11 Mar (THE WASHINGTON POST) – The numbers didn’t add up. Over and over, Daniel Yuan, a medical doctor and statistician, couldn’t understand the results coming out of the lab, a prestigious facility at Johns Hopkins Medical School funded by millions from the National Institutes of Health. He raised questions with the lab’s director. He reran the calculations on his own. He looked askance at the articles arising from the research, which were published in distinguished journals. He told his colleagues: This doesn’t make sense.
“At first, it was like, ‘Okay — but I don’t really see it,’ ” Yuan recalled. “Then it started to smell bad.”
His suspicions arose as reports of scientific misconduct have become more frequent and critics have questioned the willingness of universities, academic journals and the federal government, which pays for much of the work, to confront the problem. Eventually, the Hopkins research, which focused on detecting interactions between genes, would win wide acclaim and, in a coup for the researchers, space in the pages of Nature, arguably the field’s most prestigious journal. The medical school even issued a news release when the article appeared last year: “Studies Linked To Better Understanding of Cancer Drugs.”
What very few readers of the Nature paper could know, however, was that behind the scenes, Yuan’s doubts seemed to be having profound effects. In August, Yu-yi Lin, the lead author of the paper, was found dead in his new lab in Taiwan, a puncture mark in his left arm and empty vials of sedatives and muscle relaxants around him, according to local news accounts — an apparent suicide. And within hours of this discovery, a note was sent from Lin’s e-mail account to Yuan. The e-mail, which Yuan saved, essentially blamed him for driving Lin to suicide. Yuan had written to Nature’s editors, saying that the paper’s results were overstated and that he found no evidence that the analyses described had actually been conducted. On the day of his death, Lin, 38, the father of three young daughters, was supposed to have finished writing a response to Yuan’s criticisms.
The subject line of the e-mail to Yuan, sent by an unknown person, said “your happy ending.” “Yu-yi passed away this morning. Now you must be very satisfied with your success,” the e-mail said.
Yuan said he was shocked by the note, so much so that he began to shake. But in the seven months since, he has wondered why no one — not the other investigators on the project, not the esteemed journal, not the federal government — has responded publicly to the problems he raised about the research. The passions of scientific debate are probably not much different from those that drive achievement in other fields, so a tragic, even deadly dispute might not be surprising. But science, creeping ahead experiment by experiment, paper by paper, depends also on institutions investigating errors and correcting them if need be, especially if they are made in its most respected journals. If the apparent suicide and Yuan’s detailed complaints provoked second thoughts about the Nature paper, though, there were scant signs of it. The journal initially showed interest in publishing Yuan’s criticism and told him that a correction was “probably” going to be written, according to e-mail records. That was almost six months ago. The paper has not been corrected.