Book Review

Larissa Tetsch

Pernille Rørth:
Raw Data.

Paperback: 204 pages
Publisher: Springer; 1st ed. 2016 edition (5 Feb. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 3319239724
ISBN-13: 978-3319239729
€21.39 (Softcover), €14.74 (Kindle Edition).

Envy-driven accusations and endangered careers
What Drives a Rising Star to Ruin It All?

Science is both utterly rewarding and frustrating. The temptation to cut corners is high. Follow Danish cell biologist and author, Pernille Rørth, into the exciting world of life sciences!

From its very first sentence Raw Data establishes a subtle sense of suspense. The reader dives directly into the microcosm of a top-level cancer research laboratory with its interactions between scientists, whose particular ambitions and intentions are only held together by a common aim: to advance their scientific field and to advance in it personally.

At first glance, the debut novel of the Danish cell biologist, Pernille Rørth, deals with the laboratory’s everyday routine and gives insight into what makes a researcher ‘tick’. The reader feels the enthusiasm with which aspiring young investigators plunge into their work, spending every free minute at the bench, but also suffer their self-doubt and disappointment when experiments fail. An immense pressure weighs on not-yet established researchers, a pressure built up by competition between different research groups, as well as colleagues within the same group, fostered by the pursuit of spectacular results and the need to publish in journals with the highest impact factors. Which scientist has never been haunted by the dictum ‘publish or perish’? Publishing in a renowned journal – today more than ever before – paves the path to scientific success.

Written by a science insider

Rørth is just such a successful researcher who has, in her 25 years of active scientific life, published as a senior author in high impact journals such as Nature, Science, PNAS, Cell, Current Biology and The EMBO Journal, of which she has been Executive Editor for several years. Thanks to her work on how groups of specific cells are guided from one area in the organism to another, a knowledge that is indispensable for understanding the mechanisms of cancer metastasis, she is all too familiar with scientists’ daily concerns. In 2009, Rørth had to retract a publication in Current Biology due to mistakes that she had uncovered herself.

It may be partly due to this unpleasant experience that she spices up her plot with a case of scientific misconduct. Karen, a postdoc struggling to set up her own innovative project, by chance reveals irregularities that suggest that her colleague Chloe has boosted her results just enough to get accepted for publication in Nature. Due to this publication, Chloe is poised to take the next step on the way to an independent research group.

It is one of the novel’s assets that, next to a detailed and accurate description of the daily lab routine, with its clash of extremely ambitious and gifted individuals, neither the culprit nor the whistleblower – nor the apparently uninvolved principle investigator – are painted in black or white. With pronounced sensitivity, the novel elaborates the fatal circumstances that drive young researchers in the process of qualification for an independent research position to cross the boundary and violate ethical rules. The fact that success is almost solely measured in the number of publications, together with the power of the anonymous reviewers that literally dictate the missing results in the first author’s laboratory notebook, creates pressure and temptation at once. The solution seems ever so easy. Conceding to this temptation is something, to which nobody seems to be immune.

A victim of circumstances?

A certain joint guilt is attributed to the way that journalists cover retractions and focus more on the unethical behaviour itself than on the reasons leading to it. Even if a paper is only retracted due to unintentional mistakes, as in the case of Rørth, a retraction remains an unpleasant experience. Even today, her retraction remains one of the first Google hits when you search for Rørth. Certainly nobody wants a retraction to be the first thing associated with their name, which may explain why mistakes and suspicions of scientific fraud often stay unreported. Raw Data’s plot is reminiscent of the Brazilian immunologist Thereza Imanishi-Kari’s case, a scientist accused of data forgery in a Cell paper in 1986. All charges against her were dismissed ten years later and today she works as an associate professor at the private Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Keeping up the suspense

Other cases, however, lead to the free fall of highly respected scientists like the Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk, a pioneer in his field and the “pride of Korea”, before the falsification of his results about the production of human stem cells became obvious in 2006. The direction that Rørth’s plot takes shall remain open at this point. Rørth manages to keep up the suspense: are we really reading about scientific misconduct or about a case of envy-driven false accusations? Step by step, mistrust creeps into the lab members’ minds, poisons the atmosphere and events take their course until more than one career seems to be endangered.

With her book, Rørth intends to “give non-scientists a chance to see what life in science is like”. It is difficult, however, to believe that a scientific illiterate would be sufficiently able or willing to get into the authentically-described scientific details in order to follow the plot. For those with a scientific background, on the other hand, this compelling story with its surprising end is definitively worth reading.

Letzte Änderungen: 21.06.2016