Anonymous Commenter, Clare Francis, Defamation lawsuit, First Amendment, Joshua Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, Nature, NCBI, NIH, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, PubPeer, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Scientific corruption

The Travesty of Post Publication Peer Review

 It is well known that Chinese people have a practical and pragmatic bent. I recall having asked a successful professor what it would take to publish in Nature. He replied:

“You need to do very good work, make a lot of friends in your field and, above all, make sure to befriend the editors. To secure publications in good journals it is always best to start a courtship with the editors, find out what gets them excited. This approach often bears fruit.”

The whole publishing game seemed quite cynical to me at the time. Eventually, that conversation lead me to quit science altogether.

An untold truth in science is that success rests primarily on who you know, rather than on the merits of your work. Not surprisingly, the mechanism to protect the integrity of research reporting, the peer review (PR) system, has turned into a true scam, corrupt to the marrow. The anonymity of the PR process, implemented originally to guarantee freedom of opinion, in practice has become a vehicle for reviewers to promote their self-serving agenda, encouraging ax-grinding by the author’s competitors and complacency by the author’s friends. Editors contribute substantively to the scam by cherry-picking reviewers for the authors they like and rejecting papers without even sending them out for review (often to reduce their workload) whenever the author is not perceived as influential enough to bring them some benefit by treating him well.

If PR is a scam, post-publication peer review (PPPR) is a travesty to a grotesque degree. Here we don’t even know if the reviewers are the actual peers of scientists or simply angry frustrated people trying to bring down the authors. Our own polls conducted on 11 scientific publishers reveal that over 90% of anonymous PPPR is not pursued by the journals after it is found to be frivolous.  At least in PR, the journal editors are entrusted by the scientific establishment with picking reviewers who are supposed to be the author’s peers. But with PPPR, anything goes, as people with no verifiable credentials are allowed to hide in their anonymity to take comfortable shots at whoever they pick as their target.  At Science Transparency we have identified one such sniper: Joshua L. Cherry, the NIH/NCBI contractor still on the loose.

PPPR has thus turned into a farce where anyone gets to say anything, no matter how crass his views are. The channel for these people is the internet, the vast repository where angry people get to pour their vitriol and get the feeling that they are being heard. This matter is admirably described in an article entitled “Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?” that seeks to identify the psychological root of the problem.

Of course, the root of the PPPR phenomenon and the anger it promotes can be found in the internet. “These days, online comments have become extraordinarily aggressive without resolving anything,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.  Yet, the possibility of an anonymous attack offers a vehicle of self-realization for the frustrated scientist, and the internet enables this possibility and enables the person to be heard, finally! This emboldens him and fuels his anger.

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First Amendment Abuse: Time to Sue Post Publication Reviewers for False Accusations

On Tuesday October 4 at 10AM, a Michigan Court in Detroit conducted a hearing on case 326691 “Fazlul Sarkar vs John Doe”. As you may recall from our coverage at Science Transparency, Prof. Sarkar is a scientist anonymously accused of misconduct through a blog named PubPeer. Whether his data is valid or invalid is something we are not in a position to evaluate or debate. The focus here is the modus operandi of his accusers. The accusations had adverse consequences for his career and so Dr. Sarkar sued PubPeer in Court. The Court requested that the identity of only one of the anonymous accusers be revealed. This has not yet happened. All we know is that the accuser or accusers whose identity is sought by the Court hid under the pseudonym Clare Francis to launch the attacks on Fazlul Sarkar in what constitutes a flagrant abuse of First Amendment rights. The lawyers for the defendants argued that the Constitutional rights bestowed by the First Amendment guarantee the impunity of their clients. That is wrong, very wrong. And whose peers are PubPeers anyway?

