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Handling scientific post-publication events: Legal action required

Hilda Bastian is an NIH contractor for PubMed Health and PubMed Commons at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). She also seems to be a prolific science writer. Bastian recently informed the blog Retraction Watch that the NLM is planning a prominent display of Expressions of Concern (EoC) published by scientific journals. By her own admission, Hilda Bastian is not versed in scientific matters. Given what she intends to do, let us hope she is versed in legal matters, or at least willing to seek legal advice.

In the US, as in most societies under the rule of law, a person is deemed innocent unless proven guilty, and any suggestion that may affect someone’s reputation without hard proof constitutes defamation. By Bastian’s own admission, only about 25% of EoCs typically result in retraction. This begs the question: What do the authors whose papers received the remaining 75% of EoCs plan to do?

Lawyer Paul S. Thaler, a towering figure in scientific integrity may be the ideal person to assist such people determine their legal options. Paul S. Thaler made the following enlightening remark:

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.

The bold section is crucial because it implies that EoCs are in all likelihood illegal, and so is the dissemination of such statements. The public does not have the right to know about mere accusations of wrongdoing, or suspicions of invalid data resulting in EoCs. According to Hilda Bastian such EoCs are likely to be wrong in 75% of the cases. For example, pseudonymous Clare Francis, the venal whistle-blower of Retraction Watch, has scored plenty of false positives eliciting EoCs mostly in the 75% of valid papers. Yet we are not aware that Retraction Watch or other related venues have been sued yet. Hopefully, Hilda Bastian will reflect about her plans and seek legal advice before charging ahead.




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Anonymous peer review is fine, while anonymous post-publication review is not

When a scientist submits a paper for publication to a journal, he entrusts the journal editor with the task of finding peers would be able to review the paper and are knowledgeable enough to assess its scientific merit. The names of the reviewers are typically concealed to the author. The intent is to grant the reviewer complete freedom in his candid assessment without fear of retaliation. The system is imperfect, very much so, but during the last three centuries scientists have not managed to come up with anything better.

Post-publication peer review (PPPR), on the other hand, cannot be said to be imperfect. It is not even wrong. It is a grotesque aberration. PPPR is usually anonymous but in this case we have absolutely no assurance that the reviewer of the paper is a peer of the author, that is, someone capable of passing serious judgment, or rather someone with an ax to grind launching his or her personal attack. There is simply no editor that arbitrates PPPR, just reporters or science outsiders, like Ivan Oransky, who typically know nothing of the scientific subject of the paper and who merely reproduce a note in a journal or a piece of gossip or an opinion without adding any value. The consequences of this lack of leadership are dire for science: about 90% of the attacks launched by Oransky’s blog Retraction Watch under the pseudonym Clare Francis are either false or lacking merit, even if they manage to elicit an “expression of concern” (an illegality stigmatizing a person presumed innocent unless proven guilty). If US president Donald Trump branded reporters as a pathetic dishonest bunch, just imagine what he would have to say about blogs like Retraction Watch, where the founding reporters usually know nothing about the science related to their mini-scandals.



This atmosphere of dishonesty provides a fertile soil for PPPR, where a few snipers like Joshua L. Cherry (NIH/NCBI?) strive. As readers may recall, Joshua L. Cherry has been identified by Science Transparency. Cherry is truly obsessed (read Cherry’s exchange with Prof. John Ioannidis), but unfortunately not with producing good science. When he launches personal attacks, Cherry disguises under multiple pseudonyms and e-mails, he cowardly shoots from the shadows, yet his style remains unmistakable: He obsessively insists in performing statistical analysis of large datasets with no scientific understanding of the data, or obsessively tries to reproduce data in a field he knows nothing about, failing miserably. Unfortunately, Joshua L. Cherry is the kind of byproduct that Retraction Watch and other such blogs generate. Were it not for the lack of leadership in PPPR, Cherry would have probably remained a scientist perhaps not incapable of generating interesting ideas. Yet, like many at Retraction Watch, he got trapped in futile battles against windmills.

