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Disputed Research Ends in Tragedy

A biomedical researcher whose Nature paper was called into question was found dead in his lab.
 

By | March 14, 2013

FLICKR, PLAXCO LABA Taiwanese biomedical researcher who co-authored a Nature paper while at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) may have killed himself last summer, on the day he was due to submit a written response to questions regarding the study's conclusions, reported The Washington Post.

The story centers on Daniel Yuan, formerly a statistician in the genetics lab of Jef Boeke at JHU Medical School, and Yu-yi Lin, then a researcher in the same lab. For years, Yuan had raised concerns about the methodology and results of the lab’s studies on interactions between genes in yeast. To him, the data didn’t always support the conclusions being drawn.

According to the Post, Yuan was first demoted and then dismissed in December 2011. By that time, Yuan already had serious concerns about data presented in a study that was eventually published in Nature in February 2012, and he later wrote to the journal’s editors to express his concerns that results were overstated, and that he had seen no evidence that the analysis claimed in the work had even been carried out.

In response, Nature’s editors had asked Boeke and lead author Lin, who had since moved on to take a new position at Taiwan National University, to submit a response to Yuan’s criticisms. But a day after Boeke wrote to Nature to ask for more time, Lin was found dead in his lab in Taiwan, surrounded by needles, sedatives, and muscle relaxants. Police ruled out suicide because there was no suicide note at the scene. Lin's family told the Taipei Times that he may have injected muscle relaxants due to work-related pressure.

Within hours of the news of Lin’s death, a note was sent from Lin’s e-mail address to the account of Yuan. “Yu-yi passed away this morning,” the e-mail read. “You must be very satisfied with your success.”

Although he was shocked by the whole affair, Yuan told the Post that he then asked Nature to publish his criticisms and inquired about Boeke’s response. On September 28, a Nature editor told Yuan that they were waiting on a proper response, but that “experiments are being done and probably a Correction written.” That correction has yet to appear, though a spokesperson for JHU told the Post that it was now under review by the journal. As a last resort, Yuan also contacted the Office of Research Integrity, who told him that the case is being investigated by JHU.

Correction (March 14): Yu-yi Lin's death was not reported as a suicide by local news outlets, as previously stated. Lin was found dead in his lab, surrounded by needles, sedatives, and muscle relaxants. Police ruled out suicide because there was no suicide note at the scene. The Scientist regrets the error.

Correction (March 15): The paper in question was not alleged to contain false or fabricated data, as previously stated. Instead, Daniel Yuan questioned the methods used to analyze the data and the conclusions subsequently drawn. The headline, subhed, and lede of the article have been changed to reflect this. The Scientist regrets the error.

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Comments

Avatar of: Brian Hanley

Brian Hanley

Posts: 24

March 14, 2013

Good for Yuan. Far too much is swept under the rug. Suicide is not his fault. Suicide is what Lin chose to do. Regrettable, but not a reason to not go after falsified research. Since it should be easy to prove the analysis had been done, Occam's razor says it wasn't. 

Post-docs choose the 'easy way' sometimes. Falsification is faster and less work. If successful it can get a post-doc or grad student through with flying colors. And more than one PI has rewarded such a researcher by arranging for a plum position. The bonds forged by collusion in lies tend to be strong, incurring obligations on the PI that have more compelling reason to reward than when there is not collusion. 

Others should reach out to Yuan and pull him up the ranks. We need people like him in science. If others don't work to reward him well for speaking out, Gresham's law will advance in sciences. 

Avatar of: mlerman

mlerman

Posts: 22

March 14, 2013

Fraud is known ln Science from the dawn of human civilizations. Science was always able to correct the damage; these days the cost is very high. Michael Lerman, M.D., Ph.D. 

Avatar of: JLo

JLo

Posts: 5

March 14, 2013

The removal of the word ethics fromt he Chinese vocabulary it is evident in a continuous basis. I do not understand why it is so diffuclt to understand that many of these individuals believe that they are superior to anybody else but they can not cope with real competition. They go at length to cheat and fabricate anything . If necessary they are willing to kill anybody in the way. We hear story after story of frustrated chinese that have kill their advisors or others because they are caught fabricating data.

 

Avatar of: Oomemes

Oomemes

Posts: 1

March 18, 2013

I'm reserving judgment on all fronts. We haven't seen the reponse to this digruntled former employee's complaints.  This article doesn't report ANY evidence of fraud.  As a scientist, I've often seen cases where a statistician thinks the analysis can be improved.  Of course it often can be, given years to perfect it, and at the cost of holding back a valuable data resource from the research community.   Failure to achieve perfection in the analysis also should not imply that it has been dishonestly reported.  Every scientific report is a snapshot of a work in progress, and the important thing is that it is honestly reported, and the community assesses, and science marches on.  Finally, we should not be quick to point the finger either for fraud, or to place blame when someone chooses to end their own life, if that is indeed what happened.

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