My Favorite Fraud

A paper I read more than 25 years ago taught me a lesson I'll never forget.

By | September 1, 2008

Last week I was at a scientific conference in which career development was a major topic. The audience included mostly scientists at an early stage in their careers, but also a few older scientists, like myself, who were to provide advice on how to manage laboratories and careers. Popular discussion topics included how to run lab meetings and deal with the egos of graduate students and postdocs. My particular advice included: Keep current with experimental technologies, and evaluate papers on a technical basis before trusting their conclusions.

I'm sure that this advice sounded to some like the musings of a compulsive technogeek, but it was prompted by an incident that happened when I was a postdoc.

I was a member of a weekly journal club that discussed the latest papers in the field of cell signaling and growth control. All presenters were to provide an assessment of the technical rigor as well as the importance of papers. In the summer of 1982, however, we encountered a paper that was far out of the ordinary.

The paper, by lead author Mark Spector, appeared in Cell and described a remarkable new protein kinase cascade that was proposed to be central to cancer.1 This was our area of research, and so it sounded particularly exciting. When we read the paper, however, we immediately judged it fraudulent. The scale of the work was impossibly large and yielded the kind of perfect data that we had never seen before. Plus, many aspects of the work made no technical sense. For example, following a six-step heroic purification process involving centrifugation, affinity chromatography, and isoelectric focusing, the researchers obtained 5.8 ųg of purified kinase from 10 preparations. However, in the first figure of the paper, they used 15 ųg of the purified kinase to show a single stained band on a gel. Huh? Who sacrifices 25 preparations of an enzyme just to show a band on a gel?

This was only one of many obvious problems with this paper. We termed the study "a graduate student fantasy." The senior author, however, was the renowned scientist Efraim Racker, so many scientists in the field assumed that the results must be reliable. Being skeptical young scientists, we were not so sure. At a scientific meeting we attended a month later, it was clear that many other investigators were extremely wary of the results.

It was only a couple of months before the news appeared that the paper was fraudulent. Enzymes that were supposed to be phosphorylated turned out to be molecular weight markers radiolabeled with iodine. In fact, all of the numerous findings and hypotheses that appeared in six papers Spector published with Racker were incorrect. Spector denied wrongdoing, but he was expelled from school, and the papers were retracted. Several years later, Racker published a lengthy description of his futile efforts to reproduce the results.2 History has shown that the results were indeed a fantasy.

Thankfully, fraud this outlandish is rare in biology. What fascinated me the most about the case, however, was the lack of recognition by Racker (and apparently the paper's reviewers) of the technical implausibility of what the authors were describing. Exciting ideas and Racker's past accomplishments apparently blinded him and many other people in the field. The harm to science was minimal, but the damage to Racker's distinguished career was severe. A recent controversy regarding an engineered enzyme in the Duke lab of Homme Hellinga shows that over-optimistic interpretation of experimental results is still a sure-fire way to cast a cloud over your reputation.3

Ever since the Spector incident, I always read the technical details of a paper before I evaluate its conclusions. I'm not looking for fraud, but instead am trying to understand how critical the authors are being in evaluating their own work. Rigor in the technical design of an experiment is an indication of good scientific judgment by the authors. This also requires that I keep current with experimental technologies, because if I cannot understand the technical basis of a study, I cannot judge its validity. The most important lesson that I have learned from the Spector incident, however, is that self-delusion is probably a greater danger in the laboratory than fraud.

Correction (posted September 15): When originally posted, the article misspelled Efraim Racker?s name. The mistake, which The Scientist regrets, has been corrected.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.

References

1. M. Spector et al., "A mouse homolog to the avian sarcoma virus src protein is a member of a protein kinase cascade," Cell, 25:9-21, 1981. 2. E. Racker, "The Warburg effect: two years later," Science, 222:232, 1983. 3. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/319/5863/569b
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 7

September 4, 2008

The Spector fiasco and other memorable scientific misconduct cases were lessons for us all. I agree with Wiley's assessment that there is a need for a critical analysis of the methodology in a grant proposal or a paper both during peer-review and even after publication. So how come several journals now publish the Methods section last, just before the references (almost as if the Method section was an afterthought!!)? In addition, the new NIH guidelines for grant applications will reduce the allowable page limit and also appears to propose a scenario where the review system would be willing to sacrifice space where the details of methodology would be presented while devoting more room for the investigator to explain why the project is 'innovative.' What reasonable person of science wouldn't want to understand the details of how the experiments will be performed?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