As the Romans used to say: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor ( I see the best and verify it, but I follow the worst). Tragic, tragic…

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TOP: How Science magazine plans to deal with the intrusion of social media

Not long ago Science Editor Marcia McNutt published an appalling editorial entitled “Due process in the twitter age“, where she claimed that social media created an anxiety and added a sense of urgency to the post-publication peer review (PPPR) of reported scientific research. In a post at Science Transparency, we swiftly retorted that if the scientific establishment kept paying attention to blogs like Retraction Watch to conduct their business, they will only have themselves to blame for the current crisis. In our post we felt compelled to quote a Londoner from the Daily Mail (UK) who described the intrusion of social media in the most eloquent terms:

Social Media has turned us all into the baying masses of the medieval witch hunts, with no mediators of our hysterical views, and with the loudest, most ignorant and angry up at the front with their burning tweeting torches.

It would seem that Science magazine has decided to review their own position regarding how they intend to deal with the piracy of PPPR by social media. Marcia McNutt now claims that Science magazine will spearhead the implementation of TOP (Transparency and Openness Promotion), a set of new standards of transparency and reproducibility for the publication of scientific research. This initiative is inspired by the policy forum piece “Promoting an Open Research Culture” published in Science nearly an year ago. In fact, at Science Transparency we argued in support of this policy.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Brooks, Henry Jamyn (1865-1925); The Royal Institution, London, UK.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Brooks, Henry Jamyn (1865-1925); The Royal Institution, London, UK.

Transparency, availability of raw data, and full disclosure of all tools required by a person skilled in the art to reproduce the work is surely all that is needed to ensure the validity of reported research. This is true today as it was three centuries ago, when scientists were asked to perform their experiments in front of an audience at the Royal Institution. At Science Transparency we welcome the implementation of these TOP protocols as the best route to do away with corruption in science and to end the current hysteria promoted by social media in regards to the reproducibility crisis, real or perceived.


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Retraction Watch: Money Can’t Buy You Class

It is hard to justify the sheer existence of Retraction Watch, a blog run by people with no visible credentials in the sciences who are seeking notoriety in a context where anybody is basically allowed to say anything. The information that Retraction Watch provides is redundant at best. And this redundancy will now be multiplied, we are being told, by a “repository of retractions”, an idiocy akin to a “repository of obituaries”. But the worst side of Retraction Watch is its tendency to ruthlessly prey on career mistakes to destroy people and to do it in the most undignified manner.

The most recent illustration of this appalling behavior is the post by Cat Ferguson, the Retraction Watch intern and a figure in the field of retractions, who wrote the masterpiece entitled: Anyone want to hire an economist who retracted 16 papers for fake peer reviews?

   This piece reports on the efforts by Retraction Watch to destroy the career of Khalid Zaman, a Pakistani economist who retracted several papers on account of allegedly fake peer reviews. Retraction Watch was not satisfied with merely reporting on the case, they went after his life and career, investigating whether he had filed job applications (in Pakistan!), and even got hold of one such application (we of course cannot verify this). This is none of your business, Retraction Watch!

Zaman may have committed fraud, but perhaps his results are still valid and could withstand a real peer review upon resubmission. This is, of course, a futile reflection, Retraction Watch never takes the high ground but instead keeps indulging in the petty smearing of scientists’ reputations. Here is another example of their reported efforts to destroy people from the pen of Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, the Retraction Watch founders, from their contribution to The Scientist (the last sentence is particularly revolting and much resembling the vilification of Khalid Zaman):

“…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.)”

There are plenty of illustrations of these indignities, where Retraction Watch, not content with having report the case, goes after the person and curtails his/her opportunities to find jobs taking decisive cavalier steps in the most revolting manner imaginable to destroy the person. One is reminded of the case of Diederik Stapel, the Dutch professor who allegedly admitted to fraudulent activity, and was reported by Retraction Watch to have landed on a job in the Netherlands. As expected, the angry commenters poured their vitriol in outrage as they kept vilifying Dr. Stapel, while the blog took all necessary steps to prevent him from getting hired. Again, none of your business, Retraction Watch!

I guess it is a matter of class, some have it, some don’t, and if you, like Retraction Watch, don’t have it, all the money in the world cannot buy it for you.

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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.

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.

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