While most scientists were skeptical from the start, some science writers heralded the self-published blog Retraction Watch as a beacon for scientific transparency. They were wrong. Without any solid standards for scientific critique, the blog degenerated in no time into a grisly predator of scientific misfortune. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Retraction Watch quickly became the Asian carp of scientific reporting.
Much as I tried, it is truly hard to find today anything lofty or elevating about Retraction Watch, as the blog preys ruthlessly and relentlessly on science errors and career mistakes. They never take the high ground but instead keep indulging in the petty smearing of scientists’ reputations. When I say that there is nothing dignified about this blog, I mean it. Get a taste of their style right from the pen of Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, the Retraction Watch founders, from their contribution to The Scientist:
“…we recommend reading about the case of Michael W. Miller, who faked data on his federal grant applications and had several papers retracted in 2012. This year, however, Miller bounced back, landing a job as, you guessed it, a consultant for grant applications! (He lost that gig after we called his employers to ask if they knew about his past.)”
I suppose one can simply argue this is in poor taste. I and others find this writing truly degrading.
Today Retraction Watch published an extensive defense of their partner PubPeer recently sued by Dr. Fazlul Sarkar, a Professor at Wayne State University. The logic of the defense by Retraction Watch is so aberrant that it barely calls for analysis. Yet, I will take up the opportunity to reflect on the dangers of Post Publication Peer Review (PPPR) which, at the hands of Retraction Watch and PubPeer, has become a travesty of peer review, posing a threat to the scientific establishment.
With the advent of NIH PubMed Commons as a venue for PPPR, it is likely -let us hope- that PubPeer and Retraction Watch will soon be driven to extintion. Fearing his own imminent irrelevance, Ivan Oransky, founder of Retraction Watch and self-proclaimed retraction expert, hastily transferred his own articles from Retraction Watch to PubMed Commons, smearing as many reputations as he possibly could. No noblesse oblige here. Sadly, Retraction Watch was irrelevant to the serious practice of science since its inception, so this smearing of reputations could have been spared.
Fazlul Sarkar is a professor with a prodigious scientific output of more than 500 peer reviewed publications, tens of millions of dollars in NIH funding, and drugs in clinical trial. Be as it may, we are not advocating for the integrity of his work. The anonymous reviewers at PubPeer and Retraction Watch comfortably took shots at Dr. Sarkar’s research hiding in anonymity and publishing their opinions in the blogs. The rules of fair play, transparency and scientific standards (how about decency?) indicate that if they really felt there was something wrong with Dr. Sarkar’s results, they should have submitted their conclusions to the same peer review journals where Dr. Sarkar reported his work, with a request that they be published subject to peer review, if necessary side by side with Dr. Sarkar’s rebuttal. The attacks by the bloggers were NOT subject to scientific peer review (they would not stand a chance), and yet they became public in venues with high internet traction like PubPeer and Retraction Watch, causing harm to Dr. Sarkar: He lost a generous job offer.
This aberrant miscarriage where a disreputable source tarnishes (in the eyes of some) the reputation of a scientist is all too common. It invites some basic questions about PPPR, as it is practiced by Retraction Watch and PubPeer:
1) Why did the commenters conceal their identity? Psychology 101: Because they fear and are ashamed to expose their insignificance relative to a scientist with the credentials of Dr. Sarkar. They also hide to avoid any legal consequences while taking a comfortable shot at Dr. Sarkar. There is an English word for this: cowardness. Ironically, a modest CV is no impediment to do good scientific work. Today, as in Einstein’s days, a physicist with humble credentials can publish his/her outstanding findings in a physics journal and eventually rise to stardom.
2) Why did the commenters avoid presenting their case in the journal where the original research was published? Because they knew they would not stand a chance (they knew they could not pass peer review in any decent journal) and because any serious journal would request that they disclose their identity.