September 4, 2008

I met Spector when I was a postdoc at another university. He came to present a seminar on his work. Afterwards the grad students, and we postdocs, had lunch with him. All of us thought he was both brilliant and despicably arrogant, but nonetheless we were awed by the beauty and elegance of the work he presented. We were all dumbstruck when we found out, only a week or so later, that all of his data had been fabricated. I have always wondered what ever happened to him.
Avatar of: megan lalli

megan lalli

Posts: 1

September 8, 2008

"That which we call a rose [b]y any other name would smell as sweet." (William Shakespeare)\n\nI was fortunate enough to take two Shakespeare classes taught by an outstanding Shakespearian, Warren Smith. I saw Pharmacy, Engineering, and Microbiology majors standing in long lines at registration trying to get into his classes. \n\nIt was he who told me and others in his class that when we read journal articles of any kind, we ought to cover the author's name and judge the article on its own merit. Took the ego out of things, and I found it to work across all sorts of disciplines.
Avatar of: DAVID VANHORN

DAVID VANHORN

Posts: 1

September 8, 2008

This is a great editorial! I'm planning to share with students and colleagues...\n\nFor me, the crucial and key point is this statement: "... how critical the authors are being in evaluating their own work."\n\nA good lesson for all of us.
Avatar of: Ruth Rosin

Ruth Rosin

Posts: 117

September 10, 2008

Thanks to Steven Wiley for stressing the paramount role that scientists' self-delusion can play in science.\n\nAs an active supporter, (sice 19760), of the criticism, (launched by Adrian Wenner & his team in 1967), of the sensational "discovery" of the honeybee "dance language" (DL), (first announced in a scientific journal in 1946), I have learned long ago that, even though the "discovery" earned K. v. Frisch a 1973 Nobel Prize, this DL exists only in the self-deluded minds of its staunch supporters, and their loyal followers.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

September 11, 2008

When Spector was exposed, he already had a paper submitted with his post-doctoral supervisor-to-be, David Baltimore.

September 11, 2008

You comment that "Ever since the Spector incident, I always read the technical details of a paper before I evaluate its conclusions." which is something I like to do as well BUT I am finding a most disturbing trend in the Journals with the highest impact factors and flashiest reputations that the "technical details" are relegated to the appendix or electronic file along with other data as tables or figures. While these files are "accessible" they are not always available remotely which makes it very difficult to evaluate the study in it entirety. Similarly we are about to go to severely reduced grant proposals in the NIH system wherein the "Technical details" don't even need to be present nor much evidence of preliminary data. This worries me badly in these times of short funding and difficult decisions.\n\nI can't tell you how many WONDERFUL ideas I have had after reading papers showing this method of that which may work in other systems but will not work in mine for a whole host of reasons.\n\nI don't have the answer but I do retain the worry.
Avatar of: Ruth Rosin

Ruth Rosin

Posts: 117

September 12, 2008

In my comment of 09/11 I noted the Nobel Prize winning, sensational "discovery" of the honeybee "dance language" (DL), which exists only in the self-deluded minds of not a few scientists. I should add that this is anything but a minor issue.\n\nThe honeybee DL controversy, (that has been going on for over forty years), constitutes the most important reflection of a much longer, basic controversy over the very foundations of the whole field of Behavioral Science, about whether we should discard the whole concept of "instinct", and what we should incorporate instead. The controversy over the existence of "instincts", in turn, concerns the very foundation of biology in general, i.e. the nature-nurture controversy.\n\nAllowing scientists' self-delusions to play a major role in these controversies is a disaster for science.
Avatar of: Ruth Rosin

Ruth Rosin

Posts: 117

September 12, 2008

While I applaude Steven Wiley's exposure of scientists' self-delusions as an issue of paramount importance in science, I have learned from experience that, if you are involved in a major scientific controvery, evaluating new scientific publictions that are relevant to that controversy, after inspecting the publications with the names of the authors covered, is not a good idea at all.\n\nThis is so, because in such a case, you need to know as much as you only can, about the authors' beliefs, their way of thinking, and the rationale underlying their experimental designs and interpretations of data; and this important information you can often glean only from knowing who the authors are, and what they published earlier.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

September 14, 2008

Often, I see poor techniques, careless researchers, but good results, and a lot of new publications. Tired of repeating the mistakes, I become skeptical and technical.
Avatar of: Antoine Danchin

Antoine Danchin

Posts: 5

September 16, 2008

An aspect of Mark Spector's fraud, which has rarely been noticed, is that it was at least his second fraud. He had previously "uncovered" the remarkable way electrons are transfered during photosynthesis (PNAS PMID: 16592780, if I am correct). And this is often the case with fraudulent work (do you remember the various works of Hasko Paradies, from "crystallisation" of tRNA, to movements of ribosomal subunits and exceptional properties of ATP synthases ?). This implicates that, for some reason, no real action is taken when fraud is uncovered. This is a sad observation, but quite often repeated...
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 27, 2010

I heard many years ago that Mark Spector ended up admitted to Medical School, possibly Wayne State. Imagine that scenario!

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