Earlier this month, the journal Science formally retracted two papers by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk and his colleagues, whose claims about creating stem cell lines from cloned human embryos were revealed to be false. In December, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) declared that a report it published in 2000 on the painkiller Vioxx contained “inaccuracies” due to incomplete data on potential side effects. And on Friday, the NEJM issued an “expression of concern” that two cancer-research studies it published in 2001 and 2004 appeared to contain misleading evidence-just days after the British medical journal The Lancet made its own announcement that a 2005 study from the same Norwegian-based research team included fabricated data.
In the wake of these and other science scandals in the past several years-ranging from fabricated findings to misleadingly incomplete data-some editors of science publications are rethinking their roles and asking themselves whether they should act more like muckraking investigators than purveyors of scientific discovery. Yet journal editors, even those associated with successful investigations into malfeasance, demur when asked if sleuthing is, or should be, part of their jobs. “Journals cannot be investigating prosecutors or detectives,” says Edward Campion, senior deputy editor at the NEJM, expressing a view common even among reform-minded science editors.