3) What is the motivation for attacking researchers hiding in anonymity using self-published blogs? Simply put, such blogs have a huge traction in internet, as vulgarization of science sells better than science, and vulgarization of science conflict, even better, especially when spiced with exposure of career mistakes (one man’s sorrow is another man’s joy).
4) What is the motivation for targeting prominent researchers in the first place? Psychology 101: “I am a failure or perhaps something of a loser and Dr. Sarkar is successful, so he must be a phony, and I need to bring him down so I don’t look that bad myself and I feel a little better about myself”. “I can’t go to a journal because I don’t stand a chance and they would find out who I am, so I go to the blogs, that’s a lot easier”. Taken to extremes, this is the aberrant logic of John Lennon’s assassin. Tragically, internet now provides venues for character assassination, such as Retraction Watch and PubPeer.
Through a lawsuit, Dr. Sarkar is demanding that the identity of the commenters in the blogs that have harmed him be revealed, probably to take legal action against them once identified.
Ivan Oransky, self-proclained retraction expert and Retraction Watch founder, retorted Dr. Sarkar and had this to say about protecting the anonymity of commenters (please seat tight):
“If Michigan [home of Wayne State University where Sarkar works] had a more robust shield law, a lot of this might be moot. Such laws, which are on the books in many states, mean that reporters don’t have to disclose confidential sources, including anonymous commenters. That’s what protects anonymous commenters here on Retraction Watch — and we’d argue that PubPeer is providing a valuable service by publishing critiques, and should be eligible for such protection, too.”
Surely you must be joking, Ivan Oransky. Are you saying that the anonymous commenters at Retraction Watch and PubPeer are regarded as actual sources of information? Can you imagine the kind of news we would get if Yahoo would take the mob of Yahoo commenters as a reputable source of information?
It may well be that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects PubPeer and Retraction Watch from a suit, but surely nothing shields this type of aberration from the contempt by decent people.
Perhaps all is not lost and my posts are having some positive effect in a few Retraction Watch readers. Particularly encouraging is the following comment by a person who identified himself as Albert Gjedde published in Retraction Watch:
“It strikes me that post-publication peer “review” criticisms should appear in the form of equally peer-reviewed and published comments that are subject to the same scrutiny as the paper itself. Otherwise we are likely to get all kinds of more or less seriously considered observations, with uncontrollable consequences.”
By contrast, read the appalling reply by commenter “Scrutineer”, who practices PPPR at PubPeer and Retraction Watch. Scrutineer admits he refuses to go through peer review or “due process” because that would delay or nullify his slanderings:
“The way I feel is quite simple: Once these things are public, the more alert among the rank and file scientists are protected from wasting their time on false leads. Waiting several years while keeping quiet for “due process” to find out whether or not a paper will be corrected or retracted or – more likely – nothing happens gets demoralising after a while. PPPR from now on.”
This person obviously cannot wait to destroy others. Scrutineer wants to do it swiftly while cowardly hiding in anonymity, and of course cannot afford to wait for the peer review process, let along follow due process. With Retraction Watch and PubPeer, Scrutineer has found the ideal vehicle to defame others. Furthermore, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus (the other towering figure in retraction reporting) will appreciate the valuable source of information that Scrutineer provides with this kind of comment and protect his anonymity as reporters are not obliged to reveal their sources!
I think this is the paroxism of aberration. It just cannot get any worse than this.
PubPeer and Retraction Watch are loose cannons in the internet. They will soon be driven to extinction by more legitimate “fora for scientific discourse” such as PubMed Commons, a recent pilot initiative launched by NCBI/NLM/NIH. In PubMed Commons, staunch challengers of the work of others like Joshua Cherry feel more comfortable exposing their identity. Strikingly, the actual employment of Joshua Cherry at NCBI, where he claims he works, could not be established or corroborated, as it is nowhere to be found in the official NCBI/NLM/NIH webpages. While PubMed Commons is prey to some of the vices of PubPeer and Retraction Watch, at least the challengers are forced to disclose their identity and this fact alone sieves out some of the Retraction Watch zealots, while forcing serious contributors to be a bit more cautious and objective, a bit -shall we say- less emboldened by their primeval instincts.
