FRAUD BUSTERS


By Frank Kuznik
Sunday, April 14, 1991 ; Page W22

TO FIND WALTER STEWART AND NED FEDER YOU DESCEND A DARK CINDER-BLOCK stairwell in Building 8 at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda. The passageway bottoms out in the subbasement, where the hallway is crammed with boxes and filing cabinets. Go past the clutter and turn left at the broken drinking fountain, and you're in a two-room cubbyhole with a leaky faucet and cannibalized ceilings and two men who seem unlikely candidates to have thrown the scientific world into an uproar.

Stewart -- at 46 the younger of the pair -- runs a hand through his perpetually disheveled hair and taps a Hush-Puppied foot as he probes the accuracy of a graph magnified on a computer screen. Magnified still further, a single black line on the screen grows into an obsessively detailed map as Stewart makes a mathematical tracing of the results of a neurophysiology experiment. "It's just so satisfying to be able to nail it down with this level of precision," he says with almost childlike enthusiasm. Feder, 62, looks up from some paperwork to offer a handshake and ready grin. He has the affable manner of a neighbor chatting over the back-yard fence.

All of which belies the fact that Stewart and Feder, whose careers were once focused on obscure studies of snails, are arguably the two most notorious names in science today. Just eight years ago they were anonymous cogs in the NIH research machine, virtually unknown outside of their biomedical specialties. Feder, a medical doctor and biologist, had done some interesting work in cell biology. Stewart, a math whiz who opted for a stint in Harvard's prestigious Society of Fellows instead of formal PhD work, had broken new ground in the use of dye tracers to study cell structure. Together the pair had collected 200 different strains of snails and were inbreeding them to study the effect of genetics on the development of their nerve cells.

Even before they became controversial, Stewart and Feder cut unusual figures at NIH -- iconoclastic, socially reclusive, preoccupied with esoteric minutiae. A quirky combination of brainpower and brashness, they were never typical of the lab-coat-and-test-tube crowd, much less content to play by its normal rules.

Then, in the spring of 1983, a long-standing interest they shared in the subject of scientific misconduct was piqued by reports detailing the work of John Darsee, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist who was discovered to have fabricated much of the data in 100-plus research papers he had published. As an intellectual exercise, Stewart and Feder decided to analyze Darsee's papers with an eye toward determining how his misdeeds apparently went unnoticed by a total of 47 coauthors.

Their inquiry resulted in a paper charging 35 of the coauthors with "questionable practices" ranging from simple carelessness to complicity in outright fraud -- an outrageous, unthinkable accusation in the mannerly world of scholarly research. In trying to get their paper published, Stewart and Feder discovered that fraud was a much more exciting business than snail cells.

For better or worse, their reputation as science police has since been sealed by their work on a highly publicized probe of a research paper overseen by David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate who is president of Rockefeller University. That case polarized the scientific community as nothing has in years, with Stewart and Feder enraging many of their colleagues by temporarily joining the staff of Michigan Rep. John Dingell's subcommittee on oversight and investigations to assist in its probe of alleged fraud in the paper.

A furor over two scientists in search of the truth? It sounds paradoxical, at least to laymen who picture science as a strictly empirical pursuit. And that rather naive assumption was shared by Stewart and Feder, whose insulated professional lives had left them unprepared for the passions and politics that drive the real world of science.

"That's been probably our greatest education," Stewart says. "We had absolutely no idea of the way things really are. The past few years have been absolutely, extraordinarily informative."

"I was totally naive, totally naive," Feder says.

Not totally. It's taken some sharp political instincts to get the pair's findings before the public, and some strong survival skills to stay in business at NIH, where neither the administration nor their colleagues have taken well to Stewart and Feder's self-appointed cop roles. In fact, their insistence that scientists be held strictly accountable for their published work has provoked a decidedly unscientific reaction among their peers.

Clearly enjoying the commotion they've created -- and the attention that's come with it -- Stewart and Feder are nonetheless insistent that their crusade is no more than the application of classic scientific principles.

"Science has always been held out as a self-policing profession, and we very much believe in that," says Stewart.

"This is normal science, or at least it should be," adds Feder, nodding in agreement. "You see something wrong, you write about it, and you try to publish it."

"So to the people who ask how come we're doing this work," Stewart says, "we would absolutely turn that around and say, how come you're not?"

