美国国立卫生研究院, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, John Ioannidis, National Institutes of Health, NIH, NIH funding, Peer Review, Principal Investigator, Research grant, Study Section

Peer Review: Is NIH Rewarding Talent?

In a striking analysis published in Nature, Stanford University researcher John Ioannidis, the expert on metadata investigation at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, has seriously questioned the way the National Institutes of Health fund research proposals. He and his colleague Joshua Nicholson have argued in what seems like a rousing condemnation of the status quo that peer-review, the process by which study sections review and rank research applications, is totally broken.  The researchers argued that peer review at NIH (简称) encourages “conformity, if not mediocrity”, favoring proposals submitted by people who know how to network and play the petty games of academic sociology, rather than those by people who have original and potentially influential ideas.

These conclusions rest heavily on the observation that only 40 percent of scientists with highly cited papers (say, those with more than 1000 citations) are principal investigators on NIH grants. That is, those scientists whose peers value their work most highly are often not receiving NIH support for that work.

Of course, the analysis may be imperfect. Here is my critique for one: Using high citation level as a proxy for originality is probably not entirely correct (but then what is a good proxy for originality?). It is also possible that a good percentage of these investigators have not even applied for NIH funding in the first place. And, finally, they may have other sources of support for their research, most likely, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (should we then conclude that HHMI funds more original research than NIH?).

It is perhaps true that the peer review system is broken. The majority of the authors of the most influential papers in medicine and the life sciences seem not to have NIH funding according to Ioannidis and Nicholson, and their funding rate is possibly less than average. Perhaps the most disturbing observation, the one that truly needs the closest scrutiny, is that study section members are almost always funded while their citation impact is typically low or average: they are not the high-impact innovators.

This leaves us with a sad reflection. Probably a truly innovative idea cannot be appreciated by the peers, while if peers can readily grasp it (to the level they are willing to fund it), it is probably not innovative.

NIH is seemingly aware of this problem and has earnestly tried to address these concerns introducing specific award categories such as the Pioneer and New Innovator Awards. Perhaps Ioannidis and Nicholson may be willing to evaluate the efficacy of these categories in capturing true talent.

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Clare Francis, Defamation lawsuit, Expression of concern, Fazlul Sarkar, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, PubPeer, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific journal, Sock puppetry

The demise of peer review in scientific publication

It is widely felt that peer review in scientific publishing is failing and it seems journal editors and academic authorities have only themselves to blame. Nature started a debate on the subject but it is felt that the point was not made somehow. Every time a journal publishes an alert note or an expression of concern, or a retraction, in case of invalid data, the journal damages its own reputation by showing that its own peer review system has failed. The journal is exposing its inability to find competent reviewers that should have spotted the problems in the first place. Worse, in their confusion, some journal editors have even fallen prey to post-publication peer review, a rogue tank for indiscriminate assault run by the unqualified blogs PubPeer and Retraction Watch.

PubPeers are in effect nobody’s peers! (see our comment in Science Magazine) Their scientific credentials have not been screened, their competence has not been checked and, not surprisingly, the majority of the PubPeer accusations (over 85% by our own estimation) proved to be either false or frivolous, with vagaries like “these statistics look weird”, “these gel bands look similar”, and the like. On the other hand, most Retraction Watchers resort to sock puppetry (Clare Francis, etc.)  to launch their attacks so, it is hard to tell how many personal attacks are actually taken seriously. Like its sister blog Retraction Watch, which feeds on PubPeer, these indiscriminate sites serve as vehicles for anyone to say whatever they like and harass individuals, journals and institutions. Shrouded in anonymity, these angry people comfortably take shots at working scientists, with their attacks frequently driven by jealousy or envy.

But we are not being completely fair here. There are instances when honest contributors to PubPeer or Retraction Watch/Clare Francis have done a good job at helping journals spot fraudulent work. Unfortunately, the blogs are ill conceived and so they become flooded with nonsense or, worse, become subservient to hatred-driven attacks. That may be why Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man by the Swiss Radio and Television (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft).

