Monday, February 13, 2006

Playing in the mud without getting dirty

I have said it several times now: Dr. Hwang Woo-suk is almost certainly a charlatan who — for whatever reason — chose to deceive Korea and the entire world. This negative characterization is not really in dispute by reasonable people.

I state that because I also think Dr. Gerald Schatten, whom I began to
skewer here, is also deserving of considerably more criticism than he has been getting (along with others involved in this mess), but I want to make it clear to those who think I am somehow an apologist for Korean attitudes in the Hwang cloning scandal that attacking Dr. Schatten does NOT equate letting Dr. Hwang off the hook.

Here are some choice quotes from the
University of Pittsburgh investigation into Dr. Schatten's role:
In his second interview, he denied that he was senior author, saying that his only specially designated role as a co-author was as one of the two co-corresponding authors. This second version does not correspond with the fact, for example, that he is the one who responded to reviewers’ comments. 

We believe that Dr. Schatten was disingenuous in his second interview in harping on strict definitions of ‘writing’ and ‘senior author’. Furthermore, taken together with written commentsto the committee, this appears to be part of a concerted and deliberate effort on the part of Dr. Schatten to further distance himself from Dr. Hwang and their joint publications. This is in sharp contrast to the full participation of Dr. Schatten in the media spotlight following publication of the paper.
So we have backpedalling, attempts to deceive, and self-aggrandizement. There's more:
We believe that Dr. Schatten entered into this relationship with Dr. Hwang on the 2005 paper not only to help a colleague whom he admired, but also to gain some authoritative input and reputational enhancement from a paper which he thought had high potential of being a major breakthrough.
Reputational enhancement? Here U Pitt is saying essentially that Dr. Schatten thought that the research might be significant, so he latched himself on. He also tried to help increase the limelight. You know all those Koreans hoping Dr. Hwang would be a future Nobel laureate? Dr. Schatten was helping that go through:
He obviously had high expectations of the impact the paper would have. For example, he nominated Dr. Hwang for foreign membership in the United States National Academy of Sciences and, with others, for a Nobel Prize.
U Pitt seems to suggest there were questionable financial dealings on Dr. Schatten's part:
He was not averse to accepting honoraria totaling $40,000 within a 15-month period from Dr. Hwang – including $10,000 paid in cash while attending a press conference following publication of the 2005 paper – amounts that seems to us as far above normal honoraria for consultation.
Hmm... it gets even messier:
Nor did he hesitate to help to relieve Magee’s financial responsibilities in supporting his work, when he could not call on federal funds for his activities with human embryonic stem cells, by submitting a proposal to Dr. Hwang for laboratory support amounting to $200,000 for the last four months of 2005, an amount which he hoped would turn out to be the amount of an annual subsidy in subsequent years.
And what about the criticism by some in Korea that Schatten was trying to patent things he had no business patenting? U Pitt says this:
Also, Dr.Schatten’s patent application of 2004, submitted through Magee, presents claims that likely could not be fulfilled by inventions developed at Magee alone, but might plausibly be supported by technologies reportedly developed by Dr. Hwang’s group between the filings of provisional and actual patents.
Are we done? Even Dr. Schatten's involvement with Snuppy causes us to scratch out heads:
We comment just briefly on the 2004 paper and the 2005 communication to Nature about the cloning of the dog. Dr. Schatten was not a co-author of the 2004 paper and, at his own request, he was not even acknowledged. A full manuscript had already been written, and rejected, before Dr. Schatten became involved. He may have contributed with suggestions and with political influence to help the paper through to acceptance, but we have no basis to associate him with any of the substantive work described in the paper. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard for publication of this paper in Science, without any direct knowledge of the veracity of the data. Dr. Schatten’s role in successfully getting the 2004 paper published in Science is likely to have provided considerable encouragement to Dr. Hwang to offer him authorship on the 2005 paper. As for the brief communication to Nature about the cloning of the dog Snuppy, for which Dr. Schatten was a listed co-author, we have no reason to doubt Schatten’s statement to us that his major contribution to the paper was a suggestion that a professional photographer be engaged so that Snuppy would appear with greater visual appeal. It is less clear that this contribution fully justifies co-authorship.
So we've got a guy who got into Dr. Hwang's good graces by helping him publish stuff about the dog (which so far appears to be the only legitimate thing Dr. Hwang did in 2004 or 2005). Technical stuff? No: political and cosmetic.