To discuss the venal Clare Francis, we need to briefly focus on the blog Retraction Watch (the two are intimately related). This blog is run by two journalists, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. Odd as it sounds, these non-scientists and the anonymous contributors to the blog claim they seek “to increase the transparency of the retraction process in science” (sic), which is an oxymoron. Initially, the founders of Retraction Watch worried they would not get enough stories to cover. So, right around the time the blog came into existence in August 2010, anonymous whistleblowers, including Clare Francis, also surfaced and relentlessly accused scientists of misconduct, allegedly in connivance with Retraction Watch.  The blog harassed, scorned and pilloried anyone immediately after the anonymous whistleblowers managed to elicit some reaction from the journals, be it an expression of concern or a retraction. Obviously, Clare Francis or the cowards that hid in anonymity immediately informed Retraction Watch (or… yes, you are right). The attack then escalated as other journals were contacted once the accusers gained their short-lived credibility with the help of Retraction Watch, and their attacks then spiraled into full defamation cycles.

This seemed like quite an effective strategy to boost the blog, particularly since Clare Francis and other nobodies have been aggressively accusing scientists of fraud and plagiarism. If the anonymous accusers were successful in eliciting damning reactions from the journal editors, Retraction Watch would get a juicy story and a chance to pillory the incriminated scientists. On the other hand, if the cowards were not successful or the accusation proved to be false, there would be no consequence for them or for Retraction Watch since the journals typically do not inform the public or institutions that they have received a false accusation.

The ungainly posts at Retraction Watch elicited by Clare Francis actions contributed to build up a poisonous atmosphere best reflected in Ivan Oransky’s retort to a Nature editorial on retractions. Nature’s cautious reflections contrast starkly with Oransky’s views on the need for immediate condemnation illustrated by the following passage:

“We would argue that journals like Nature actually have a tremendous amount of power. If Nature thinks that they “have neither the authority nor the means to police authors or their institutions,” the editors should sit down with Anesthesia & Analgesia editor in chief Steven Shafer, who gathered a consortium of journal editors that held institutions’ feet to the fire and led to retractions in the Joachim Boldt and Yoshitaka Fujii cases. One can only imagine how quickly a dean would return a call from Nature.”

After this rant, Oransky charged again:

“And why not issue an expression of concern about papers during those years while it’s being investigated? How does Nature justify, for example, leaving the dance symmetry paper in the literature for for five years after authors requested a retraction? Unless, of course, you’re worried about losing those citations, the first two years of which will count toward your impact factor.”

Motivated by recent reports on harassment to scientists and by these troubling views, Science Transparency decided to investigate the matter further. We sought to find out what proportion of accusations by Clare Francis or the cowards operating anonymously allegedly on behalf of the Clare Francis/ Retraction Watch machine had any merit to the point that they would eventually result in retraction. Although editors had not been diligent in collecting statistics, they all pointed to a figure slightly lower than 10%.

In regards to those enduring false accusations of misconduct by Retraction Watch, Paul S. Thaler, one of the most successful lawyer in the field, had this to say:

The first thing to remember is that the federal regulations, as well as the internal policies of most institutions, protect the confidentiality of respondents in research misconduct matters.  Thus, as a matter of federal law, institutions are prohibited from disclosing the identity of an accused scientist, except on a “need to know” basis, for example, to a member of the investigation committee, unless and until a finding of research misconduct is made.  These proceedings are not public as court is in criminal and civil disputes.  It is more comparable to proceedings against other professionals, such as lawyers, who are governed by their licensing organization.  Privacy in these matters is critically important as there is no public need to, or right to know, about professionals simply accused of wrongdoing.  What the public has a right to know about is a professional who has been found responsible for wrongdoing.  At that point, the public is alerted.  But because a professional’s reputation is so important to his or her career, the specter of an accusation can permanently stain that reputation and frequently the accusation is not well founded.  So the confidentiality of the process allows a full examination before the public is made aware.  We certainly do want to know about those scientists who have actually done something wrong that impacts science, but we do not, and should not, be concerned with those who are good scientists but caught up in a sometimes very political, internal dispute.

