“Scientific papers are like someone’s dating profile on an app. They’re picking what pictures to show you and what stories to tell you.” (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

We’re Not Curing Cancer Here, Guys

Are leading scientists just making stuff up? Vinay Prasad breaks down the cancer research scandal.

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A top cancer surgeon at Columbia University is under scrutiny after one of his research papers was retracted for containing suspect data. Twenty-six other studies by Dr. Sam S. Yoon, who conducted his research at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, have been flagged as suspicious by a British scientific sleuth called Sholto David. David raised the alarm after spotting the same images across different articles that described wholly different experiments. He has also found duplications and manipulated data in papers published by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston that have since been retracted. 

This news shocked me: leading scientists at some of the most respected research centers in the world, working on the very important and well-funded fight against cancer are. . . making stuff up. That seems bad. Really bad. And it poses a lot of unsettling questions, like whether we can really trust medical research at all. But maybe I am missing something. In search of reassurance, I called up an expert: oncologist, UCSF professor, the author of more than 500 academic papers, and Free Press contributor Vinay Prasad

Here’s an edited version of our conversation. (Spoiler alert: I was not reassured.) 

Vinay, how worried should we be about the problem of fraud in cancer research? 

Extremely worried. There’s something very unique about all these papers that allows people to find the fraud, and that is they report the raw data, in the form of images. Most papers, though, do not contain images. The data is all hidden. The researchers only provide a summary of the data. You have to worry how much fraud you’d find if everybody provided all the raw data. I suspect you’d find a gargantuan amount of fraud. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. 

Most laymen like me assume all the data is transparent in medical research. You’re telling me that’s not how it works?

Scientific papers are like someone’s dating profile on an app. They’re picking what pictures to show you and what stories to tell you. You don’t get to see the whole library of photos on their phone. Researchers are only presenting a sliver of what they’ve actually done. And just like a dating app on your phone, everything is inaccurate. 

That’s shocking, Vinay. What can we do about it? 

These concerns have been brewing for a while and they are reaching a tipping point. The fact that there’s been so much plagiarism at Harvard and there’s been all this image manipulation shows that the most venerable institutions are no safeguard against malfeasance. 

What punishment have any of these researchers actually faced? Claudine Gay resigned, although was shuffled into a role that paid her very well. All of the authors of these disputed papers have, to my knowledge, faced no sanction. Their paper gets withdrawn, but they still get promoted. There’s no punishment. 

A few years ago, there was a proposal by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors arguing that every paper published in the top journals should make the raw data available. That proposal was shot down because people were worried about their careers, and that other researchers would take their data and use it to make breakthroughs before them. Sharing is the solution. You should have to make all the data available whenever you publish medical research.

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor at The Free Press.

Vinay Prasad is a hematologist-oncologist, and a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. Follow him on Substack, on his YouTube channel Vinay Prasad MD MPH, or on Twitter (now X) @VPrasadMDMPH.