Cancer Research, Carlo Croce, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Clare Francis, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, First Amendment to US Constitution, Fraud, Ivan Oransky, National Institutes of Health, New York Times, NIH, NIH funding, Office of Research Integrity, Ohio State University, Paul S. Thaler, protected free speech, Research misconduct, Retraction Watch, Scientific corruption, Scientific publication

Stellar cancer researcher Carlo Croce falls from grace: hypocrisy in science

Last week The New York Times published a front-page story entitled “Years of Ethics Charges but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass“.  The article grossly disparages Prof. Carlo Croce, a towering figure in cancer biology and genetics, and his home institution, The Ohio State University. It describes in some detail multiple accusations of misconduct and malfeasance that have been targeting Croce for years.

bio_croce

Dr. Carlo M. Croce, Ohio State University

We are told that Croce has been dodging grave allegations that he falsified data in research supported by more than $86 million in federal grants that have been awarded to him. The investigative task of the Times reporters was greatly facilitated by the fact that the records at Ohio’s courthouses and its university system are completely open to the public. And Ohio State University, which claims it had spent more money supporting Dr. Croce’s research than it had received in grants, was apparently totally responsive to requests for records.

The big problem with all this is that to this day there is no hard evidence of misconduct implicating Croce. Ohio State had repeatedly investigated Croce and cleared him of wrongdoing every single time. How disinterested these investigations were is of course a matter of debate.

Since Dr. Carlo Croce has not been proven guilty of misconduct by the preponderance of evidence, the public does not have the right to know about these investigations and he must be presumed innocent. The integrity of Croce’s career should have been protected. The New York Times article is actionable in Court.

The most astonishing aspect of the story is that neither government agencies nor Ohio State believed Croce would be seriously investigated for misconduct, since he is one of Ohio State biggest rainmakers. This bespeaks of a system corrupt to the marrow and draws a lesson that epitomizes the level of hypocrisy that plagues the science establishment.

Of course we wonder who sent James Glanz, the Times reporter, the documents that appeared in Mr. Glanz’s email inbox, in what his collaborator Agustin Armendariz calls three big dumps. This is anyone’s guess. The Times story mentions Clare Francis, the pseudonym for an agent for the blog Retraction Watch, whose brash nauseating style is reminiscent of Ivan Oransky’s writing…

In any case, that would be discovered in Court if and when Dr. Carlo M. Croce decides to take legal action.

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Blog, Character Assassination, Clare Francis, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Expression of concern, Hilda Bastian, lawsuit, Mass hysteria, McCarthyism, National Institutes of Health, NCBI, NIH, NLM, Office of Research Integrity, Paul S. Thaler, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, Reporting Retractions, Research Integrity, Research misconduct, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific corruption, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication, Scientific Reproducibility

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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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Peer Review, Blog, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Clare Francis, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Donald Trump, Expression of concern, Ivan Oransky, John Ioannidis, Joshua Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, Reporting Retractions, Research Integrity, Retraction Watch, Science, Science blogs, Science Journalism, Science Transparency, Scientific corruption, US President

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.

 

Oransky

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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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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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Clare Francis, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Fake Peer Review, Fazlul Sarkar, First Amendment to US Constitution, Ivan Oransky, Michigan Court of Appeals, Post publication peer review, PubPeer, PubPeer lawsuit, Reporting Retractions, Reporting Science Retractions, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Research misconduct, Retraction Watch, Retractions, Science Transparency, Scientific Misconduct, Wayne State University

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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Clare Francis, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Due process, Expression of concern, Federal law, First Amendment to US Constitution, Misconduct, Paul S. Thaler, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Research misconduct, Retraction Watch, Scientific Integrity, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication, Social Media

Scientific Journals: Are Expressions of Concern Illegal?

PAUL S. THALER is Managing Partner at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC, a law firm with offices in Washington, D.C. One of his main areas of practice is scientific misconduct. He has successfully defended clients accused of research misconduct, becoming a towering figure in this aspect of civil litigation. In addition, his firm provides a peerless level of sophistication in Title IX matters. Paul S. Thaler has been admitted to the Bar in Washington, DC and Maryland.