These remarks by attorney Paul S. Thaler are very much in line with the law (42 C.F.R. § 93.108(b) (2005)), as noted by Nicholas Roumel, the lawyer of plaintiff Dr. Sarkar:

“Because the consequences of a research misconduct proceeding can be dire, the [federal] regulations impose conditions of strict confidentiality on allegations of research misconduct. As section 93.108 of the regulations states: “Disclosure of the identity of respondents and complainants in research misconduct proceedings is limited, to the extent possible, to those who need to know, consistent with a thorough, competent, objective and fair research misconduct proceeding, and as allowed by law.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.108(a) (2005). Disclosure of records or other evidence from which research subjects might be identified is also limited to “those who have a need to know to carry out a research misconduct proceeding.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.108(b) (2005).” [Mauvais-Jarvis v. Wong, 2013 IL App (1st) 120070 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2013)]

It is our expectation that the scientists that have been wrongly accused of wrongdoing and pilloried by Retraction Watch, or by the cowards hiding behind pseudonyms, will now sue those responsible in Court. The writer of this piece may be contacted (weishilaurameng@gmail.com) to help coordinate some of the effort.

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Retraction Watch, Clare Francis, the Mockery of the First Amendment and a Recent Court Order

The blog Retraction Watch plays a game both dangerous and revolting. By making a travesty of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, Retraction Watch has allegedly managed to generate and propagate slander while protecting the anonymity of their tipsters. A recent Court order indicates that this allegedly venal practice will eventually come to an end, possibly making Retraction Watch the target of massive lawsuits.

On the surface, Retraction Watch appears to be a broadcaster of post publication “peer reviews” (whose peers?) that prompt a reaction in scientific journals, motivating the publication of a note, expression of concern or even a retraction notice in case of invalid data. In reality, Retraction Watch is served by what allegedly constitutes a serial defamation ring. The ring often (not always) feeds on comments from angry people with no verifiable credentials, who are typically not the peers of any reputable scientist. These people hide in anonymity to launch their attacks. This modus operandi is of course the despicable way of cowards and is usually fuelled by sheer career frustration: “I am failing, so those who succeed must be phonies, etc.” The angry individuals publish their comments in tributary blogs like PubPeer or simply convey their “critiques” to Ivan Oransky or Adam Marcus, founders of Retraction Watch. These comments are then conveyed to the journals usually in coercive defamatory terms and often under the pseudonym Clare Francis. Clare Francis, or others serving directly the interests of Retraction Watch, allegedly threaten and intimidate the journals and institutions and use words highly reminiscent of Oransky’s style, such as: “many think of this as scientific misconduct”. This wording is naively intended to avoid the defamation lawsuit (not for long). Once Clare Francis or others allegedly on behalf of Oransky manage to elicit a reaction from the journal or institution allegedly under duress, Retraction Watch immediately jumps in and broadcasts the published note, expression of concern or retraction usually in defamatory terms. This leaves us wondering why Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man by the Swiss Radio and Television (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft).

Oransky

Ivan Oransky portrayed at Yale Medicine.

As they allegedly intimidate journals and institutions, Clare Francis or Oransky, or a person on his behalf, brings up PubPeer “investigations”, as if PubPeer were reporting investigations carried out by scientific peers. This in itself constitutes a gross distortion of reality. Thus, the Oransky clique allegedly intimidates the journals within a defamatory context that includes wording like “many people believe this constitutes misconduct”. Not surprisingly, many of these accusations prove to be incorrect, as PubPeer contributors are usually not scientific peers. Yet, a damage is done to the scientist reputation as Retraction Watch hastily publishes the journal reaction it has allegedly elicited through intimidation and coercion.

Most of the time (not always), the Retraction Watch tipsters only have a vested interest in harming the person they target. A case in point is Joshua L. Cherry, a presumed NIH software contractor embarked in a crusade against a specific researcher. The dishonesty of these tipsters is evidenced by the fact that they operate hiding in anonymity as they seek to destroy careers by feeding into Oransky’s blog. Joshua Cherry and others go even further: They seek institutional involvement and immediately inform Retraction Watch on any reaction. Oransky or his cohort of angry people (including the tipsters) then allegedly coerce the journals and institutions seeking to elicit a quick reaction which Oransky (Clare Francis, etc.) demands must be published. Once this is done, the note (expression of concern, correction request, etc.) is immediately disseminated to the general public by the blog Retraction Watch sometimes within a libelous context. This is done even before the results of a formal investigation are known or the validity of the accusations is scientifically established. The alleged slandering is serially committed by Retraction Watch and its associated ring and pipelined along the PubPeer – Oransky axis.

