Scientists investigate ethical complaint over “hand-walkers” research
and World Science staff
Turkey’s chief organization of scientists has announced plans to investigate ethical complaints against three U.K. researchers over a study of people who walk on all fours in Turkey.
The British scientists today broke weeks of silence on the issue to answer the complaints, saying they had done nothing wrong. The comments came a day after a top U.K. expert in scientific ethics had suggested the university where they work should investigate their research.
The complaints originated with a Turkish scientist who claimed that after he invited the British researchers to join him in studying the people who walk on all fours—widely hailed as a unique insight into human evolution—the researchers paid the family to stop collaborating with him. They deny it.
The case has some Turkish scientists bristling with offended national pride.
“This is scandalous. This is something like an insult,” said Tayfun Ozcelik, president of the Turkish Society of Medical Genetics. He said the British team seems to have done its research without the proper approvals either in Turkey or the U.K., but the British researchers said they obtained the approvals.
The affair began last year, after researchers discovered a family in a Turkish village, five of whose members walk habitually on all fours even as adults. These hand-walkers, as some called them, were hailed as a phenomenon that could shed light on the evolution of upright walking.
Soon after the finding, a Turkish researcher, Uner Tan of Cukurova University Medical School in Adana, Turkey, invited some U.K. scientists to study it alongside him. As a result, three prominent U.K. researchers joined him: Nicholas Humphrey and John R. Skoyles of the London School of Economics, and Roger Keynes of the University of Cambridge.
Relations between them and Tan later soured.
Eventually, Tan claims, they team “stole” his credit for discovering the syndrome and sold the story for a BBC documentary to appear this Friday. Worst, he said, they paid the hand-walkers’ family to stop cooperating with him and other researchers.
He said this payment consisted of 1,000 euros (about $1,200 U.S.), plus newly installed water and electrical service. The family was poor.
The U.K. researchers, asked about these claims by a reporter last month, at first answered only some of them. Humphrey said he hadn’t usurped any credit, and that the syndrome’s real discoverer seems to have been not Tan but another researcher, Osman Demirhan.
Humphrey then refused to discuss the alleged payment and other issues. He instead expressing growing irritation, and wrote in one email: “No one wants to talk to a journalist whose primary interest seems to be in making trouble.”
Today, as scientists and others increasingly raised questions, Humphrey sent an email responding to the other key allegations.
He said he had paid the family 500 euros, at Tan’s suggestion, “with no conditions attached.” Tan acknowledged he had given the family “a little money” and urged Humphrey to do the same, but said he didn’t expect to be excluded as part of the deal.
Humphrey added that he didn’t know about the water and gas service, but he thought a local benefactor may have helped the family build a well.
Some experts in scientific ethics contacted by World Science said they worried that the U.K. team might not have through the normal process of having their research project pre-approved by one of the ethical panels that research institutions set up for the purpose.
A day before Humphrey’s new comments, one expert even said Humphrey’s institution should investigate his research because of his silence as to whether this ethical review took place.
“I would draw the conclusion they probably did not have ethics approval,” said Søren Holm of Cardiff University, U.K., joint editor-in-chief of the London-based Journal of Medical Ethics. “I think it would be both rational and right for the university to look into the project,” he added, referring to the London School, where Humphrey, first author of a paper on the research, works.
But in his new comments, Humphrey said he had the necessary approval, from Tan’s own university. “In this kind of international collaboration, it is generally accepted that approval by the host institution (i.e Cukorova University) will cover visiting scientists,” Humphrey wrote, later adding: “I’m not prepared to answer further questions.”
Tan said he didn’t believe Humphrey has valid approval, though Humphrey said he has it in writing.
Richard Ashcroft, head of medical ethics at Imperial College London, said he thinks Humphrey technically didn’t need approval, because his research wasn’t strictly medical, though it would have been a good idea anyway.
Holm said he has several other ethical questions about the research as well.
Also weighing in on the controversy was BBC spokeswoman Nicola Richardson, who repeated that no researchers were excluded from studying the family. She said Tan appears in the documentary and is given due credit.
A BBC promotional statement for the documentary touts “exclusive access to the family,” but Richardson said this exclusivity referred to television photographers, not researchers.
Tan said he had raised some of his complaints in an unanswered letter to a London School official. He has also lately taken up the issue with the Turkish Academy, of which he is a member, saying he hopes the academy can write its own letter.
The academy’s president, Engin Bermek, said the organization had set up a committee to look into the matter, which will meet Friday. “We will let them investigate this issue and then provide us with a report,” he said, which the academy will evaluate.
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