In regards to scientists enduring misconduct accusations, 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 bolded section is particularly enlightening because it implies that Expressions of Concern, very much en vogue with journals these days, are in all likelihood illegal, and so is the dissemination of such expressions by blogs such as Retraction Watch or other media. Of course the public does not have the right to now about mere accusations of wrongdoing or suspicions of invalid data, which often prove to be wrong. For example, pseudonymous Clare Francis, the venal whistle-blower of Retraction Watch, has scored plenty of false positives but we are not aware that Retraction Watch has been sued in Court yet. By contrast, the public is very much entitled to know about cases of proven invalid data resulting from wrongdoing. This is the spirit of the law and Paul S. Thaler has sensibly conveyed it.

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Paolo Macchiarini portrayed by Retraction Watch: defamed, probably, vindicated? Never!

As the peer review system appears to be failing and bogus research keeps surfacing, post publication peer review (PPPR) is becoming a necessity. The problem is who conducts PPPR (*). Certainly an indiscriminate blog run by nonscientists nudging journals into reaction, where anyone can voice their opinion or make misconduct allegations is not the way to go about it. A similar opinion is held by Paolo Macchiarini, the eminent surgeon who saved human lives and was defamed but never vindicated by Retraction Watch. Paolo Macchiarini has chosen to write an open letter in Retraction Watch to voice his opinion on the blog. The fact that he has chosen this course of action after being cleared of misconduct, instead of suing Retraction Watch for defamation (at least for now), attests to his good nature, and may seem perplexing to some.

 

Paolo Macchiarini

Paolo Macchiarini ASSOCIATED PRESS

Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini achieved international fame for inducing the formation of tracheas from implants containing stem cells. His career has seen reversals of fortune, especially when Macchiarini was portrayed as having committed misconduct by Retraction Watch. The blog echoed and disseminated a provisional highly damaging report by a single individual that had only seen a portion of the evidence, thus defaming Macchiarini. With all the available evidence at hand, Macchiarini’s home institution, the Karolisnka Institute, refuted the damaging accusations and issued a very different veredict: Macchiarini acted “without due care,” but did not commit misconduct. Rather than suing Retraction Watch, Macchiarini responded in the blog itself, voicing his critical opinion on the blog and reacting (quite gracefully) to the gross abuses he endured.

In his opening paragraph, Macchiarini agreed (as we do) that the general goals of Retraction Watch may be commendable, notwithstanding the defamation he suffered at the hands of the bloggers. In his open letter, Macchiarini takes issue, and rightly so, with the gross breach of confidentiality by Retraction Watch, as the investigation of his research practices was being officially conducted. Allegedly, Retraction Watch even infringed the confidentiality of patient’s medical records, a major ethical breach possibly actionable in Court.

Retraction Watch has frequently reported false allegations of scientific misconduct against Paolo Macchiarini and other scientists. These nefarious allegations have found their way to the blog, and their dissemination constitutes a gross breach of confidentiality guidelines.  We should emphasize that in the case of Macchiarini, Retraction Watch was NOT reporting on a retraction, or on a case of scientific misconduct. In the words of Macchiarini:

“The alleged misconduct was reported to the editors of the very well-respected journals involved, and to my institution, who at the time of the leak were going through the normal process of official investigation.  This was nothing more than academic ‘gossip’.”

No, Paolo Macchiarini! We disagree with you. This is defamation, pure and unadulterated, and you are possibly entitled to massive reparations for the damage that Retraction Watch has inflicted to your reputation.

Retraction Watch lives dangerously by its unique set of rules, whereby the infringement of confidentiality in investigations of alleged scientific misconduct is entirely permitted. They chose to live dangerously, as they do not conform to the basic tenet of societies that function under the rule of law, whereby a person is innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law. Retraction Watch fails to grasp the essential operating principle that the defendant must be protected by confidentiality because he/she is a-priori presumed innocent.

Retraction Watch lives dangerously indeed.  False accusations of scientific misconduct are common in science and are often motivated by the desire to destroy someone’s career.  A blog that indiscriminately publishes any allegation real or false at any stage of investigation will only enhance the efficacy of false accusations. We concur with Macchiarini in that Retraction Watch has grossly overstepped its mark by providing a platform for nefarious gossip and malfeasance in a way that hurts the academic community.

(*) There are serious efforts to curate the corpus of scientific publication. These efforts are largely sponsored by John and Laura Arnold, a young billionaire couple from Houston, that is currently financing large-scale meta-research projects. One such project is the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, or METRICS. These projects aim at effectively addressing major issues like reproducibility.

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