GENET archive


9-Misc: Reporters find science journals harder to trust, but not easy to verify

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  Reporters find science journals harder to trust, but not easy to
SOURCE: The New York Times, USA, by Julie Bosman
DATE:   15 Feb 2006

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Reporters find science journals harder to trust, but not easy to verify

When the journal Science recently retracted two papers by the South
Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, it officially confirmed what he had
denied for months: Dr. Hwang had fabricated evidence that he had cloned
human cells.

But the editors of Science were not alone in telling the world of Dr.
Hwang's research. Newspapers, wire services and television networks had
initially trumpeted the news, as they often do with information served up
by the leading scientific journals.

Now news organizations say they are starting to look at the science
journals a bit more skeptically.

''My antennae are definitely up since this whole thing unfolded,'' said
Rob Stein, a science reporter for The Washington Post. ''I'm reading
papers a lot more closely than I had in the past, just to sort of satisfy
myself that any individual piece of research is valid. But we're still in
sort of the same situation that the journal editors are, which is that if
someone wants to completely fabricate data, it's hard to figure that out.''

But other than heightened skepticism, not a lot has changed in how
newspapers treat scientific journals. Indeed, newspaper editors openly
acknowledge their dependence on them. At The Los Angeles Times, at least
half of the science stories that run on the front page come directly from
journals, said Ashley Dunn, the paper's science editor. Gideon Gil, the
health and science editor for The Boston Globe, said that two of the
three science stories that run on a typical day were from research that
appeared in journals.

Beyond newspapers, papers from journals are routinely picked up by
newsweeklies, network news, talk radio and Web sites.

''They are the way science is conducted, they're the way people share
information, they're the best approximation of acceptance by
knowledgeable people,'' said Laura Chang, science editor for The New York
Times. ''We do rely on them for the starting point of many of our
stories, and that will not change.''

There are limits to the vetting that science reporters, who are generally
not scientists themselves, can do. Most journal articles have embargoes
attached, giving reporters several days to call specialists in the field,
check footnotes on an article and scrutinize the results.

''Scientific discoveries are more difficult because they often require in
the generalist reporter a good deal of study, follow-up interviews and
some guidance on how to make sense of technical matters,'' said Roy Peter
Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which studies
journalism. ''But I think the scandals do require both a new level of
skepticism on the part of the reporter and also maybe some new protocols
between scientists and journalists.''

The Hwang case was not the first time journals had been duped: recently,
editors at The New England Journal of Medicine said they suspected two
cancer papers they published contained fabricated data. In December, the
same journal said that the authors of a 2000 study on the painkiller
Vioxx had omitted the fact that several patients had had heart attacks
while taking the drug in a trial. A study on the painkiller Celebrex that
appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association was
discredited when it was discovered that the authors had submitted only
six months of data, instead of the 12 months of data they had collected.

While the journals have a peer review process that is in part meant to
filter out fallacious papers by checking research techniques and
conclusions, perhaps the greatest difficulty for science reporters is
trying to catch what journal editors have missed.

After hearing the news of Dr. Hwang's fabrications, Mr. Gil of The Globe
said he immediately remembered his newspaper's coverage of the stem cell

''We were blown away, in part because we had written those stories on
Page 1,'' Mr. Gil said. ''And when we wrote them, we called the leading
experts in the world on all this embryonic stem cell stuff, who are here
in Boston. And they were as hoodwinked as anybody else.''

Despite the fraud cases, most of what the journals publish is basically
credible, said David Perlman, the science editor of The San Francisco
Chronicle. Among the most prestigious science journals that reporters
consult regularly are Nature, Science, The New England Journal of
Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association.

''I think they and we have been burned enough that they're making
efforts,'' Mr. Perlman said. ''They're being more careful now, and I
think reporters are too. I definitely have more of a 'Hey, let's look
more carefully' attitude now that I did 5 or 10 years ago.''

Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, said in a statement in December
that the journal itself was not an investigative body. But when reporting
on journal findings, most news outlets fail to caution that studies must
be replicated to be truly authenticated.