So what are U Pitt's conclusions?

We conclude that Dr. Schatten likely did not intentionally falsify or fabricate experimental data, and that there is no evidence that he was aware of the misconduct reported to have occurred in Dr. Hwang’s group in Korea. Given his dominant role in the writing of the 2005 paper his authorship is not unreasonable, but his positions as co-corresponding author and senior author were determined with considerable care and deliberation. Dr. Schatten’s listing as the last author not only conferred considerable credibility to the paper within the international scientific community, but directly benefited Dr. Schatten in numerous ways including enhancement of his scientific reputation, improved opportunities for additional research funding, enhanced positioning for pending patent applications, and considerable personal financial benefit.
If only it hadn't all fallen apart.
However, these benefits are accompanied by responsibilities for the manuscript as a whole, approval of the manuscript by all co-authors, and the veracity of the data reported. Dr. Schatten shirked these responsibilities, a serious failure that facilitated the publication of falsified experiments in Science magazine. While this failure would not strictly constitute research misconduct as narrowly defined by University of Pittsburgh policies, it would be an example of research misbehavior.
Okay, so maybe Pitt is not letting him off the hook. Or are they?
Finally, we would like to acknowledge Dr. Schatten’s expeditious and appropriate actions upon learning of allegations of Dr. Hwang’s misconduct. The first instance was his finding on Friday, November 11, that at least one of Dr. Hwang’s staff had been an egg donor, although Dr. Hwang had forcibly denied this only three days earlier. Dr. Schatten publicly dissociated himself from his collaboration with Dr. Hwang on the next working day. The second instance occurred on December 10, when Dr. Schatten first received direct testimony that NT-hES cell lines 4-11 did not exist. This discovery prompted Dr. Schatten to write to Science on December 12 to initiate retraction of the paper.
I think I'm a little less generous than Pitt. I think, given Dr. Schatten's savvy and connections that helped Dr. Hwang get the once-rejected Snuppy paper accepted, I think it is plausible that some of the ethical corner-cutting that led to wholesale dishonesty may have been instigated by Dr. Schatten himself, who knew how to massage research to get it accepted. As I have said before, I don't think Dr. Schatten is some babe in the woods who was awestruck by Dr. Hwang and got taken in by him. I think that he may have been the one who showed Dr. Hwang the easy path to the dark side, though ultimately it was Dr. Hwang who chose to run willy-nilly down it.

ADDENDUM TO ORIGINAL: I am adding a little more, an edited version of something I wrote at Marmot's Hole when someone linked to the post you're now reading.

cm wrote:
Schatten got off easy. Too easy. Read Kushibo
I wrote that post after checking out U Pitt's actual report (Brendon's link above), which has a somewhat different take on the matter than the article ("Peers supporting Schatten, consider him a victim of fraud") Marbert cited in the original post.

The actual report ("University of Pittsburg Summary Investigative Report on Allegations of Possible Scientific Misconduct on the Part of Gerald P. Schatten, Ph.D.") has some rather unflattering things to say about Dr. Schatten, and includes suggestions of misbehavior that would belie the picture of duped innocence painted by the "peers supporting Schatten."

It appears that some of the "peers supporting Schatten" read only the second-to-last paragraph of the report, and not the several paragraphs before that or the details before that.

The last sentence of one of those paragraphs...

While this failure would not strictly constitute research misconduct as narrowly defined by University of Pittsburgh policies, it would be an example of research misbehavior.
...shows how narrowly he dodged this bullet. I wonder how narrowly he dodged it in Wisconsin, during the last major scientific scandal in which Dr. Schatten happened to be involved.


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