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Dolly row sheds light on normal science

20 March 2006
By Dr Jess Buxton
genetics editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 350
Last week saw a flurry of newspaper reports covering another supposed scandal in the world of cloning research. No, this wasn't another chapter in the ongoing saga of Woo Suk Hwang's fabricated cloned human embryonic stem cells (ES cells), but a story about the most famous clone in world: Dolly the sheep. The news that Professor Ian Wilmut didn't actually do the lab work that resulted in the celebrated mammal - despite being senior author on the resulting Nature paper - was greeted with outrage by the media, but barely raised an eyebrow in the scientific community. So what was all the fuss about?

The 'story' broke following comments made by Wilmut before an employment tribunal earlier this month, while being questioned about another matter. When asked by a lawyer if the statement 'I did not create Dolly' was correct, he replied 'Yes'. Later, he said that Professor Keith Campbell, last author of the paper, deserved '66 per cent' of the credit. This was followed by news that two technicians who performed the hundreds of nuclear transfer procedures that eventually resulted in Dolly's birth were not credited as authors at all, but instead were mentioned in the acknowledgements at the end. It may be unfair, but was it unusual enough to justify all those column inches? Probably not.

The fact is, a scientific paper is much more than a record of experiments carried out, results obtained and conclusions drawn - it's a vital piece of supporting evidence for the next grant application. Many senior authors, being head of the lab, spend much of their time writing grants, supervising teams of scientists and planning future research. They are rarely to be found amongst the test-tubes, since their job is to hire people to do the real work, and tell them how to do it. This is just the way science works, as do many other fields of employment. If you went to a celebrity chef's restaurant, you wouldn't call the newspapers if you discovered that their 'signature dish' had in fact been prepared by another cook working in the kitchen.

The debate over who cloned Dolly is rumbling on, but some scientists have publicly defended Wilmut. Eckhard Wolf, of the University of Munich, told the Scientist magazine that if the basis of the research was Wilmut's idea, then 'there is no reason why he should not be first author' (see article in Recommends). Disagreements over who takes the credit are common in science, particularly in biomedical research, as it often involves large international teams with several group heads vying for recognition. Being a human enterprise, like any other, there will always be people who take more credit than is due, or fail to acknowledge the contributions of others. But this does not mean that there is something fundamentally dishonest about the whole business of scientific research, or of cloning research in particular.

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