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.




Adam Marcus, Cat Ferguson, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Diederik Stapel, Expression of concern, Fraud, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, McCarthyism, Nature, Nature editorial, Peer Review, Research Integrity, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication

Retraction Watch’s Fierce Retort to Nature

Retraction Watch seems to be well on its way to leave a mark on the academic establishment and dictate policy on research ethics. Its posts so often tinged by anger and resentment have gained enormous traction on the web, exposing disturbing human traits. This should not come as a surprise, after all, one man’s sorrow is another man’s joy, and Retraction Watch focuses on career failure. Thus, the scathing posts of Retraction Watch show up prominently in the first page of google searches for individuals, tarnishing reputations in the eyes of those who choose to take them seriously.

One comes across illustrations of their hate-fuelled prose almost daily. For example, as if reacting in defiance to my recent post entitled “Retraction Watch: Any dignity left?”, Retraction Watch published today another post vilifying Diederik Stapel, the Dutch researcher who allegedly admitted fraud and paid his dues to society. First, Adam Marcus, a major blogger at Retraction Watch published an ugly note expressing his outrage at the fact that Dr. Stapel was able to get a job. None of your business, Mr. Marcus! Today his pal Ivan Oransky hastily posted an even uglier note indicating that Stapel had already resigned from the job he managed to get. Oransky seems joyful and relieved that Stapel’s job was so short lived. Previously in a comment, Oransky admitted to be “very interested in the downstream consequences of fraud”. To be consistent, he has extensively and scrupulously covered all recent fraud-related suicides. Also today, Cat Ferguson, the Retraction Watch intern, started her ugly post about an Israeli Mathematician with: “You know it’s a good one when it makes it onto the Wikipedia page for “scientific misconduct”…”.

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

These ungainly posts build up a poisonous atmosphere best reflected in Ivan Oransky’s fierce retort to a recent Nature editorial on retractions. Nature’s cautious reflections contrast starkly with Oransky’s McCarthyian fury illustrated for example 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.”

Notice Oransky’s medieval tone in “holding institutions’ feet to the fire”, as if he were prescribing an auto-da-fe.

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.”

This paragraph has so much hatred in it! An expression of concern would be particularly unfair because it informs the readers of an unresolved situation but at the same time tarnishes the author’s reputation. A person is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty, isn’t that so, Mr. Oransky?

I find the rest of Oransky’s retort equally revolting and simply cannot bring myself to keep discussing it. It is ultimately up to readers to judge.

Adam Marcus, Character Assassination, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Due process, Fraud, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, McCarthyism, Office of Research Integrity, Peer Review, Research Integrity, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Science, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication, Transparency

Retraction Watch, PubPeer and other Haters and their Quest for Transparency

Scientific papers have been challenged since the early days of the Acta Eruditorum and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. For hundreds of years, the rules of fair play and transparency dictate that the challenger must seek publication of his/her adverse comments which must be granted pursuant to a favorable peer review conducted by the same journal where the challenged paper had appeared, while the challenged author is given the chance to rebut in the same forum and under the same rules of publication. With the controversy then fully in the open, the readership gets the chance to adjudicate and the editor may act upon the matter, sometimes even enforcing retraction.

Web access surely facilitates this exchange. Unfortunately, it also enables a grotesque distortion in the form of “post publication peer review”, a trigger-happy operation that exploits self-published blogs where angry people are granted willy-nilly the chance to pour hatred-related content into the web without consequences for them (so far). Thus, they cowardly indulge in character assassination as they invoke travesties of justice and Constitutional rights, always under the pretext of seeking scientific transparency. Since one man’s sorrow is another man’s joy, the hatred content of PubPeer and Retraction Watch sells like hot cakes, poisoning the waters of scientific endeavor at a fast pace.

If the PubPeer or Retraction Watch contributors were truly passionate about transparency they would strive to publish their comments in the professional journals where the challenged papers appeared, while alerting the challenged author so he/she gets a chance to rebut in the same forum. Sadly, the haters often cannot even afford to reveal their real names for fear of making a fool of themselves, let along subjecting their hatred-driven pieces to scientific peer review!

Rather than writing hundreds of erratic pages filled with anger and confusion, exploiting the blogs to desperately find their role in society, the PubPeer and Retraction Watch haters should strive to understand the scientific issues they so vehemently attack and, once they feel they have something to contribute, follow the channels of scientific discourse that have been in place for hundreds of years. Of course, that is much much more arduous than commenting on the hate blogs.

Last but not least, universities and research institutes are not without blame in brewing this scientific McCarthyism. Their fear of losing federal funding unless they show enough zeal in prosecuting wrongdoers has often led to witch hunts where due process is not followed. The scientist is often subject to a veritable auto-da-fe with no Constitutional guarantees and is finally coerced by the federal funding agency (NIH, and to a lesser extent NSF) to enter into a nolo contendere agreement that marks the end of the scientific career and sometimes the civil death of the person. Contrary to the uninformed remarks of the Retraction Watch haters, the McCarthyian prosecution of David Baltimore and Thereza Imanishi-Kari (that ended in dismissal of all charges) exposed this draconian process and its ruthless disregard of the rule of law.