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Yang weighs in on international debate about scientific fraud

by David Bauman - February 21, 2006

In the wake of recent headline-grabbing revelations of cloning-research misconduct, Xiangzhong “Jerry” Yang, director of the University’s Center for Regenerative Biology, is calling for reforms at top-tier scientific journals.

In a letter to editors of the journal Nature published in the Feb. 16 issue, Yang acknowledges that large-scale scientific fraud “will have consequences for future research in this, and related biomedical fields.”

He specifically refers to South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk, whose claims about creating stem cell lines from cloned human embryos were recently revealed to be false.

However, Yang’s letter cautions, “this does not justify imposing more rigorous standards for reviewing manuscripts in this field [cloning] than others.”

His letter was co-signed by leading scientists at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

Asked how the letter to Nature came about, Yang said he had sent a draft to scientific colleagues in the fields of cloning, transgenic science, and stem cell research to solicit their opinions and comments.

“In the end, they all chose to sign on to make it a joint response,” he said.

“We believe a simpler system of checks and balances could reduce incidents of scientific fraud and increase our confidence in published reports,” Yang says in the letter. He then suggests a three-point course of action:

First, all co-authors of science papers must disclose the nature of their participation in a research project. This is a point of contention in the Hwang scandal, where the precise role of Hwang’s American co-author, biologist Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, was the subject of an investigation.

“Surprisingly, it seems clear in retrospect that many of the 26 authors on Hwang’s report [published by the journal Science] could not have attested to the veracity of the human nuclear-transfer embryonic stem cells presented,” Yang writes.

“A requirement for personal accountability might have encouraged greater communication between authors, and uncovered the deception prior to publication.”

Secondly, Yang proposes that, in lieu of lab work to reproduce the results of every paper they publish, scientific journals should require that all published reagents and cell lines be made available to other laboratories.

This suggestion takes into account the fact that top-tier science publications are receiving growing numbers of submissions every year.

Even if these elite journals had a staff to replicate a paper’s stated findings, they would still lack the funding to reproduce most big-time science research, Yang said in the interview.

Experimental trials can be prohibitively expensive; Hwang’s team received $65 million from the South Korean government, he said.

A third proposal in Yang’s letter advocates that editors at high-impact journals impose more individual accountability on peer reviewers.

“Reviewers should be encouraged to demand that authors provide clear and strong evidence that the data presented support the claims made,” he writes.

“Of course, the best way to ensure integrity in any field is independent replication of results,” Yang concludes.

“Current limits on U.S. federal funding make independent verification of results especially challenging in the case of human embryonic stem cells or nuclear-transfer embryonic stem cell research, and undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties in uncovering the misconduct of Hwang and his colleagues.”

Co-signatories to Yang’s letter are Douglas Melton, co-director of Harvard University’s Stem Cell Institute; Kevin Eggan, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard; Rudolf Jaenisch, professor of biology at MIT and a founding member of Whitehead Institute; and George Siedel, director of the Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory at Colorado State University.

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