ALMOST NO ONE IN THE PROFESSION DENIES THAT SCIENCE fraud is a problem, particularly in the wake of at least a dozen well-publicized cases over the past decade that caught scientists asleep at the self-policing wheel. The debate raging at the moment is over the severity of the problem and whether the scientific community can be trusted to clean up its act.

An entire cottage industry has sprung up within the profession to consider this. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, has convened a panel, chaired by former White House science adviser Ed David, to study "Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research." "We really don't know how much scientific misbehavior is going on, but however much there is, it's too much," David says.

Walter Gilbert, chairman of the department of cellular and developmental biology at Harvard University, agrees. "The incidence may be no higher than 1 in 100, or 1 in 1,000. But even at that level, it's a problem," he says. "Stewart and Feder have in a sense been the bearers of bad news, and the general response is always to shoot the bearers of bad news."

Many equally eminent scientists, however, think that the problem is no worse than it's ever been, and that the recent expose's are simply proof that the system is working.

"It's a mistake to believe that every error in science ought to be corrected," says Bernard Davis, a professor emeritus of bacterial physiology at Harvard Medical School, who has been an outspoken critic of Stewart and Feder. "The vast majority of fraud probably involves things that are so trivial that nobody is going to try to repeat it. And significant fraud -- that is, the kind of fraud that misleads people and causes them to waste effort trying to build on something that's not true -- that can last for only so long, because if you can't reproduce it, that comes to light." In other words, given time, bad science will out.

That principle has never been enough for Stewart, who began locking horns with errant colleagues as far back as the early 1970s, when he was refereeing papers (reviewing them before publication for accuracy and plausibility) for Nature magazine. One paper claimed that memory could be transferred from one animal to another through a brain chemical called scotophobin. Since it contained no glaring surface errors, it likely would have run unquestioned if Stewart had passed on it. Instead, he researched it more deeply and wrote a rebuttal that blew the scotophobin theory apart. Nature ran both the original paper and the rebuttal, along with a reply from the bewildered authors wondering "what may have prompted Mr. Stewart to go beyond the normal duties of the referee."

"This was a claim by a respectable scientist that wasn't going to go away, and it wasn't reasonable to unload it on the public as something that was true," Stewart says. "The model of science is supposed to be a free and open debate, but there's much too little debate -- you could open up a thousand journals and never find anybody criticizing anything. It's unheard of. I thought that this issue should be joined and met right there."

Stewart's flair for scientific detective work is driven by a rebellious disregard for things like approbation and status. "I've always been the type who never cared what other people think," he says. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of that is the front yard of his home in Potomac, an overgrown thicket of grasses, weeds, wildflowers and shrubs that he refuses to tame. Every other yard on the street looks like a lawn mower ad; Stewart and his wife prefer the company of rabbits, deer and foxes to "a monoculture of grass," and in the face of complaints by neighbors, they have threatened to go to court to keep their yard wild.

Feder seems a more unlikely crusader, outwardly conventional and admittedly inhibited compared with his partner. "I have social reservations about saying certain things, more so than Walter does," he says. By mutual agreement, Stewart does most of the talking for the duo. But Feder's reticence masks a strong determination fueled by the excitement of a late-career surge. "I never would have imagined that at my age I'd be doing something so exciting, and more than that, pioneering work," he says. The thrill of the hunt has made him every bit as tough as his partner. Technically he is Stewart's boss, and when pressure began to build within NIH to stop them, Feder put his job on the line.

Though they had been working in the same lab at NIH since 1968, their mutual interest in fraud remained no more than off-hours conversation until the Darsee case. What intrigued Stewart and Feder were the reports produced by three separate investigating committees that dissected the research practices of Darsee and his coauthors in unprecedented detail. They called Nature editor John Maddox to propose a formal study of the mechanics of a fraud case, and when he said it sounded interesting, they set to work reviewing each coauthor's role in the Darsee papers.

The study took five months -- that was the easy part. Getting it published took three gut-busting years.

The first inkling of trouble came as Stewart and Feder were finishing the study and calling some of the coauthors for their reaction. Complaints began to filter back to NIH, most notably from people like George Brumley, dean of the pediatrics department of the Emory University School of Medicine, who wrote that Stewart and Feder's inquiries were "an invasion of our privacy . . . {and} harassment." Initially, NIH brass were inclined to agree.

