Editorial: The wages of scientific fraud

With the Supreme Court of South Korea upholding its 2010 ruling, Hwang Woo Suk, the notorious stem cell researcher from the Seoul National University in South Korea, will serve a suspended jail term of one-and-a-half years for embezzlement and violation of the country’s bioethics law that came into effect in January 2005. This brings to an end a sordid tale that shocked the scientific community across the world. Hwang shot into international fame for two “landmark” papers published in February 2004 and May 2005 in the journal Science. If the first one was for “cloning” 30 human embryos and for “deriving” a human embryonic stem-cell line from one of them, the second was for “creating” 11 human embryonic stem-cell lines from the skin cells of individual patients. But less than three months after the first paper was published, the past caught up with him and questions about unethical practices started cropping up. It soon became evident that Hwang had committed one of the biggest scientific frauds in recent times by indulging in all kinds of unethical measures. He did not resort to relatively lesser evils like plagiarism but instead settled for the bigger ones — image manipulation, rampant data falsification and fabrication, gross misrepresentation of facts, purchasing eggs for research, and forcing junior members in the same lab to donate eggs. There were acts of outright fraud as well — embezzlement of nearly $3 million and making applications for research funds based on fabricated data. Though South Korea did well by investigating the fraud and punishing him, it is surprising that a variety of unacceptable acts committed by him are by themselves not punishable. South Korea has to quickly correct the anomaly.

Hwang epitomises and exemplifies the case of a brilliant researcher who allowed his moral compass to go completely haywire, all for instantaneous, though ephemeral, glory and fame. In the process, he self- destructed. The simple yet vital message that any scientific study carried out through unethical means is nothing but a castle built on sand got completely lost on him. The truth is that science places a high premium on ethical conduct and the scientific community is extremely intolerant of people indulging in unacceptable acts. With thousands of keen eyes scrutinising even the minutest details of most papers, the high-visibility ones in particular, and trying to replicate the results, the chances of cheats getting exposed in double-quick time are real. It pays to remember that there are no short-cuts, and that doing good science ethically brings lasting benefits.

Published in The Hindu on march 14, 2014