Fraud in Scientific Journalism

CASE STUDY: The Cloning Fraud: How can media and science live together?

In February 2004, the science world turned its eyes to South Korea when Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, a Korean scientist, announced that he was the first person to have cloned human stem cells. In May 2005, he alleged that he had cloned human embryonic stem cells from 11 patients. In August of the same year he also announced that he had cloned a dog. Dr. Hwang published his scientific research in the journal Science and because of the evidence and the importance of his accomplishments; he was being considered a very strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

In his home country of South Korea, Dr. Hwang was considered a superstar and a hero, in part for his additional promise to cure such intractable illnesses as diabetes, cardiac conditions and spinal marrow damage. Hwang used the favorable, even at times fawning media coverage to accelerate his scientific research. He became so famous that he had his own postal stamp and, while other countries were prohibiting research related to human cloning because of the moral and religious implications, the government of South Korea not only approved stem cell research but also contributed over seventy million dollars to Dr. Hwang’s research. It even South Korea was even willing to change some of their national laws to eliminate obstacles that Hwang and his research team could meet during their research.

But at the end of 2005, Hwang’s fame and fortunate came to an abrupt end when a web page posted two identical pictures that came from different sources: the first showed cell colonies that Dr. Hwang said he had obtained from his patients and that were published in Science journal as an evidence of his work; the second showed ordinary stem cells obtained from a fertility clinic that appeared in another publication. The photos that Hwang’s 2005 article published were duplicates of other pictures.

After his fraud was exposed by several young Korean scientists, Dr. Hwang had no choice but to admit in court he fabricated data but he tried to defend himself by argumenting that he was duped by junior researchers into believing the bulk of his team’s findings were valid (Reuters, 2006). But all the evidences condemned him, and all of a sudden he went from being a hero to a misfortune for his country in every possible way.

Analyzing how media covered what turned out to be Dr. Hwang’s fraudulent research is a good way to understand how media cover scientific research in general. How well do journalists cover science and medicine?

Science is an integral part of our lives –but it is too often poorly covered. Yet science news is becoming more popular every day. People are eager to know what is new in the scientific world –especially breakthroughs such as cures for diseases. In many countries there is an increasing amount of science coverage across all media platforms—print, T.V, online for instance—but this does not necessarily means that the information being transmitted is accurate or even real.

Scientists have a language of their own, and while they are able to understand each other, the general public rarely can. But the public does have an interest and a right to be informed about what they do, how they do it, and what consequences or implications it might have. This is the job of journalists. But, how well prepared are journalists to translate scientific language –and how much help they are receiving from scientists to be able to do so accurately?

What scientists and journalists have in common is that both of them need to write about the science –whether by using a scientific language supporting evidence of their findings or by simply translating this information in a language everyone understands. So, there must be a way in which both of them can work together to transmit information in an accurate and reliable way.

In an article published in February 13th 2006 in the New York Times by Julie Bosman, she stated that after Dr. Hwang’s fraud, journalists covering the fields of science and medicine started to look at science journals with more skepticism.

In the same article Bosman quoted Rob Stein, a science reporter for The Washington Post, as saying: "I am keeping my antennae up ever since the whole scandal with Dr. Hwang arose, I am reading papers a lot more closely than before to verify an individual piece of research, but it is still hard to figure out if someone wants to completely fabricate data”.

But for Bosman not a lot had changed in how newspapers should treat scientific stories; most of the information reported in the daily press still depended on what scientists publish in scientific journals. (The most prestigious journals in the field, according to Bosman, include Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association).

Laura Chang, science editor for The New York Times agreed that reporters rely on the top science journals at least for the starting point of many of their stories. As she noted in Boseman’s article, the use of those journals as a primary source will probably never change.

Bosman also quoted David Perlman science editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. He said he believed that journalists using scientific journals is not too great a problem. Despite fraud cases, he noted, most of what those journals publish is credible. “They're being more careful now, and I think reporters are too.”