"Stewart and Feder feel passionately about what they do, and whether they intended it or not, sometimes that passion has spilled over into levels of an accusatory character," says NIH Deputy Director William Raub. "When objections were first raised, the institute in which they work {Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases} found it hard to reconcile what this {fraud} work had to do with the particular mission of the institute."

As a result, the two scientists were officially banned from doing fraud investigation. The ban lasted only six months, which is how long it took them to work through an appeals process that ended with Deputy Director for Intramural Research J. Edward Rall ruling that they could do fraud research, though not in any official capacity represent NIH; and only as long as they continued to devote the majority of their time to snail cells. As if to remind them of what happens when scientists go off the reservation, their lab was moved to its subterranean quarters -- minus some of their equipment, which was inexplicably thrown out.

Rall says he can't fault Stewart and Feder's fraud work, nor does he object to their following an unusual line of research. "They're very careful, they work hard, they try to be responsible, and they've had some interesting ideas," he says. "I've been around long enough to know that a young guy with an idea that I think is crazy is more likely to be right than I am -- so I'm not one for saying, 'Don't do that.' "

What Rall doesn't understand is why two bright scientists would prefer to chase malfeasance instead of Nobel prizes. "The last time I saw them I said, 'Why the hell don't you go back to the lab and do some clever molecular biology, like all the other smart people are doing?' "

Their colleagues at NIH are similarly puzzled. "I think most of us here have mixed feelings about the guys," says organic chemist Henry Fales. "We wouldn't want to do what they're doing, but we're kind of glad that somebody is around to do it. What we don't understand is their willingness to drop their science and get into something that's basically unscientific. Most scientists here feel the most important job to do is research, and everything else, including policing, takes a back seat."

Stewart and Feder respond that, far from abandoning science, they've discovered something every scientist dreams about -- a new and virtually unmined area of research. "Molecular biology is fun and all that, but there's so many people studying it," Stewart says. "We would argue for absolute sure that there's nowhere near enough understanding of scientific fraud."

It helped that fraud -- or at least trying to get fraud studies published -- turned out to be such exciting work. After Rall freed them to peddle their Darsee study again, Stewart and Feder found that nobody wanted it. Nature's Maddox, enthusiastic at first, developed concerns about libel problems, partly as a result of warnings from lawyers retained by several of the coauthors. After haggling over revisions with him for 16 months, Stewart and Feder withdrew the paper and submitted it to a journal called Cell, with basically the same results.

Stymied by the scientific press, they took their show on the road. They circulated drafts of the paper to other scientists for review and comment. They appeared before two congressional committees to complain that lawyers were interfering with scientific inquiry. They wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe detailing their struggles. And they delivered the coup de grace in the form of a mailing of the paper to all 2,300 members of the National Academy of Sciences along with a cover letter promising that it would soon appear in Nature. Which it did.

"We went through a bad patch with Stewart and Feder where they didn't want the paper amended in ways that I thought were necessary -- though I was glad to finally publish it, because it seemed really a very salutary lesson for the scientific community," Maddox says. "I'm a supporter of Stewart and Feder, but I think that they themselves are a bit insensitive of other people's feelings. They make no allowance for human frailties like pride, vanity, even vainglory. They are people who believe that everything ought to be matter of fact. And the real world, even the scientific world, isn't like that."

On the federal payroll at NIH for most of their professional lives, Stewart and Feder have never faced quite the same pressures that drive some of their peers to cut corners -- the competition for grant money, the pressure that universities put on faculty members to publish. Moreover, they freely admit to having social blind spots.

"Other guys {at NIH} talk in the hall all the time, but we almost never do -- we've just always been more interested in working," Feder says.

To their detriment, perhaps. Stewart recalls speaking at a seminar where he managed to alienate most of the other scientists with his incessant talk about fraud. "Wally Gilbert came up to me the next day and gave me . . . I don't know, political advice for relating to the guys," he says. "I felt kind of let down about that, but he was probably there when everybody was sitting around calling me a nut."

"If they can write you off as crazy, then you're not going to make any progress," Feder adds.

"I can see now that he was probably 100 percent right," Stewart says.

