Close on the heels of the revelation of data fabrication by stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University in the two papers published in the journal Science on cloning of human embryos, comes the news about Jon Sudboe, a cancer researcher of the Norwegian Radium Hospital in Oslo, who has been found to have faked data for a paper published last year. The “study” of 908 persons for the efficacy of anti-inflammatory drugs in reducing the risk of oral cancer was published in the journal Lancet in October. According to the ‘study,’ data collected prospectively from a population-based database, Cohort of Norway (CONOR), revealed that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) were able to ‘reduce’ the risk of oral cancer by 53 per cent. The report however claimed that no reduction in overall mortality was ‘found’ as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, except aspirin, ‘increased’ the risk of cardiovascular disease. The hospital authorities have found that Dr. Sudboe’s results were based on completely fabricated data rather than a real study. They have set up a commission to investigate all the 38 papers he had authored since 1997.
These two episodes raise two serious issues — the unethical practice of faking, fabricating and manipulating data by some scientists, and the inability of even the most respected peer-reviewed journals to spot and prevent such papers from getting into print. The data for the two ‘landmark’ papers of Professor Hwang on cloning of human embryos published in Science in March 2004 and June 2005 have been confirmed to have been fabricated; the cloning of the Afghan hound Snuppy, reported in Nature last year, has been found to be true. Science has since officially retracted both the papers. In an Editorial Retraction published online on January 12 this year, the Editor-in-Chief of Science wanted to “… advise the scientific community that the results reported in them are deemed to be invalid.” Even with the retraction, the damage caused by publishing them cannot be wholly undone. The only positive outcome in Professor Hwang’s case is that Science would be “… considering options for providing additional procedural safeguards” in the future. While this appears encouraging, the Editor-in-Chief’s caution in an editorial statement that “…even unusually rigorous peer review … may fail to detect cases of well-constructed fraud,” and that even additional safeguards to detect image alteration cannot be fool-poof are disturbing. Vigilance by fellow researchers and other interested parties who can bring to light such unethical practices can be of great help. The whistle blowers in both these instances were persons who were in no way connected with the studies or the journals. Publication of results in peer-reviewed journals is considered a validation of one’s work; and for the very enterprise of scientific research the credibility of such publication needs to be safeguarded through more stringent scrutiny.