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Panel recommends tighter scrutiny after Hwang scandal

4 December 2006
Appeared in BioNews 387

Science, the journal which published fraudulent stem cell research by disgraced Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang, has announced the results of a committee set up to review the editorial procedures that allowed the work to be published and to advise on how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. The panel, chaired by John Brauman of Stanford University, suggests that leading journals implement a 'risk assessment' of research papers submitted. This would include extra scrutiny for highly visible papers including such political hot topics as stem cell research, climate change and breakthroughs in clinical medicine. The panel recognised that publishing papers in high profile scientific journals could be so rewarding for researchers that there may be a temptation to produce work that is intentionally misleading or distorted by self-interest.

Science was forced to retract two papers by Hwang in January this year after investigations in Korea and the US concluded that the results were fabricated. It was accepted that the journal had high standards of review and had followed procedures with exceptional care. Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy warned that the new recommendations would not necessarily have caused the journal not to publish the faked papers. Brauman highlighted the fact that reviewers operate on an 'assumption of trust' and look for flaws in logic or inconsistencies with previous research but not deliberate fraud. This would be challenged by the new risk assessment procedures where potentially controversial papers would have any photographs examined much more carefully, and co-authors would have to elaborate on their contributions in much more detail than is currently required. A further recommendation of the panel found that editors should work to establish common procedures between journals.

George Lundberg editor-in-chief of online medical journal Medscape General Medicine was unimpressed with the report describing it as 'business as usual'. Adil E Shamoo, editor-in-chief of Accountability in Research, said, 'These are good points and we should go forward with them, but they will have very little effect on the integrity of science.' Christine Laine, senior deputy editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, commented, 'It's really hard to see how you would identify which papers need increased scrutiny. It seems like no matter what criteria you set, when you tried to implement it, it would just come down to anything that you see as suspicious'.

Science editor Kennedy told the media in a conference call that they found the report to be 'very thoughtful and intelligent' but that the journal had not decided as yet whether, or how much, of the report would be implemented. 'There will be social costs associated with the loss of the tradition of trust, and we need to ask ourselves whether interventions in the interest of detecting falsification might not be costing the system more than the occasional retraction would'. he said. They expect the number of papers submitted that would fall into the high risk category to be in the region of ten each year.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Journal Editors Are Urged To Demand More Evidence
The Washington Post |  29 November 2006
New rules proposed to catch science fraud
New Scientist |  29 November 2006
Panel recommends changes at Science
The Scientist |  29 November 2006
Top U.S. scientific journal pledges to curb fraud
Yahoo Daily News |  28 November 2006
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