Reaction to the Darsee paper was intense and mixed. Science magazine retaliated with an editorial insisting that "99.9999 percent of reports are accurate and truthful." Individual scientists characterized the paper as everything from an "important contribution" to "nit-picky." Elizabeth Neufeld, chairman of the department of biological chemistry at the UCLA School of Medicine, was one of the people Stewart and Feder asked to read and comment on the paper before it was published.

"I wasn't surprised they found errors in the papers written by coauthors, but I don't think that makes the coauthors frauds," she says. "There are instances of sloppiness that we would not like to excuse professionally, but if you put it in terms of crimes, you don't equate murder with running a traffic light."

Whatever the gravity of the crimes, the paper had impact. In it Stewart and Feder criticized the guidelines for the coauthorship of scientific papers, some of which have since been changed by NIH and by a number of journals and universities. Prior to the Darsee affair, the standards for coauthorship were remarkably loose; if the work for a paper was done in your lab by postdoctoral researchers using your equipment, that was enough to get your name on it. Now, coauthors are increasingly required to have participated in the actual research and writing of papers. "I think that's the most important consequence of what they've done so far," says Maddox.

Getting the Darsee paper published also became the equivalent of hanging out a shingle saying "Stewart & Feder, Science Detectives." The media dubbed them "fraudbusters" and "Batman and Robin." Dozens of alleged cases of fraud began to appear in the mail. Maddox asked Stewart to join him and professional magician Randi in Paris to investigate a paper that seemed to prove a phenomenon thought impossible -- that extreme dilutions of antibodies could still retain antibody properties. They found the flaws within a week; the lead author of the paper later accused them of laying the groundwork for "Salem witch hunts and McCarthy-like prosecutions." Back home, Stewart and Feder worked on a plagiarism case in Michigan and alleged stolen patents in Wisconsin.

None of which had anything to do with the genetics of snail cell development, still ostensibly their primary research. Feder in particular was getting heat from his supervisors for "a low level of productivity," but in the true spirit of academic freedom, NIH let it ride -- until the Baltimore case.

THE CONTROVERSY INVOLVing David Baltimore marked a watershed in several respects. It was the "big name" investigation for Stewart and Feder and for Dingell's subcommittee, the case that would show no one was immune from scrutiny. It also prompted Stewart and Feder to leave the confines of the laboratory for the first time to become part of a nonscientific investigatory body.

Perhaps most important, it went beyond the question of specific misconduct to suggest broad problems in the way science polices itself -- or fails to. In fact, Baltimore himself was never accused of wrongdoing, but the significance of the case, at least for Stewart and Feder, was that it showed the apparent breakdown of the systems for dealing with potential fraud.

Before the Dingell hearings began, NIH had a total of one full-time and one part-time person to investigate allegations of fraud in $7 billion worth of grant programs. The primary responsibility for investigating fraud was, and still is, in the hands of the university or research institution where the misconduct occurred. Given the potential for conflict of interest in that situation, it's not surprising that in the past decade a number of universities, including Harvard and Georgetown, were found by NIH and others to have whitewashed investigations.

Worse, whistle-blowing in science has become tantamount to professional suicide. Again and again, researchers who go public with charges of misconduct -- particularly junior researchers who challenge well-known superiors -- find themselves out of a job, suddenly unable to get grants, or even driven out of the profession. In part, that was what prompted the Dingell hearings.

"Every one of the cases we looked at, there was hardly a single person you could point to that ever raised a question and survived," says a subcommittee investigator who, like other Dingell staffers, spoke on condition of anonymity. Stewart and Feder were finding the same thing. "We have the most poignant cases of people phoning up where we know the facts, and we know they're absolutely right, and sometimes they've been trying for three or four years and cannot get recognition that their concerns are just," says Stewart.

"Look at Margot O'Toole," says Feder, citing the postdoctoral fellow who blew the whistle in the Baltimore case. "She had the help of the two of us for a couple years, plus one of the most powerful congressmen, and she's still right on the borderline -- so what sort of justice can the average guy expect?"

O'Toole's problems began in 1985 when she was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the lab of Thereza Imanishi-Kari, one of several scientists doing immunology studies under the direction of Baltimore, then chief of MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Unable to replicate some of the experiments cited in a paper the Baltimore group published in Cell, O'Toole spoke to Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore. They conceded that Imanishi-Kari's lab work didn't support some of the published results, O'Toole said, but they refused to consider a correction or retraction.