On a humorous note, a scientist known for his witiness recently said: “Let’s not worry too much, Retraction Watch is as relevant to the serious practice of science as birds are mindful of ornithology”.
UPDATE FROM APRIL 14, 2015
PubPeer, Clare Francis and the Travesty of the First Amendment
An attorney for Prof. Fazlul Sarkar, the Wayne State University professor who may have lost a generous job offer because of scathing comments about his research posted on PubPeer, has asked a judge to reconsider last month’s decision not to release information about the site’s anonymous commenters. The brief introducing that motion identifies the PubPeer commenter with the pseudonym Clare Francis.
On March 19, a Michigan court ruled that PubPeer had to disclose identifying information about the PubPeer commenter, identified as the author of the second of the comments below:
(June 18th, 2014 4:51pm UTC)
Has anybody reported this to the institute?
(June 18th, 2014 5:43pm UTC)
Yes, in September and October 2013 the president of Wayne State University was informed several times.The Secretary to the Board of Governors wrote back on the 11th of November 2013: “Thank you for your e-mail, which I have forwarded to the appropriate individual within Wayne State University. As you are aware, scientific misconduct investigations are by their nature confidential, and Wayne would not be able to comment on whether an inquiry into your allegations is under way, or if so, what its status might be. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention”
In a supplemental brief filed on April 9, Sarkar’s attorney Nicholas Roumel informs the court that Wayne State provided the email exchanges quoted in the comment, and that they were between “Clare Francis” and Julie H. Miller, secretary to Wayne State’s Board of Governors. Thus, the court learned that on November 10, 2013 Clare Francis wrote:
“I am writing to you about multiple scientific concerns about the published work of Fazlul H Sarkar which have been aired on Pubpeer.”
“You can find the entries on Pubpeer here: …”
“Many of the entries mention things which amount to what many think of as scientific misconduct….”
Following the supplemental brief and after spotting the libel, the court rightly ruled that PubPeer must provide the IP for Clare Francis to Roumel.
The blog Retraction Watch offered PubPeer’s attorneys the opportunity to comment, and they had this to say:
“We are deeply troubled that a scientist who exercised his or her right to anonymously report anomalies in scientific research is being threatened with possible liability. The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously precisely so that, in circumstances like this one, individuals can report on matters of public interest without fear of retribution. This case is especially troubling because it threatens to weaken the foundation of scientific research, which relies on honest feedback and criticism from one’s peers.”
Nice words, but so meaningless! Let’s see:
a) Where is the proof that Clare Francis is the pseudonym for “a scientist who exercised his or her right to anonymously report anomalies in scientific research”? Clare Francis could just as well be an angry person who hates Fazlul Sarkar or someone with a vested interest in his downfall.
b) Where is the proof that Clare Francis is reporting on a matter of public interest? It could just as well be that Francis is simply the pseudonym of someone who hates Sarkar, envies his success, or has a vested interest in his downfall (to increase the readership of his blog), and this surely is a personal matter, not a matter of public interest.
c) How do we know the slanderer of Prof. Sarkar is being honest? He could just as well be dishonest. In fact, everything suggests the latter to be the case: honest people who do the right thing do not usually hide, they don’t need to, at least in countries under the rule of law.
d) How do the PubPeer attorneys know that Sarkar’s attacker is one of Sarkar’s peers? In fact, how do they know anybody at PubPeer is actually a peer of the scientists they are slandering? Clare Francis is not revealing his scientific credentials!
e) Given that we don’t know whether Clare Francis is honest, or even whether Clare Francis is Sarkar’s peer, how can we assert that the case weakens the foundation of scientific research?
This one was an easy one, wasn’t it?