claim fuels dispute among “wrist-walker” researchers
Special to World Science
In surprise twist to the already
odd case of a syndrome whose victims walk on all fours—which might
shed light on the origin of upright walking, according to scientists
studying it—a bitter row has split the researchers, fueled by claims
of scientific misconduct.
The discord stems partly from differing theories on the
condition, which one researcher has termed a possible “devolution.”
|Five siblings from a Turkish family never
learned to walk on two legs. They are said by some researchers to get around quite well on all fours. (Credit: Uner Tan)
But the intellectual ping-pong has itself devolved into a personal war, pitting
that relatively little-known Turkish researcher against three internationally known U.K.
He says that after he invited them to study the case with him in Turkey, they “stole” his credit for discovering it, sold the finding to the BBC for
an upcoming documentary and—worst—paid the victims’ family to end their cooperation with him and other researchers.
Since all documented cases of the syndrome came from that family, this stopped his research, he wrote in an email: “They actually bought the family.”
Two experts in research ethics contacted by World Science said such a payment
sounded ethically dubious. A third said it might be wrong, or just rude, depending on the details of the case.
Nicholas Humphrey, one of the U.K. scientists, said he couldn’t say much about the research, because of
restrictions related to the upcoming documentary. He declined to discuss the alleged payment.
But he denied having usurped any credit, saying he has duly credited the Turkish researcher, Uner Tan. A published paper by Humphrey
acknowledges Tan’s invitation and says Tan conducted initial studies
on the case.
Yet Humphrey, of the London School of Economics, added that the syndrome’s real discoverer seems to have been not Tan but another Turkish researcher,
Osman Demirhan. Demirhan didn’t answer emails from World Science.
The BBC’s Jemima Harrison, director of the documentary, also declined
to discuss the dispute, though she said in an email this week that the
film is scheduled to appear March 17.
While Humphrey may be contending with a misconduct allegation, Tan is on the defensive for another reason: his science.
He has advanced the unusual theory that
the syndrome represents “backward evolution” or “devolution,”
and other still less orthodox concepts—provoking deep skepticism, even
jeers, from other researchers.
“Is this a hoax?” wrote Thomas Suddendorf, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, by email after seeing a paper by Tan from the March issue of the
International Journal of Neuroscience. Humphrey claimed Tan’s bizarre theories are why an initially friendly working relationship between the two began fraying.
Tan, of Cukurova University Medical School in Adana, Turkey, has
responded to the criticism noting that reverse evolution is a well studied, if
For instance, a paper by U.S. scientists in the October 2003 issue of the
Trends in Ecology and Evolution stated: “Evolution in reverse is a widespread phenomenon in
biology; however, many researchers are only just beginning to take notice” of its importance.
Even more people will take notice of the wrist-walkers if the BBC documentary airs. But Tan is not happy with how this notice has been arranged.
He said in an email that Humphrey’s team, besides selling the story to the British station, apparently paid the
wrist-walkers’ Turkish family to stop cooperating with other researchers. The family, which is poor, got 1,000 euros (about $1,200 US) and newly installed gas and electric service, Tan said. There was no word on who would pay the continuing bills.
One expert in scientific ethics said such
a deal might be unethical, or simply rude, depending on the details of
“It might be a matter of research etiquette,” and nothing
more, wrote Jonathan Moreno, who directs the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia.
From the family’s standpoint, “There’s no obligation to be in research at all, so there can’t be an obligation to stay in a particular study,”
But two other experts said they would seriously question such a transaction, unless it passed careful review by one of the ethics panels that research institutions appoint for
“I’m suspicious all over the place,” said Arthur L. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics in Philadelphia.
Payments to research participants are normal, he added, but they must be reviewed to ensure they’re neither unfairly small, nor too large. “You’re not supposed to bribe people into being subjects,” he said, and participants should have advocates to explain their rights to them.
“This wouldn’t be right in terms of the protection of research subjects and it certainly wouldn’t be right in terms of the sharing of research knowledge,” wrote Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California, San Diego, in an email.
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