By spring of 1986, O'Toole had discovered 17 pages of lab notes that appeared to contradict several of the paper's major assertions (see box, Page 26). When she confronted Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore with those, she said in congressional testimony, Baltimore advised her to drop the matter "for my own good." She then took her concerns to officials at MIT and Tufts, where some of the research had been done. Both universities did reports essentially dismissing the affair, and by summer O'Toole was out of a job.

When Stewart and Feder heard of the case, they couldn't stay out of it for long. They called O'Toole and asked her for a copy of the lab notes. At first she refused, fearing that any further action on her part would cause her husband, a researcher still working at Tufts, to lose his job. But Stewart kept calling, and finally she relented. "Walter's arguments were very compelling, and finally I realized that I couldn't protect my husband's career by not sending them to him, because, one way or another, he would get them," O'Toole says.

Stewart and Feder analyzed the notes, compared them with the Cell paper, agreed that there were major discrepancies between the two and wrote a paper in 1987 saying so. Then they called Baltimore to ask for the complete lab notes. He refused. Convinced that what they already had was significant, Stewart and Feder began circulating their paper, widely.

"No one accused anybody of fraud. It's just a discrepancy," Feder says. "It's just an ordinary paper, 36 pages," Stewart adds, nodding in agreement. "There's nothing inflammatory about it."

If they sincerely believed that, they were the only people at NIH who did. Soon the bureaucratic wheels were in motion again, this time producing an order forbidding Stewart and Feder to submit the paper for publication. Then Feder, in the course of pulling some documents from his personnel file for the Dingell subcommittee, discovered that unsatisfactory job ratings had been added to the file without his knowledge. He responded by going to the American Civil Liberties Union, which, after a flurry of paperwork, won a reversal of the ratings and helped nudge NIH administrators into freeing the paper for publication.

Once again, no journal would run it. But interest in the Baltimore case was developing in another quarter -- the Dingell subcommittee. A longtime supporter of NIH, Dingell had become concerned about the agency's lack of oversight, and his staff was out looking for a case that would demonstrate the inadequacy of the self-policing mechanisms. "We wanted one that had gone through most of the process," says one staff investigator. "With the Baltimore case, MIT had looked at it and found no problem, Tufts had found no problem -- everybody had signed off on it. So now we could come in and do an autopsy."

The post-mortem began with an April 1988 hearing featuring Stewart and Feder as leadoff witnesses, followed by O'Toole and NIH brass. Dingell is a terror in congressional hearings, feared for his adroitness at finding high-profile victims -- one of the most recent was Stanford University President Donald Kennedy -- to skewer in a manner that inevitably attracts lots of publicity. He roared about the profession's shabby treatment of whistle-blowers and how maybe NIH had too much money, and promised to keep dragging agency officials back to Capitol Hill until "the abuse that is obvious is addressed." Not long afterward, NIH created an in-house investigative arm called the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI), which currently has a total of nine professional and seven support staff investigating 80-plus cases of alleged misconduct.

The Baltimore case was still far from resolved. When two of the scientists on a three-member panel created by NIH to review the case turned out to be colleagues of Baltimore's, the subcommittee decided to handle the investigation itself. (NIH subsequently appointed a new panel that later issued a report saying that while it found no evidence of fraud, the Cell paper contained "significant errors of misstatement and omission.") Using subpoenas, the subcommittee was able to get all of Imanishi-Kari's original lab notebooks and turned them over to Stewart and Feder, who joined the subcommittee staff, "on loan" from NIH, shortly after the hearing.

There was nothing new in that arrangement for the Dingell subcommittee, which often borrows technical help from other government agencies. For Stewart and Feder, however, the offer to join Dingell's crew was a godsend. It stopped cold the bureaucratic war being waged against them at NIH and created what Stewart calls a "comfortable ambiguity" about exactly what they were supposed to be doing with their time.

However, the move generated considerable resentment within the scientific community. "I was very much on their side when they were having trouble publishing the Darsee paper," says Harvard's Davis. "But this was not the way to correct the Imanishi-Kari business. The circumstances were entirely inappropriate." Davis wrote a number of opinion pieces accusing Dingell of running a "vindictive" campaign against Baltimore, most notably one titled "The Dingelling of Science" in the Wall Street Journal. "I'm very angry at Stewart and Feder for serving on Dingell's committee," he says.

