South Korean Researcher Suspended Over Charges of Scientific Misconduct

An internal investigation by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), a top South Korean university based in Daejeon, has raised concerns about two high-profile papers, including one published in Science, by KAIST scientist Tae Kook Kim. The investigation is not yet complete, but Lee Gyun Min, chair of KAIST's Department of Biological Sciences and head of the internal investigation committee, sent correspondence to Science stating that "our initial investigative results are strong enough to convince us that the two papers do not contain any scientific truth."

The Science paper appeared in 2005 and the second was published in Nature Chemical Biology in 2006. The Science paper described using nanoparticles to probe molecular behavior inside cells and ultimately to identify novel drug targets. "The reviewers were very enthusiastic about the paper," says Katrina Kelner, Science's deputy editor for biological sciences. She says the paper's images of living cells were put through an image-analysis system Science had recently instituted, and nothing problematic came up. The Nature Chemical Biology paper appeared a year later and reported that a cell's aging clock could be reset by modulating certain proteins identified by the technique described in Science.

Kim formed a company to commercialize technology related to the studies, according to Yeonsoo Seo, a member of the Department of Biological Sciences and part of the KAIST investigative committee. But on 12 February, the president of the CGK Co. Ltd. in Daejeon contacted KAIST officials, saying they could not reproduce some of Kim's results.

KAIST launched a departmental investigation on 13 February, following a protocol it had developed in the wake of a notorious scandal over fraudulent stem cell research by Seoul National University professor Woo-Suk Hwang (ScienceNOW, 30 October 2006). Seo says investigators immediately approached Kim, who couldn't provide notebooks or original data for the experiments. He left Korea a few days later. The task force interviewed other members of Kim's team, meeting with the lead author of both studies, Jaejoon Won, twice. Several days after the second interview, according to Seo, Won sent a written statement to the task force that, Seo says, admitted "serious scientific misconduct in both papers."

After this correspondence, the Korean investigating committee reported its preliminary findings of suspicions of misconduct to KAIST President Nam Pyo Suh on 28 February. That same day the school suspended Kim and notified the two journals about the questions surrounding the papers. Science posted an Editorial Expression of Concern about the paper on its Web site on Monday and expects the authors to be in touch shortly to retract the paper. It's not yet clear whether Kim will be among them.

Seo says the committee is not releasing details of the problems found with the papers until it completes its investigation. "It looks clear the papers are scientifically wrong," he says, but the investigators must establish who bears responsibility among the many authors, some of them at other institutions. He cannot say how long this formal investigation will take.

"This was a big shock to me, a complete shock," says Robert Roeder, a biochemist at Rockefeller University in New York City, who supervised Kim's Ph.D. thesis from 1990 to 1994, after he graduated from Seoul National University. Roeder recalls Kim as "a very industrious student, very conscientious, extremely hardworking," and someone who got along well with others in the lab, where he studied gene regulation in yeast. Kim's whereabouts are unknown, although he's believed to be in the United States. He could not be reached for this article.

Yong-Taek Im, a mechanical engineer who is dean of international and public relations at KAIST, says that if Kim is found to have committed fraud, his contract with the university will likely be terminated.

Posted in Scientific Community, Asia