Recent developments, specifically, a court order, suggest that this alleged venality may soon come to an end, with dire consequences for Retraction Watch and its cohort. Prof. Fazlul Sarkar is a professor at Wayne State University who may have lost a generous job offer because of scathing comments about his research posted on PubPeer and channeled into the Retraction Watch defamatory apparatus. His attorney 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:

Unregistered Submission:
(June 18th, 2014 4:51pm UTC)
Has anybody reported this to the institute?

Unregistered Submission:
(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 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.”

No kidding! This statement cannot pass even the most basic scrutiny! 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 may just be the pseudonym for an angry person who hates Fazlul Sarkar or someone with a vested interest in his downfall (like the Retraction Watchers). There is not a shred of evidence that the reported anomalies were detected by a competent scholar, that they are scientifically sound or that they were generated by anybody even coming close to be named a peer of Fazlul Sarkar.

b)      Where is the proof that Clare Francis is reporting on a matter of public interest? It could just be that Clare 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 is surely a personal matter, not a matter of public interest.

c)       How do we know the slanderer of Prof. Sarkar is being honest? He is most likely 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 like the US.

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 attacking? Clare Francis is not revealing his scientific credentials! Strikingly some journals took him seriously and a few still do.

e)      Given that the person using Clare Francis pseudonym is most likely dishonest, and not a scientific peer of Dr. Sarkar, we obviously cannot assert that the case weakens the foundation of scientific research in any way.

We remain hopeful that the alleged serial defamation ring and venal operation described in this post will soon be brought to justice. With the help of the journals that have been contacted by Clare Francis (or others serving the interests of Retraction Watch) we would be in an ideal position to recruit the necessary elements for formidable lawsuits that will bring to a halt this abominable practice.

RECENT COMMENT

LIPING XIE says:

First and foremost, who says PubPeer contributors are scientific peers of anyone??? Nobody has verified whether they really are!!! This is complete nonsense and the way Retraction Watch harvests and uses the PubPeer feedback is absolutely revolting!

UPDATE FROM MAY 24, 2015

It is odd that we continue to have this discussion on these nobodies taking shots at people doing research, Cardiff University in the UK already led the way and did the right thing. Its policy now in place as described here enables automatic dismissal of all the incognito attacks from PubPeer, Clare Francis, Ivan Oransky and their associated haters!

 

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Retraction Watch: Toxic Scientific Journalism for the Wild Web

We are often forced to highlight the toxicity of Retraction Watch, a blog that professes to cover scientific mishaps. Retraction Watch has turned into a beacon of junk scientific journalism, fit for the Wild Web. At Retraction Watch there is no publication barrier but there surely is an agenda: anybody says whatever he/she wants and gets published provided that what is said fits the agenda of RW founders Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky. In Ivan Oransky’s own words, “we hold firm to the notion that the more robust the conversation, the better the science”. Huh? Sure, but the validity of this utterance hinges crucially on what Oransky means by “robust conversation”. I, for one, have never seen a robust conversation leading to the betterment of science at Retraction Watch. Furthermore, I have never seen a conversation at Retraction Watch that is even relevant to science. When I find such utterances by Oransky I ask myself: How can he say this with a straight face? Do we really need to deal with this level of absurdity? I would have hoped not, but I guess we need to. We’ll come back to the “robust conversations” at Retraction Watch in a while.

Oransky
The source of the picture is this article at Yale Medicince.

Ivan Oransky brags about many things, his long list of affiliations always featuring prominently, and he often insists on the large number of hits at Retraction Watch, as if the large number of hits were a measure or indicator of content quality. By that token, “Gangnam Style” would surely surpass Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. We all know that vulgarization of science, and especially of science mishaps, will always sell far better than science itself. That does not make science vulgarization any better than science as a generator of meaning or content. Not surprisingly, Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft) by the Swiss Radio and Television.

