The Korea Herald


How to end fraud in the lab

By Korea Herald

Published : June 10, 2012 - 19:41

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(The Korea Herald) (The Korea Herald)
Research fraud cases and allegations raise doubts over Korean labs’ ethical standards

A series of research fabrication scandals have sparked a round of soul-searching in Korea’s scientific community on whether their competitive zeal for accomplishment may have gone overboard.

The country last month caught the science world’s attention with a new research fraud case, just seven years after the fall of Hwang Woo-suk ― once Korea’s national hero and the world’s most renowned cloning expert ― for a similar scandal.

At the center of the latest scandal is Seoul National University professor Kang Soo-kyung, who had papers published in the international journal Antioxidants and Redox Signaling retracted by the journal over allegations of data fabrication.

Kang is accused of manipulating data in 14 papers published in international journals, and is currently under investigation by the university.

The news dealt a heavy blow to the local research community, which has been trying to restore its tarnished image after the 2005 scandal involving Hwang.

And as cases of questionable conduct among Korean scientists stack up, observers say it is high time to ask whether scientific misconduct is dealt with properly.

“I believe we should adopt a zero tolerance culture and scientists found guilty of misconduct should be excluded from making further contributions to their fields,” said Nho Hwan-jin, a professor at Chonbuk National University.

In the wake of Hwang’s stem cell fraud, which rocked the whole country for weeks, the Korean government introduced a set of guidelines against scientific misconduct, including plagiarism and falsifying data.

Last year, it established the National Science and Technology Commission to offer advice on research integrity issues.

Yet, research integrity matters are primarily dealt with by individual universities or institutes, according to an official from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

“The ministry doesn’t intervene in research at individual universities, because intervention could delay, or even hamper, research processes,” the official said.

Under the government-set guideline revised in 2011, a researcher, if found guilty of scientific misconduct, could face discipline ranging from a ban of up to three years in participating in any further research to outright dismissal.

But the guidelines are not binding and there is no body that ensures and monitors their implementation. There is no reliable data on the number of research fabrication cases.

“It is impossible to collect such data at the moment, because most cases are settled between individual researchers and the related institutions,” an official at the National Science and Technology Commission said.

Another problem, observers say, is that universities and institutes often ignore, or even try to cover up, the ethical misconduct of their researchers.

SNU professor Kang had been called into the university’s ethnics committee in 2010 for alleged data fabrication in her paper submitted to the International Journal of Cancer.

She received only a verbal warning, and was able to continue her research until recently. SNU is the nation’s most prestigious university and is also where Hwang conducted his research.

Researchers say excessive competition in the country’s science field may have been behind the ethics violations.

The Korean government has expanded its R&D investment from 11 trillion won in 2008 to 16 trillion won in 2012 to secure national competitiveness through the revitalization of science and technology.

This sudden influx of investment has tempted some scientists to compromise their research integrity, some argued.

“Scientists are seeking to lure investment in their research, and the best way to do this is to publish their work in renowned international journals such as Nature or Science,” a stem cell researcher who declined to be named said.

Publishing in those journals is highly competitive as well. A total of 10,047 papers were submitted to Nature in 2011, but only 813 were accepted.

As concerns over research integrity grows, some call on the government to establish a national oversight body that investigates and reports on research misconduct.

The U.S., for instance, has a federal agency called the Office of Research Integrity that develops policies and regulations related to research misconduct.

“Scientific misconduct is a serious offense in the United States. If scientists are caught with misconducts, they are expelled from their academic field,” Noh said.

Establishment of a body will not fix the problem instantly, though, he said.

The U.S. body was established in 1992, but it took more than 10 years before it started to take serious action against scientific misconduct, Noh explained.

“We need to have a social consensus on punishment for scientific misconduct. But first of all, the government needs the will to make it happen,” he added.

By Oh Kyu-wook (