February 25, 2024


The audacious fraud has raised questions about government involvement in research, the celebrity status of scientists, the viability and regulation of human embryonic stem cell research and public understanding of therapeutic cloning. But the peer-review system for vetting articles is at the centre of the controversy. Science, the journal which published Hwang’s landmark paper in which he claimed to have created 11 stem cell lines, has acknowledged that the paper was reviewed quickly — in 58 days, far less than the average 81 days. However, its editor, Donald Kennedy, says “peer review cannot detect [fraud] if it is artfully done”. The journal may adopt some reforms already used by other journals like requiring each contributor to detail his contribution or performing independent analyses of images. Some critics of stem cell research contend that Science gave Hwang’s research an easy run because it supported embryo research in the face of the restrictive US policy.

Where peer review failed, journalists and bloggers succeeded. A Korean investigative TV news program, PD Notebook, followed up anonymous tips and aggressively interviewed Hwang’s co-workers. They very nearly failed to get the story out, though, because all sponsors cancelled their ads, the switchboard was flooded with threatening calls and on December 7 the network suspended the show. Hwang was just so popular with ordinary Koreans and so trusted by researchers around the world that none of the mud seemed to stick. Around that time, however, scientist bloggers began to post their comments on faked photographs of the stem cell lines and DNA fingerprints. Eventually Seoul National University launched an investigation and a few days later PD Notebook was back on air with more revelations.

As science writer Tabitha M. Powledge, an official blogger on The Scientist magazine, commented, “Yes, this monumental scientific fraud was not initially disclosed by the journals that published Hwang’s cloning and stem cell papers, or the reviewers, or regulators, or ethics committees — all those scientific institutions that should be bulwarks against fraud of this magnitude. Disclosure happened because reporters for the South Korean TV network MBC got a tip and pursued it vigorously.”