Wednesday, December 14, 2005

All kinds of trouble: more on the Korean stem cell saga

Gerald Schatten and Seoul National University are in the news again today. (Here's what Joe Palca had to say about it on Morning Edition this morning.) The new development: apparently Schatten has asked Science to withdraw one of the papers Hwang and Schatten (and others) published describing how 11 different human stem cell lines had been created. The reason Schatten is asking that the paper be withdrawn, it is reported, is that he has learned from a credible source that some of the data and figures presented in that paper were fabricated.

Like nearly everything else in this case, there are complications. Schatten's credible source of information is another author of the paper ... which is fine, since another author would, presumably, be in a position to know something about the data actually collected, which photos correspond to which cell lines, etc. But, it's looking like this other author was working with Schatten in Pittsburgh when Schatten learned about the alleged fabrication. Which, possibly, means that the source of information here is golden-handed "P", late of Hwang's lab at Seoul National University. Remember that P not only has the vital "hand skills" to get the nuclear somatic transfer to work, but was also an egg donor for the research.

So, we have a junior researcher who may be the only one who can get a particular part of the experiment to succeed with any kind of regularity, who "donated" vital material that the boss needed for the research (under possibly coercive circumstances), who then came (with her magic hands) to work in the lab of a senior collaborator/competitor of her original boss, and is now handing the new boss information that could make possible a take-down of the old boss.

Do you think there might be any power dynamics at play in this situation?

Meanwhile, the obvious question comes up: If Schatten was a co-author of the paper, why on earth is he raising these concerns about it well after Science published it? How can you put your name on a manuscript if you're not confident that what's in it is accurate? Indeed, Joe Palca reported (in the Morning Edition story linked above) that Schatten "didn't do the research but came at the end and helped the Korean scientists write the paper and present the data." Is this enough involvement that Schatten knows enough to take responsibility for the claims made in the paper -- whether to bask in the glory of the scientific achievement it reports or to share in the blame for its mistakes?

Authorship is a slippery critter. Not only is there no clear standard for authorship that all scientists, or even all members of a particular scientific discipline, recognize, but the standards may vary lab to lab. (Exercise for the graduate student: Find out how your advisor determines who will be an author on a manuscript. Have a friend who works in a different lab get the same information from her advisor. Compare results.) The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has taken a stab at establishing uniform authorship standards, at least for the journals that agree to use ICMJE standards. (Baby steps.) But these standards contain as clear a definition as you're likely to find of the author's involvement:

  • Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.
  • When a large, multi-center group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript. These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship defined above and editors will ask these individuals to complete journal-specific author and conflict of interest disclosure forms. When submitting a group author manuscript, the corresponding author should clearly indicate the preferred citation and should clearly identify all individual authors as well as the group name. Journals will generally list other members of the group in the acknowledgements. The National Library of Medicine indexes the group name and the names of individuals the group has identified as being directly responsible for the manuscript.
  • Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship.
  • All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.
  • Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Now, following the first bullet above, Schatten probably qualified as an author in this framework: he made substantial contributions to drafting and/or critically revising the article for intellectual content (item 2), his help with presenting the data likely counts as a substantial contribution to analysis and interpretation of the data (item 1), and presumably he gave his approval to the final version of the manuscript that Science published. Yet, it is only now that Schatten is discovering that what he signed off on may not have been what it appeared to be.

Possibly this means that scientists need to be a bit more thorough before they give final approval to scientific manuscripts. Ask to see the data and the sources for the figures. Ask to be walked through the data analysis. Check up on your collaborators. Why should this kind of involvement be viewed as intrusive if it's really a collaboration?

Collaborations are central to this whole mess. You have to establish a level of trust with your collaborator. Given that scientific results are supposed to be scrutinized skeptically by other scientists, it strikes me that collaborators ought to bring a level of constructive skepticism to their interactions with each other. Show me how you got the result. Explain to me why this outcome doesn't actually mean X, Y, or Z instead of what we think it means. If a group of scientists can't handle challenges like these from each other, they probably shouldn't be collaborators.

Weird-ass power dynamics make this sort of challenge much more loaded and threatening than it should be among a group of honest scientists. Weird-ass power dynamics are probably a bad thing for a scientific collaboration.

More later? I wouldn't be surprised.

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At 5:05 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thanks for writing about this. It has been a hot topic in my lab, and I'm always interested in issues of ethics.

As for the suggestions about what authors should and should not contribute, maybe you've addressed this elsewhere, but there is always the issue that sometimes having Certain Names (sometimes even from a Certain Country) on the paper helps everybody get it published in a High Impact Journal. It's sad, but true.

If we could get rid of this factor- say, by publishing papers without attaching so much importance to the names of the authors??- it might go a long way towards reducing the power dynamics. I always thought it was strange that people write them like magazine articles with bylines, like the minimal fame acquired from publishing is the only carrot left.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Dr. Mom said...

Has anyone wondered why journals do not clamor for "double blind" review? Why is it that with a big name attached, lots of trashy papers fly into the top journals (papers that would have had zero hope of entering had they been authored by the avg Joe or Jane)? With all the recent fakes, shouldn't someone push for this?


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