Treatment of Misconduct by a Journal
The emergence of embryonic stem cell cloning through somatic cell nuclear transfer as a “hot field” in the 1995–2005 period created pressures on all scientists to be first to achieve breakthroughs. The birth of Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute in Scotland in 1996 had a massive impact: the theoretical had happened and was visible. The race to clone other mammals, including humans, was seen by many as the potential capstone of a career.
In August 2005, a team at Seoul National University led by Hwang Woo-Suk reported in the pages of Nature the cloning of a dog, long considered to be much too complex to achieve, and Snuppy the dog became a symbol of the emergence of world-class stem cell research in Korea. The research team had been working in parallel on a project to create a stem cell line from a cloned human blastocyst, which was reported first in papers in Science in 2004 and 2005, stunning the scientific community worldwide.
Within weeks of the second paper appearing in print, skepticism arose about the claims made in the paper, particularly about the source and number of the oocytes used in the experiments. As an investigation looked into the research, more aspects unraveled, including the validity of the claimed data. By January 2006, the university’s investigative team had determined that the papers were largely fraudulent, had to be withdrawn, and Hwang was prosecuted for the misuse of research funds. At Science, an editorial retraction was published: “Because the final report of the SNU investigation indicated that a significant amount of the data presented in both papers is fabricated, the editors of Science feel that an immediate and unconditional retraction of both papers is needed. We therefore retract these two papers and advise the scientific community that the results reported in them are deemed to be invalid.”
From the point of view of scientists working in the field of stem cell biology, it was an enormous setback. The Science editorial made clear the waste of resources: “Science regrets the time that the peer reviewers and others spent evaluating these papers as well as the time and resources that the scientific community may have spent trying to replicate these results.”a They effectively lost several years of work in assuming the validity of the published articles. The public’s faith in the field was shaken, with consequences for the support of stem cell research that earlier existed. An independent review of the editorial procedures at Science provided insights into needed changes—new rules to ensure the authenticity of images, identification of the specific contribution of each author, undertaking a “risk assessment” on papers that might be more prone to fraud.