Baltimore circulated a nine-page letter portraying himself as the victim of a congressional blitzkrieg. A colleague, Phillip Sharp of the MIT Center for Cancer Research, started a "write to Congress" campaign, urging scientists around the country to crib from a sample letter he had written. ("You wouldn't believe," recalls one subcommittee staffer, "the number of letters we got that started out, 'I don't really know the facts of this case, but I am concerned about . . .' ") A headline in the Scientist asked, "Have The Fraudbusters Gone Too Far?"

Meanwhile, Stewart was locked away in a Capitol Hill cubbyhole with the data, a computer and a telephone and fax that connected him with Feder, who was holding the fort at NIH. When they unveiled their results for the subcommittee, there were two reactions. The first was bewilderment. "They listened to the whole thing and said, 'Now explain it in terms we can understand,' " recalls Stewart. After another try, there was skeptical amazement. As Feder recalls, "They said, 'Fine, but nobody's going to believe you.' That's when they dragged in the Secret Service."

Enlisted for its expertise in forensic techniques, the Secret Service was able to verify that some of Imanishi-Kari's technical data was not produced contemporaneously with the experiments; that at least 25 pages of lab notes had either been altered or written out of chronological order; and that certain entries in lab notebooks said to have been made during 1984 and 1985 had not been written until 1986 -- about the time that O'Toole was pressing Imanishi-Kari for answers. It was potentially devastating stuff, so much so that Dingell, still smarting from criticisms that he had blindsided Baltimore in the first hearing, made his staff disclose their findings in a private meeting with Baltimore two days before the second hearing, in May 1989.

But Baltimore was already prepared. He had arrived in town early with a phalanx of lawyers and a full schedule of meetings with reporters and editors at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post. He portrayed the upcoming hearing not as a fraud investigation but as scientific freedom versus congressional control, Baltimore versus Dingell. And that, despite the revelations, was largely how it was written up. An op-ed piece in the New York Times went so far as to declare "Dingell's Inquiry Is a Witch Hunt." Even one of his hometown papers, the Detroit News, criticized what it called "Dingell's New Galileo Trial."

Daniel S. Greenberg, the respected editor and publisher of Science & Government Report newsletter, was one of the few who saw the hearings differently: "Baltimore and his colleagues scored a smashing public relations triumph . . . {however} at the heart of the case is a simple matter: How did scientific institutions in this instance respond to what have been found to be accurate allegations of error in an important scientific paper? . . . The answer, in one word: disgracefully."

Says Greenberg now, "There's no way to test this, but I would say with almost absolute certainty that serious and justified complaints about this paper would have disappeared and never been heard of again if it weren't for Stewart and Feder. I think they're performing a very, very good service that has to be looked at against the background of nobody performing it at all when they started out."

O'Toole, who's back in a research lab after four years of being blackballed, credits the pair with saving her career. "Without their involvement, I would never have gotten a job in my profession again," she says. "The case would have died, and I would have been scum of the earth forever."

Baltimore declined to comment about Stewart and Feder for this article. But at the 1989 hearing of Dingell's subcommittee, he dismissed them as "absolutely unqualified" to evaluate the Cell paper, and, in a letter to a colleague, he described the two NIH scientists as "nuts who are trying to keep themselves busy at our expense." Baltimore retained considerable support in the scientific community, though cracks eventually began to show.

One prominent scientist who attended the 1989 hearing decided to read the original Cell paper and evaluate the discrepancies for himself. "I feel like I'm the only person in the world who independently tried to figure out what was going on," said the scientist, who asked not to be identified. ". . . The paper is clearly wrong, and I don't understand why David has defended it so strongly.

"When I first heard Stewart talk about this, I thought he was crazy. He's his own worst enemy -- impassioned, complicated. But the fact is, when all the dust had cleared, Walter was absolutely right."

Last month, Baltimore finally abandoned his defense of the paper and asked that it be retracted. His action followed by several hours the release of a draft report by OSI that concluded Imanishi-Kari "falsified" data and that also criticized Baltimore. The draft said his defense of the paper was "difficult to comprehend" and called his attack on the investigation "deeply troubling."

STEWART AND FEDER'S SUBTERRANEAN lair will never be mistaken for a conventional lab. Files are stacked high in a hood normally used for gas experiments; fans and space heaters are strapped improbably to pipes and ceiling struts as part of a jury-rigged temperature control system.