''Beyond Hwang, the more fundamental issue is that journals do not and
cannot guarantee the truth of what they publish,'' said Nicholas Wade, a
science reporter for The New York Times. ''Publication of a paper only
means that, in the view of the referees who green-light it, it is
interesting and not obviously false. In other words, all of the results
in these journals are tentative.''

The journals' own peer review processes, which are intended to be the
first barrier against fraud, have come under criticism lately. A cover
story in the February issue of The Scientist said that the top-tier
journals were receiving more submissions every year, overtaxing peer
reviewers and weakening the screening process.

After the Hwang scandal, Science announced it was considering a set of
changes to better prevent fraud: Dr. Kennedy said in January that new
rules could include ''requiring all authors to detail their specific
contributions to the research submitted, and to sign statements of
concurrence with the conclusions of the work,'' as well as ''implementing
improved methods of detecting image alteration, although it appears
improbable that they would have detected problems in this particular
case.'' (Through a spokeswoman, Dr. Kennedy declined to be interviewed
and said the editors were currently conducting a review of the episode.)

Some newspapers have adopted guidelines of their own to check for
conflicts of interest involving authors of journal articles. The Globe
instituted guidelines last July requiring reporters to ask researchers
about their financial ties to studies, and to include that information in
resulting articles. In its weekly health and science section, The Globe
outlines any shortcomings of a study under the heading ''Cautions.''

Kit Frieden, the health and science editor for The Associated Press,
said: ''We've always had our own peer review process, where on the major
studies we seek outside expert comment. We've always regarded scientific
research cautiously because mistakes can be made, and I don't think
that's changed.''

The growing competition for the most important research among the
journals may contribute to mistakes and fabrications, even in the most
prestigious of the bunch. But in the end, the severe consequences of
presenting fraudulent research generally act as a deterrent, said Mr.
Dunn of The Los Angeles Times.

''Unlike financial fraud, where you can bamboozle somebody of their money
and disappear and then start over again, in science the researchers are
in one place,'' he said. ''If they get caught in this type of thing,
their careers are over.''

                                 PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  South Korean prosecutors quiz scientist's accuser
SOURCE: Reuters
DATE:   08 Feb 2006

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South Korean prosecutors quiz scientist's accuser

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors questioned a medical
researcher on Wednesday whose charges of fraud in the work of Hwang Woo-
suk turned the tide of public opinion against the once-revered and now
disgraced stem-cell scientist. Prosecutors have launched a criminal
investigation into Hwang's team on suspicion they misused state funds and
violated the country's bioethics law. Hwang's team intentionally
fabricated key data in two papers once hailed as landmark studies in
human embryonic stem cells, a Seoul National University investigation
panel said in a report in January. Hwang resigned his post at the
university in December. South Korean television networks such as YTN
showed Roh Sung-il entering and leaving the prosecutors' building. Roh,
the director of a fertility clinic in Seoul, was one of the co-authors of
the 2005 paper from Hwang's team on producing tailored embryonic stem
cells. Prosecutors said they could not provide details to foreign media,
but they did speak to South Korean reporters. "We decided that to figure
out the truth of the case, we needed to summon Roh," a prosecutor told
Yonhap news agency. Prosecutors said they would question Roh about how
data was fabricated and about mix ups in the laboratory that may have
affected results. Prosecutors plan to question Hwang soon, Yonhap
reported. Hwang's research had raised hopes because it seemed to hasten
the day when genetically specific tissue could be grown from embryonic
stem cells to repair damaged organs or treat diseases such as
Alzheimer's. Hwang has said he is the victim of a conspiracy to discredit
him and has blamed researchers associated with Roh for being behind the
fabricated data. Hwang had been regarded as a hero in South Korea for
bringing the country to the forefront of stem-cell and cloning studies.
He faced criticism for ethical violations in his team's research in
November for the way his team procured human ova. But the tide of public
opinion turned strongly against Hwang when Roh gave televised interviews
with leading South Korean broadcasters in December. Roh said Hwang's team
had produced no tailored embryonic stem cells and fabricated data to
support their findings. The university panel later came to broadly the
same conclusion.


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