By Malcolm Gladwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 21, 1991 ; Page A01

Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist David Baltimore, who is also president of New York's Rockefeller University, yesterday asked that an influential scientific paper bearing his name as an author be retracted because of evidence that it contained fraudulent data.

Baltimore's action came just hours after several major news organizations were given copies of a draft report of an official government investigation into the paper, which was published in the scientific journal Cell in 1986 and which purported to make a critical contribution to understanding the immune system. The report, prepared by the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI) of the National Institutes of Health, listed numerous instances in which it concluded that one of Baltimore's co-authors, Tufts University researcher Thereza Imanishi-Kari, falsified and manufactured data for the paper.

Although the report does not implicate Baltimore in any scientific fraud, it criticizes him for defending the paper's scientific honesty despite evidence, which grew over five years of controversy and inquiries, that parts of it were fraudulent.

"It is difficult to comprehend his maintaining this stance as the evidence mounted that serious problems existed with the . . . data in the Cell paper," the report said. It also labeled Baltimore's criticism of the investigation "deeply troubling."

Baltimore's request to withdraw the Cell paper, a dramatic reversal of his stance, is the latest development in a controversy that has so far prompted two university reviews, numerous congressional hearings, two lengthy NIH investigations and a national debate about how science should best be policed.

The scientific community has followed the Baltimore case closely over the years, not because it was an isolated instance of alleged scientific fraud but because a number of lesser luminaries in science also have been accused of wrongdoing. Many scientists reasoned that if for five years the government could keep hounding such a widely respected biologist as Baltimore -- whose protestations of innocence many scientists readily accepted -- no one was safe.

"The draft report, if it stands without major changes, raises very serious questions about the veracity of the serological data in the paper," Baltimore said. "Therefore, I am asking the other authors to join with me in requesting that the journal retract the paper until such time as the questions are resolved. It is up to Thereza Imanishi-Kari to resolve them."

Although Baltimore did not personally do the research presented in the paper, he was listed among the authors because he headed a laboratory in which some of the work was done. It is traditional in science for laboratory chiefs to be included among the authors. It is a point of controversy within the field whether every author should be held responsible for all the details of the entire article.

Baltimore had previously insisted that the charges leveled against Imanishi-Kari were groundless, a conclusion that had been supported by the three previous scientific reviews of the Cell paper conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and an earlier NIH investigating body.

But the OSI draft report was unequivocal in its conclusions. "The forensic evidence and the extensive statistical analyses established that {two sets of Imanishi-Kari's data} are fabricated," the report said. "Dr. Imanishi-Kari repeatedly presented false and misleading information to the NIH and OSI and to the expert scientific panels," it continued, adding that a "substantial portion" of the key notebooks used by Imanishi-Kari to record her laboratory observations "was falsified."

Neither Imanishi-Kari nor her attorney, Bruce Singal, would comment on the report's conclusions.

"This is supposed to be a confidental proceeding," said Singal, who said his client had not responded formally to NIH. "We frankly are appalled that there are people affiliated with the NIH or the {House investigations and oversight subcommittee} who apparently have seen fit to violate this policy of confidentiality. It illustrates vividly the inherent unfairness of the process."

Copies of the report, marked "draft" and "confidential" on every page, were provided to major news organizations yesterday along with a background kit of 24 photocopied news articles about the case published over the past two years. The report was provided on condition that the source not be named.

NIH officials expressed dismay at the premature release. "A draft report is exactly that," said Suzanne Hadley, head of the OSI. "It is subject to correction and revision. The final report may well be different."

The finding of fraud was not accepted by all members of the investigating panel. A minority opinion by two members expressed "serious disagreement" and said there are alternative and less troubling explanations for some of the problems with the paper.

Other scientists familiar with the case said they do not think the alleged fraud affected the conclusions of the paper, which were influential in changing scientific understanding of the immune system.

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