February 28, 2024


 The American co-author of disgraced Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk has been found innocent of research misconduct, but guilty of "research misbehaviour" after an in-house investigation. The University of Pittsburgh said that there was no evidence that Gerald Schatten had falsified any data or was aware of Hwang’s fabrications. However, it has censored him for "shirking" his responsibilities as co-author on what was initially regarded as groundbreaking research — and has now become notorious as one of the worst scientific frauds ever.

Dr Schatten was senior author on a May article in the journal Science in which Hwang’s Korean team claimed to have cloned human embryos and used them to create 11 stem cell lines. All of this turned out to be false. He also was co-author of Hwang’s paper about the first cloned dog (which turned out to be true).

The scientific community was divided on Schatten’s role in the scandal. "Dr Schatten was as much of a victim as the scientific community," says Evan Snyder, a leading stem cell scientist at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California. But bioethicist George Annas, of Boston University, called UP’s report "pathetic". This was echoed by another bioethicist, David Magnus, of Stanford: "He may not have been the one who walked in and robbed the bank. But he was the getaway driver who did not ask why his friends wanted him to drive away when they ran out of the bank".

Even the term "research misbehaviour" raised some eyebrows. "Nobody I know knows what ‘research misbehaviour’ is," commented the editor of Science, Donald Kennedy. The university recommended no specific disciplinary action.

How did Schatten fail to notice Hwang’s fabrications? In another creative (and tactful) turn of phrase, the UP investigators suggested his desire for "reputational enhancement". Schatten was listed as a co-author on the cloned dog paper, which made headlines around the world, even though his contribution was basically engaging a professional photographer for the publicity shots. Money may have helped, too. The American received honoraria totalling US$40,000, including $10,000 in cash at the end of the press conference last May announcing the stem cell lines. Dr Schatten has not commented on the affair since he broke with Hwang last November.