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
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.
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
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.