Perhaps nowhere is the toxicity of Retraction Watch more apparent than in the words of its own founder Ivan Oransky as he discusses the tragic loss of Japanese scientist Yoshiki Sasai to suicide. Sasai, as we recall, was a major player in the team who worked on the now-discredited STAP stem cell work. By all accounts, Sasai was an honest man but had the misfortune of working with an allegedly dishonest colleague, and his choice of suicide as a form of atonement proved to be one the most tragic turns of science in the Retraction Watch era.

This tragedy has drawn Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen into the debate, as he lost his own father, a notable NIH scientist, to a similar tragic turn. In this case, as in the Sasai case, someone not directly involved in misconduct got the cold shoulder of the scientific community for being associated with an alleged fraudster.

There is hardly any doubt that Retraction Watch, with its undignified opportunistic style of coverage of scientific mishaps, has substantively contributed to this toxic environment. I would not be surprised if the ruthless exposure of the STAP stem cell mishap by Retraction Watch, with its significant traction on the web, contributed in some way to trigger the tragic demise of Yoshiki Sasai. It is obviously up to Sasai’s family and to the incumbent Japanese authorities to take this case to Court if they see fit.

In addressing the accusations that Retraction Watch is poisoning the scientific environment, Ivan Oransky had this to say:

“But we firmly believe that cataloging and probing the symptoms of some of these problems — in our case, that means retractions — is a good way to check the health of transparency in science.
What goes along with that is our belief that a vigorous and open debate is crucial to science. For that reason, we allow our thousands of commenters substantial latitude in their posted opinions.”

Oransky’s idea is, in my opinion, perplexingly stupid. It opens the gates for a flood of nonsense poured into the web with no restraint. Can you imagine bringing anybody into a “vigorous open debate for the benefit of science”? What kind of outcome would you expect from having a bunch of nobodies and angry people opine often anonymously on scientific matters? And who conducts this debate? Ivan Oransky? Adam Marcus? or perhaps the Retraction Watch intern Cat Ferguson? What kind of scientific credentials do these people have to conduct any form of scientific debate? None whatsoever, as far as we can tell.

Along the same crassness, Ivan Oransky carries on:

“We can always do better in our comment moderation. But we hold firm to the notion that the more robust the conversation, the better the science.”

Sure, Mr. Oransky, but the catch here is the competence and intellectual acumen of the people that Retraction Watch allows to be involved in what you call “the robust conversation”! By “robust conversation” do you mean the kind of absurd and often malicious drifting that you and your commenters engage in at Retraction Watch? Contrasting Oransky’s statement with the grotesque reality of Retraction Watch makes me wonder if Oransky is being serious or sardonically factitious. Tragically, I think he really meant what he said, as he repeated the same statement twice in the same post.

The kind of journalism embodied by Retraction Watch, with no publication barriers and with thousands of unqualified people allowed to freely comment on any scientific controversy, is actually very dangerous and very demeaning to science.

RELATED READING:
Ivan Oransky at Yale Medicine.
Sasai’s suicide covered by The Boston Globe
Stem cell work is allegedly fraudulent (The Boston Globe)

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Retraction Watch tracks down scientific corruption. Huh?

We would like to believe that people associated with the practice of science regard the process of tracking down corruption in research as a worthy undertaking. We better be careful with what exactly we wish for because the emerging picture, as it stands today, is looking ugly and getting uglier: Corruption is far more frequent than we would like to admit and, depending on where you draw the line, the indicators show that it is probably rampant. In this regard, a great piece on reproducibility by science writer Philip Ball is particularly enlightening.

Be as it may, efforts to track down corruption appear to be ill fated, poorly conceived, with some of the players even more corrupt than the subjects they choose to condemn. In principle, post-publication peer review (PPPR) is a plausible vehicle to track down corruption when the latter is detectable in published research. In practice, PPPR has turned into a rogue operation driven by losers seeking to elevate themselves by bringing down established figures while creating the perception they are doing something useful. Unfortunately, the scientific establishment will need to get out of its lethargy and, until that happens, PPPR will remain mostly in the hands of blogs run by nobodies seeking notoriety.

