Responding to Fraud

Science  01 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5804, pp. 1353
DOI: 10.1126/science.1137840

Our journal—as well as science with a small “s”—went through a disappointing and troubling experience with the two stem cell papers from the South Korean research group led by Dr. Woo Suk Hwang. As a result of an investigation by a committee from Seoul National University, the first paper from this group, Science 303, 1669 (2004), was found to be fraudulent and was subsequently retracted by Science. A second paper, Science 308, 1777 (2005), published a year later, was retracted for the same reasons.

What Science did then entailed two steps. First, we compiled a chronological anthology of the editorial review process for both papers; it included all submissions; correspondence among editors, our Board of Reviewing Editors, peer reviewers, authors, and agencies responsible for regulatory oversight in South Korea; and notes on telephone conversations. This material was reviewed by an internal review committee of six in-house editors. This archive and their comments were then sent to an outside committee consisting of three members of our external Senior Editorial Board (John Brauman, George Whitesides, and Linda Partridge), a former Science senior editor who is now the U.S. Executive Editor at Nature (Linda Miller), and two distinguished biologists who work in the stem cell community (Doug Melton and John Gearhart). The committee was asked to make a thorough and unsparing analysis of Science's handling of both papers and to make recommendations for changes in procedure that might protect both the journal and the scientific community from further unfortunate outcomes of this kind.

The report, and a short response from Science, are available at The report is notable for its thoroughness, insight, and candor. It reaches several conclusions; some of these apply to our journal and to those of us who edit and publish it, and others are relevant for the larger community of scientists. The good news for Science is that its editors and peer reviewers not only followed the procedures in place here and at other top-tier journals, but made a substantially greater effort than for most papers to ensure that the science was sound. The not-so-good news is that the report sends us some tough messages about what Science should do to confront a present reality and prepare for a more challenging future. It points out forcefully that the environment for science now presents increased incentives for the production of work that is intentionally misleading or distorted by self-interest. It urges us to give special attention to a relatively small number of papers that are likely to be especially visible or influential.

We are now formulating ways to respond to this advice. The report recommends developing a risk assessment template. We have been conducting discussions among ourselves and with committee members to develop criteria for deciding which papers deserve particularly careful editorial scrutiny. Papers that are of substantial public interest, present results that are unexpected and/or counterintuitive, or touch on areas of high political controversy may fall into this category. We are also considering the kinds of special attention that might be given to these high-risk papers. These might include higher standards for including primary data, demands for clearer specification of the roles of all authors, and more intensive evaluation of the treatment of digital images. The report makes no bones about the fact that for some papers that meet the higher risk standard, the experience will be time-consuming and expensive for the journal and “may lead to conflict with authors.”

This is not the first time that scientific journals have had to adapt their procedures to new realities in the world they live in. After 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax releases in the United States, journals developed guidelines for recognizing and dealing with papers that might present international security problems. As we did then, we will be looking for ways to meet a new challenge, while maintaining the integrity of the review process and minimizing damage to the expectations of our authors and the speed of our publication process. We invite your comments and plan to keep you informed as we develop particular policies in response to these recommendations.

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