Exciting Stuff, Science
For those of you who have been following science news, remember this debacle? Briefly recapping, back in February, Gary Struhl of Columbia University had to retract his 2002 paper that questioned the current theory on Wnt signaling from Cell. One of his former post-docs, Siu-Kwong Chan, had fabricated data. Once Chan admitted to the fabrication, he resigned from his post at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
So how on earth did someone manage to catch this? Well, I guess I didn’t have to look further than my own school. The molecular cell biology program here has several “journal clubs” in which graduate students, post-docs, and faculty participate in. Each journal club is focused on a particular area in biology and basically each week, someone presents a paper or a couple of related papers which then everyone analyzes in a sort of roundtable or intimate seminar fashion (this usually depends on which professor is running the club).
The Cell paper was picked by another graduate student for his journal club which mostly dealt with developmental biology. After looking at the data, one of the post-docs attending the journal club felt uneasy. Something just wasn’t right. What he realized was that one of the figures in the paper was simply a replica of another figure but rotated. So with that, he called up the editor of Cell to point out the mistake and that was that. Or so it would seem.
The Cell editor then called Struhl for his side of the story, saying only that someone from Dartmouth had called about the mistake. Struhl was furious. He jumped to the conclusion that the only person he knew at Dartmouth–who happens to be a professor here–had ratted him out. So this prof (who really didn’t know about all this hoopla) got a call out of the blue from Struhl who wasted no time in ranting his ear off. It was then that the prof remembered that Struhl’s paper had been presented at the journal club and proceeded to tell Struhl that it could have been anybody.
So with his theory that someone was out to get him falling flat on its face, Struhl tried to replicate the experiments in the 2002 paper. He couldn’t do it. It was then that he confronted his ex-post-doc who subsequently confessed to the fraud. Although the truth is now out thanks to Dartmouth’s underappreciated journal clubs, it’s also unfortunate to the parties involved: one man’s destroyed career, another man’s tarnished reputation, and a competing group that had wasted almost two years trying to replicate irreproducible results.