A while ago I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that the decarboxylation step of the reactions of the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex, which connects glycolysis to the Krebs Cycle, was referred to as the “Swanson Conversion”. Even though I had been trained as a biochemist, I had never heard about this before. So I did some research, and I was not able to find any references regarding a doctor Swanson who was involved in the study of this chemical reaction. I did, however, find a claim that stated that a high school teacher named Swanson, who wanted something named after him, instructed his students to insert this claim in Wikipedia.
I published a post in my blog that was critical of this hoax, and as a result of this the term “Swanson Conversion” was dropped from the Wikipedia page where I found it, although it can be still found in several sites that mirror or quote Wikipedia. But I was still curious if the story about the high school professor was true. Well, thanks to some sleuthing by Andreas Kolbe, who posts on Twitter under the handle “Wikiland” the mystery has been solved. The edit was made in 2010, and he traced the IP address involved in the edit of the Wikipedia Pyruvate Dehydrogenase page to a school and found that in that school there was a teacher named Swanson. Kolbe proceeded to contact the teacher (I will not be revealing the name, location of the school, or the first name of the teacher).
According to the teacher, he was following a textbook that mentioned the different steps of energy metabolism; glycolysis, Krebs Cycle, and electron transport chain, but then the book went on to state that four steps were involved without specifically naming the fourth step. He then decided to christen this fourth step (the chemical reaction linking glycolysis to the Krebs cycle) after himself to help his students learn its importance in the process. Later he found that one of his students had, without his consent, introduced the term into Wikipedia. The teacher then decided that he would let the term linger there as a social experiment and point it out to each of his new classes of students as an example of the perils of using Wikipedia as a reference source.
As it turns out the Swanson Conversion hoax has been one among many hoaxes to plague Wikipedia. Several of these hoaxes eventually get referenced by non-Wikipedia sources leading to a process humorously called “citogenesis” (or more formally “circular reporting”) where the non-Wikipedia sources that originally copied the information from Wikipedia get referenced by Wikipedia itself as proof of the validity of the information! There are several well-documented instances of citogenesis in Wikipedia.
In the case of the Swanson Conversion, although the hoax lingered for about 7 years, only recently did I find an example of the term making it to a mainstream scientific publication indexed in the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) PubMed database. Thankfully, I was able to detect this hoax before the circle was closed and a new “citogenesis” event took place.
As to Mr. Swanson, I am told that he is a very good and fun teacher who inspires his students, has won a prestigious teaching award, and has used this example of a bogus Wikipedia entry to instruct his students on the perils of using this database. I do hope, however, that in the future he is more proactive about calling out these hoaxes.
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