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Nature 439, 768-769 (16 February 2006) | doi:10.1038/439768b

Disgraced cloner's ally is cleared of misconduct

Emma Marris and Erika Check

But Hwang's US collaborator is chided for 'research misbehaviour'.

Gerald Schatten was the Western face of Woo Suk Hwang's stem-cell team, which was recently exposed for faking the results of cloning experiments. On 10 February, Schatten was cleared of misconduct by his university, but chided for taking so much credit for research in which he was barely involved.

The University of Pittsburgh in Philadelphia decided to investigate Schatten in December after claims in a Science paper that he had co-authored with Seoul National University's Hwang turned out to be false (see W. S. Hwang et al. Science 308, 1777–1783; 2005 and Nature 438, 718; 2005). Schatten was senior author on the paper, and his gushing praise of Hwang's research was instrumental in raising the South Korean team's profile in the United States and elsewhere.

The full report has not been released, but in a public summary, the six anonymous investigators conclude that there is no evidence that Schatten knew about the fraud taking place in Hwang's lab, and they applaud Schatten for taking swift action when he became convinced that Hwang's team had obtained eggs unethically, to create the world's first stem-cell line from a cloned human embryo back in 2004. But they are less pleased with Schatten's decision to name himself senior author on a paper for which his only contribution was editorial.

The summary also points out that Schatten signed a cover letter for the 2005 Science paper claiming that all 25 authors of the paper had read and approved of the manuscript, when very few of them probably had. And it notes that Schatten's co-authorship of a 2005 Nature paper (see B. C. Lee et al. Nature 436, 641; 2005) reporting the first cloned dog, Snuppy, was based solely on the dubious suggestion "that a professional photographer be engaged so that Snuppy would appear with greater visual appeal". Although stopping short of misconduct, the panel describes Schatten's actions as "research misbehaviour".

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Y.-J. AHN/AP

Happier times: close ties between Gerald Schatten (right) and Woo Suk Hwang raised the profile of the South Korean's cloning team.

Stem-cell researchers contacted by Nature generally approve of the report and its conclusions. "Dr Schatten was as much of a victim as the scientific community," says Evan Snyder, who directs the stem-cell programme at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California. "Ultimately a collaboration comes down to trust."

Arnold Kriegstein, who directs stem-cell work at the University of California at San Francisco, agrees, but says he is disappointed that Schatten, as "the first line of defence" against fraud, did not spot problems earlier. "It's hard not to think of Schatten as partly a victim, but on the other hand we were all let down by the lack of careful scrutiny."

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However, George Annas, a bioethics professor at Boston University School of Public Health in Massachusetts, is deeply disappointed by the report, which he calls "pathetic". Signing off a cover letter claiming all the authors approved of the manuscript was clearly wrong, he says. He feels that the race to clear high-profile research hurdles will always bring the temptation to cut corners, and that the report is too easy on Schatten: "The university is basically saying, we will treat you pretty good if you get caught."

Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, is also uneasy. "The report raises questions," he says. "Nobody I know knows what 'research misbehaviour' is." He adds that Science's own review will look further into the legitimacy of Schatten's senior authorship on the 2005 paper. "I thought that he had been over there [to Hwang's lab], and that he was involved with experimental strategies," he says.

Schatten has kept out of the public eye since his break with Hwang in November last year. Like Schatten, officials at the University of Pittsburgh have declined to be interviewed. The full report has been submitted to the dean of Pittsburgh's medical school, Arthur Levine, who will decide whether Schatten should face disciplinary action.

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