The sad thing is that there are journal editors (and even academic administrators) stupid enough to take these blogs seriously. The defamation lawsuit by Wayne State University Professor Fazlul Sarkar already covered by Science Transparency may mark a turning point (don’t count on it yet), inspiring editors and university authorities to finally follow science’s centuries-old way of dealing with challenges to published work. Pasted below is the protocol to deal with challenges to scientific reports that has been in place for centuries, basically since the Acta Eruditorum and Philosophical Transactions came into existence in the 17th century:

In the interest of fair play, when an honest person wishes to challenge a published scientific result, the person sends his/her findings to the same journal where the work was published and the challenge is subject to peer review subject to the same standards that applied to the peer review of the original work. This process is kept confidential and if and only if the challenge itself passes peer review, then the journal offers the authors under scrutiny the chance to respond. At this point, the journal goes public and publishes back-to-back the challenge and the response by the authors and takes appropriate action, which may be stern in case of invalid data (presumably a retraction notice).

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Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Misconduct, New York Times, Peer Review, Retraction, Science, Scientific Crisis, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication, Scientific Reproducibility, Scientific Research, Scientists who cheat

On The New York Times editorial “Scientists who cheat”

_______________________________________

Public!, take note: There is fake science!

And who will handle the crisis?

Scientists’s peers let’s hope, or we slide into hysteria.

________________________________________

RELATED READING

Nature June 2, 2015 editorial Misplaced Faith: The public trusts scientists much more than scientists think. But should it?

New York Times June 1, 2015 editorial Scientists who cheat.

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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Argentina, Clare Francis, Defamation, Expression of concern, Fazlul Sarkar, First Amendment to US Constitution, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, lawsuit, Michigan Court of Appeals, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, protected free speech, PubPeer, Retraction Watch, Scientific publication, Sock puppetry, Wayne State University

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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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Blog, Cat Ferguson, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Corruption, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Fraud, Haruko Obokata, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Japanese science, Junk Journalism, lawsuit, Michael Eisen, Misconduct, Nature, Nature retraction, Obokata, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, protected free speech, Retraction Watch, Retractions, Riken, Science Garbage Man, Scientific Misconduct, STAP stem cell, Suicide, Wild Web, Yoshiki Sasai

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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Adam Marcus, Argentina, Ariel Fernandez, Ariel Fernandez Publications, Ariel Fernandez Research, Ariel Fernandez ResearcherID, Buenos Aires, Cat Ferguson, 阿列尔·费尔南德斯, Ivan Oransky, Joshua Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry, Michael Lynch, Nature, Nature Addenda, NCBI, NIH, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, PubMed, Scientific publication, Scientific Research, Swiss Radio and Television, Weishi Meng on Ariel Fernandez

Post Publication: Interview with Dr. Ariel Fernandez on a Nature Paper Controversy (Ten more minutes added on 12/2)

As a glance at his CV reveals, Dr. Ariel Fernandez (阿列尔·费尔南德斯), the discoverer of the dehydron (脱水元), is a very creative physical chemist and mathematician, a key player in the recent biotechnology transformation. His research has been heralded in auspicious terms, as illustrated for example in this review published in Scientific American. The breadth of research accomplishments of Ariel Fernandez, ranging from abstract algebra to drug design is breathtaking and probably unheard of in science (see a linked version of his publication record). In his ResearcherID page, Thomson/Reuters estimated that Ariel Fernandez has published 485 professional articles, book chapters included. His innovative drug designs were enthusiastically received by eminent doctors such as Thomas Force (Vanderbilt University) and were also reported in laudatory terms, as shown for example in this review by legendary Harvard oncologist George Demetri. Quoting Dr. Demetri:

“The first generation of kinase-inhibitory drugs such as imatinib and sunitinib have already provided patients with life-saving therapeutic options, and with tools such as those described by Fernández et al., the future certainly looks bright for constructing ever-better agents that can be combined safely and effectively to manage, and eventually cure, many forms of human cancer”.

Dr. Ariel Fernandez

Dr. Ariel Fernandez

In a recent collaboration with eminent cardiologist Richard L. Moss, Dr. Ariel Fernandez came up with a potential treatment of heart failure by disrupting a myosin association with a myosin-regulatory protein, a novel invention recently awarded the US patent 9,051,387. You may find descriptions of this invention at: US Patent and Trademark Office page, Espacenet page, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ariel Fernandez Consultancy, Academia.edu, Ariel Fernandez’s professional page.