Perhaps the most grotesque of these blogs – and by far the loudest – is the self-published Retraction Watch. This blog is run by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, two self-proclaimed experts on retractions, science reporting complications, career-related suicides and other tragedies associated with corruption. These towering figures are assisted by Cat Ferguson, a formidable writer whose ability to report on corruption tragedies earned her an internship at Retraction Watch (they even got a bit of money contributed by their commenters).

Oransky
The source of the picture is this article at Yale Medicince.

A beacon of decorum and noblesse, Retraction Watch does not simply broadcast journal notifications, they distort the findings to a grotesque degree in order to smear or destroy reputations and take active steps single-handedly to ruin the careers of those that they find guilty of having committed some form of misconduct. Not surprisingly, Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft) by the Swiss Radio and Television. The agenda of Retraction Watch is pretty much dictated by the hysteria of its commenters, veritable nobodies seeking attention and hoping to be rewarded for “tracking down the phonies”, to paraphrase the assassin of John Lennon. Some of these commenters such as JATdS, Leonid Schneider, Neuroskeptic, etc. opine on most notifications, regardless of the subject matter (that is irrelevant to them) contributing veritable manifestos. Some of these manifestos are inflammatory, while others take a more sober tone, but all seem supremely irrelevant. In these harangues the commenters demand that the suspected wrong-doers be sent straight to the scaffolds, repudiating the tendency of the defendants to defend themselves or get “lawyered up”. In his blog, Ivan Oransky himself frequently laments the fact that people accused of misconduct often try to defend themselves and that the lawyers they engage are responsible for belated and opaque post-publication notifications. In his world, only the hysteria of his commenters should prevail as justice is delivered.

Ivan Oransky, the self-proclaimed champion of science transparency, has been a staunch protector of the anonymity of his Retraction Watch commenters. He advocates that they are entitled to anonymity invoking the protection of the information source in reporting. This is crass to the point where I find it difficult to imagine a worst aberration. Is he saying that he actually draws information from the hysterical frustration-triggered manifestos of the nobodies that comment on his blog?

A different model for PPPR was recently adopted by PubMed Commons, which is an NCBI/NIH-sponsored forum for post-publication discussion. To state that it is a vehicle for PPPR is actually misleading since the comments at PubMed Commons are NOT subject to peer review. At least the fact that the authors are required to disclose their identity makes PubMed Commons more moderate and balanced than the atrocious Retraction Watch. There is one thing that Retraction Watch and PubMed Commons have in common and that is that they are both irrelevant and inconsequential to science precisely because their contributions are not peer reviewed and would not pass the acid test of science. The most avid contributor to PubMed Commons is… -you guessed it!- Ivan Oransky, who constantly needs to boost his internet presence and affirm his reputation and probably sees his blog Retraction Watch driven to oblivion by PubMed Commons. Other avid contributors are Hilda Bastian a science writer and editor for PubMed Health, who like most science writers, needs to aggrandize her presence on the web, and Joshua Cherry, a scientist? (contractor?) of unverifiable employment at NCBI/NIH who seems to find plenty of time to harangue other scientists with his meta-arguments.

It is hard to imagine that Joshua Cherry or the other individuals mentioned in this post truly believe that their comments constructively enrich the post-publication record. They simply cannot be that delusional.

Things must change with PPPR but this is unlikely to happen unless the science establishment recovers from its lethargic state and begins to act responsibly in the face of corruption.

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Aberrant Post Publication Peer Review at Retraction Watch and PubPeer

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.

Retraction Watch Team
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”.

RELATED LINK: SUBPOENA ON BEHALF OF PROF. DR. FAZLUL SARKAR (PLAINTIFF) AGAINST PUBPEER

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:

Unregistered Submission:
(June 18th, 2014 4:51pm UTC)
Has anybody reported this to the institute?

Unregistered Submission:
(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?

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