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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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 Commenter, Cat Ferguson, Character Assassination, Clare Francis, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Fazlul Sarkar, Fraud, Information source, Ivan Oransky, Joshua Cherry, lawsuit, NCBI, NIH, NLM, Office of Research Integrity, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, protected free speech, PubMed, PubMed Commons, PubPeer, PubPeer lawsuit, Research Integrity, Retraction Watch, Science, Scientific Misconduct, Transparency, Wayne State University

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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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.

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Debunking Retraction Watch and its Easy Route to Fame

Science is undeniably hard. First you come to grips with failure in the lab and when you finally believe you got it right, another front opens up: the quest to pass peer review and get your findings published in a good journal. These days, a new cloud looms over the embattled researcher right at the end of the publication pipeline: Post publication peer review (PPPR). PPPR has become the new way to challenge publications, at least that is what the self-published blog “Retraction Watch” by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky would like us to believe as they relentlessly report retractions and other sins and ruin reputations right and left. Calling PPPR peer review is of course a misnomer, since no real established peers are known to be involved, or enable their credentials to be checked, and no serious editorial participation of peers is involved at this post publication stage.  PPPR is, for all we know and from what we have seen, a trigger-happy operation, conducted by a horde mostly hiding in anonymity and driven by anger and rage, seeking to get their easy share of fame.

In essence, the McCarthyian agenda of PPPR is drawn by journalists (it takes all kinds) and by angry people who, often emboldended by anonymity, comment in Retraction Watch (one of them signs “Hater Jonny”) and in other aberrations, as they hysterically seek to find a place in history by vilifying scientists. Marcus, Oransky and the hatred troupe are a very diverse bunch: while “Hater Jonny” writes only seldom, other haters like “JATdS” or “Neuroskeptic” contribute abundantly, writing veritable essays as they keep sending scientists to the scaffolds.

What motivates Marcus, Oransky and the post-publication transparency champions to embark in their retraction watchdog crusade?  Not the quest for transparency, of course, otherwise they would play by the rules of science and demand that the post-publication challengers submit their comments to the incumbent journals seeking publication which would be granted provided, of course, that their comments successfully pass peer review. Transparency or fair play would then dictate that the author who has presumably sinned be given the chance to retort within the same forum and subject to the same rules of publication.

The motivation of the post-publication transparency champions is likely to be very different. Doing great science is hard, and yet there are easier routes to fame and one such route is to “bring down the phonies”, to paraphrase the novel “The Catcher in the Rye”. The frame of mind of the transparency champions is more akin to “I cannot do great science (or anything creative for that matter) so those who can surely must be phonies, right?” Wrong!

If this sounds familiar it is simply because it fits into an ancient psychological pattern (“sour grapes”), first illustrated by Aesop and probably as old as human civilization.  It took a grotesque and tragic turn in the John Lennon assassination at the hands of Mark David Chapman, a criminal obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye” and the “anti-phoniness” message.

Let us hope the science journals recover their lost ground and drive away the angry hordes as they regain the transparency territory. Scientific McCarthyism will only come to an end when the scientific establishment tightens up peer review.

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