The first thing the two did when they settled back into the clutter after they finished their stint with Dingell was to pitch six large boxes of unopened mail. "It was a terrible thing to do, but we were getting it faster than we could even read the damned stuff," says Stewart. The next thing they did was have a serious talk about the snails, still breeding away in jars stacked carefully in filing cabinets.

"Effectively, we had done nothing at all on our own research for the past five years," says Stewart. Adds Feder: "We decided it wasn't viable to continue working on both the snails and fraud." So 10 years' worth of rare, inbred snails followed the mail into the dumpster.

In the two men's psyches, the plodding pace of snail genetics had long since been supplanted by the excitement of fraudbusting. Besides, the sleuths had a new idea.

True to their scientific training, they were intent on developing a better and faster method of nailing wrongdoers: one without the emotional burden of working with anguished whistle-blowers and without time-consuming political battles that tend to end inconclusively. The Michigan case had gotten them thinking about plagiarism, which from a fraud researcher's standpoint has several attractive features. Plagiarism is usually clear-cut and incontrovertible, and it speaks for itself, eliminating the need for a whistle-blower to bring the case to light. "And it has this wonderful n-squared feature," Stewart enthuses -- a mathematician's way of saying that the more material you sift through, the better your chances of finding something.

Stewart and Feder knew where they wanted to start looking, but had no tools for comparing large bodies of text. When a commercial software program for tracking changes in manuscripts didn't work, Stewart asked the manufacturer for the programming instructions, analyzed them, then sat at a computer for six months and wrote his own software.

"Particularly for a guy who's not a professional programmer, it's remarkable that he was able to put it together as quickly as he did," Feder says. Stewart calls up the program on one of the six souped-up personal computers strung together in their lab, scrolling screen after screen of techno-gobbledygook. He pauses at one and starts to explain how it will know to boldface similar passages, then realizes he's forgotten. "This stuff is so complicated," he says. "When I have to go back in and fix something, I go into a mini-depression, because it takes me a couple days to figure out how I did it."

Essentially, what Stewart's software does is break down all the books and articles fed into the system through scanners into 30-letter strings. On command, the computer can compare all the strings in one text to all the strings in another -- or two others, or 200 others, or every other book and article in the system. That's what he and Feder had hoped for all along, but they weren't sure they could pull it off.

"We had this super mousetrap, but legitimate doubts as to whether it was going to work," Stewart says. "Then we found this great test case -- show him." Feder pulls out a weighty volume titled Textbook of Endocrinology. They had been using it to prop up one of the scanners, he explains, and "then one day this fell out." He flips to the end leaf, where a loose sheet reads, "Portions of Chapter 10 of this textbook were taken without permission or attribution from 'The Pharmacological Basis of Therapy.' "

They photocopied both books, fed them into the scanners and were thrilled to see the duplicated sections pop up on the screen. By the end of March, they had a running total of 3,000 books and/or articles in the system and had discovered at least one solid case of big-time plagiarism. They refuse to say who or even what field it involves, though Stewart promises it follows the maximum upset principle: "The cases that change minds are the famous cases; you don't go after the isolated small fry, you go after the cases that will provoke people the most."

And so another round of scientific Sturm und Drang is due to begin, probably just as soon as Stewart and Feder submit their plagiarism project as a formal manuscript to their superiors. Oddly, though, they're not sure exactly what to do about the plagiarist.

"I guess we can write to the guy we caught, saying we came across this curious coincidence and ask if he can explain it," says Stewart.

"I think that's what we'll have to do, though it's going to be hard to do it with a straight face," says Feder.

And if he stonewalls?

"We could write a letter to the editor saying we have no definitive answer as to how this occurred, and scientist 'X' has refused to comment," Stewart says.

"And we think this matter ought to be brought to the attention of the scientific community as a matter of record in this professional journal," adds Feder. "Of course, the editor will probably tell us to get lost."

"And then Building 1 {NIH administration} is going to have to decide if they're going to declare it misconduct," Stewart says almost gleefully. "We think we're in the catbird seat here, because we've already got one real good case of plagiarism, one you can bet on. But we also have a bunch of other cases in all stages of development."

"And," Feder says as he feeds another manuscript into a scanner, "we're always busy."

Frank Kuznik is a Washington writer.

Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington Post and may not include subsequent corrections.