April 18, 2024


 After eating humble pie over the publication of fraudulent research by disgraced South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk, the journal Science has made some New Year’s resolutions. An independent panel of three senior editors at Science, a former editor at Science now working at its rival Nature, and two stem cell biologists investigated the debacle and gave Science a mark of "above average but needs to try harder".

From now on, the chastened journal will give high-risk papers special scrutiny, perhaps requiring higher standards for primary data, a clearer description of the roles of authors, and a more thorough evaluation of digital images.

The editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, said that more robust safeguards were needed because scientific fraud was only going to grow worse: "the environment for science now presents increased incentives for the production of work that is intentionally misleading or distorted by self-interest". The reviewers pointed out that special care needed to be taken with papers dealing with climate change, human health, and particular issues in commercial biomedicine and nanotechnology because they could influence public policy or "contribute to personal or institutional financial gain".

Dr Kennedy’s upbeat editorial said that his journal had been vindicated by the review — it had followed normal protocols and had made "a substantially greater effort than for most papers to ensure that the science was sound". However, when read carefully, the carefully phrased letter from the reviewers gives a different impression. The Hwang fraud was not the first time that Science had been duped. The reviewers described its current procedures as "inadequate to deal with the problems of intentionally misleading work".

Furthermore, it appears that Science was an easy mark for the Koreans. Its editors were aware of a "a major potential flaw " in both of Hwang’s faked papers. They asked for better data but accepted Hwang’s explanations when it was not supplied. Furthermore, the whole paper had a fishy feel to it, giving "a general sense of unease to many editors", in the words of the reviewers. Yet Science charged ahead anyway. The question left unanswered by the reviewers is what might account for its reckless disregard of these nagging doubts.