers of his own students, according to his testimony. We feel that he did not exercise a sufficiently critical perspective as a scientist,” the panel reported.

    For example, when Professor Hwang told Dr Schatten that contamination of cells had occurred in January 2005, Dr Schatten did not ask how new cell lines were grown in time for analysis by 15 March, when the first manuscript of the paper was submitted. Dr Schatten was also the sole signatory for a cover letter submitted to Science in March 2005 stating that all 25 of the paper's authors had read the manuscript.

    “However, information communicated to us suggests that the likelihood [was] that only a few of the 25 authors read the manuscript prior to submission and that perhaps many did not read it until it was accepted and available online. As co-corresponding author and sole signer of the cover letter, Dr Schatten must assume responsibility for including this false statement. We cannot rule out the possibility that if more authors had reviewed the manuscript they would have noted and reported the falsification and fabrication detailed by the Seoul National University investigation,” the panel wrote.

    The panel noted that Dr Schatten's reputation was enhanced by collaboration with Professor Hwang and that over a period of 15 months he also accepted honorariums from Professor Hwang totalling $40 000 (£23 000; €33 700), including a $10 000 cash payment at the time of a press conference after the 2005 paper was published.

    Commenting briefly on the 2005 paper in Nature on the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy (2005;436:641), the panel noted that before Dr Schatten became involved a full manuscript had already been written and rejected by the journal. The panel said that Dr Schatten lobbied for the paper to be published without ensuring the veracity of the paper's data.

    The panel concluded, “Dr Schatten's role in successfully getting the 2004 paper published in Scienceis likely to have provided considerable encouragement to Dr Hwang to offer him authorship on the 2005 paper. As for the brief communication to Natureabout the cloning of the dog Snuppy, for which Dr Schatten was a listed co-author, we have no reason to doubt Schatten's statement to us that his major contribution to the paper was a suggestion that a professional photographer be engaged so that Snuppy would appear with greater visual appeal. It is less clear that this contribution fully justifies co-authorship.”

    The panel said that although Dr Schatten's actions “did not strictly constitute research misconduct as narrowly defined by the University of Pittsburgh policies, it would be an example of research misbehavior.”

    Meanwhile, Korean media reports are saying that the special investigation team of the prosecutor's office in Seoul's Central district, which is looking into accusations of fraud by Professor Hwang and his staff, is seeking Dr Schatten's cooperation with its investigations.

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