In spite of this stellar career and in spite of his efforts to fight cancer and heart failure, Dr. Ariel Fernandez is not impervious to slander. In the new era of post publication peer review, where anybody says whatever they like without even revealing his identity or his credentials, Dr. Ariel Fernandez has been the target of libel. In this note, Dr. Ariel Fernandez reflects on post-publication peer review in light of a recent attack by journalist Ivan Oransky, the self-proclaimed champion of scientific transparency, who has been recently named Science’s Garbage Man (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft) by the Swiss Radio and Television. In his post, Oransky mentions a Note that Nature Editors appended as Addendum to a Nature paper by Ariel Fernandez.

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

WM: Thank you doctor for agreeing to talk to us on such short notice. What was your reaction to the recent post by Ivan Oransky (and Adam Marcus) published in their blog in regards to your Nature paper?

Ariel Fernandez: It is hard for me to understand the motivation for such posts by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus and for some of the comments in their blog. The story is thin on reality. It reads like an attack. These people seem angry (they surely sound angry) and probably think they will get some credit for doing what they do. Meanwhile, the science establishment is not taking the needed leadership in regards to post-publication assessment and in regards to fixing the peer review system.

WM: Why do you think Oransky dislikes you?

Ariel Fernandez: I don’t think our paths ever crossed, I don’t even know him. I heard he is a doctor, and that he is smart. There are many wonderful things that a smart doctor can do, what Oransky is doing is not one of them.

WM: Can you tell us what are the news exactly?

Ariel Fernandez: The Addendum published by the Nature Editors on my paper [Ariel Fernandez, Nature 474, pages 502-5 (2011)] exposes a controversy between the two authors of the paper, former author Michael Lynch and me. This is hardly a news item. Lynch and I have a disagreement on the data and what it means. The Nature addendum is appended to the paper at the url:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v474/n7352/full/nature09992.html

I posted my own tutorial on the Nature paper, including the code, raw data and statistical analysis in compliance with the open data mandate. Anybody interested can help clarify the matter if he/she so choses.

WM: How did this problem originate?

Ariel Fernandez: As I recall, in November of 2011, a Joshua Cherry, a sort of contractor (?) at NIH/NCBI first contacted me indicating that he wanted to reproduce my data in the Nature paper. After exchanging dozens of mails, I offered him a tutorial, because I realized he had little or no background in biophysics. He rejected my tutorial and from then on began challenging my papers. Now, why would a person with no background in my field decide to challenge my papers is a mystery to me. This fellow Joshua Cherry is behind the attacks on my work and my person. He seems somewhat obsessed (?) with me for some reason. Now, from what I can see, Cherry has authored some reasonable papers on population dynamics, yet he invests heavily on the downfall of someone working in a field he knows nothing about?

WM: That is odd.

Ariel Fernandez: The most important lesson to be drawn from this incident requires that we all take the high ground and ask ourselves: How should post-publication peer review be conducted? I believe there is only one way which has been the way of science for centuries: If anyone feels the need to challenge a published paper, the person should send the comments to the journal where the original work was published, request that his/her comments be subject to peer review and if they pass peer review, the objections should be published side by side with the response by the original author for everybody to examine and draw conclusions. The rest, including Oransky’s blog, is just noise.

WM: Doctor, I heard rumors that you and I are the same person.

Ariel Fernandez: Well, let’s see. You surely sound quite different from me and I don’t have any Chinese ancestry to speak of…

WM: Thank you doctor, have a good evening.

Ten more minutes on the phone with Dr. Ariel Fernandez (12/2/2014)

07

WM: Did you read the comments at the blog run by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus?

Ariel Fernandez: I read a bunch, then it got too silly with the Meng-Fernandez duality and I took my dog for a walk. It made me sad that these people cannot seem to be able to take the high ground on the broad issues at stake.

WM: Yes, they seem to dwell on whether I am a real person or whether you are actually me, or dual realities, or God knows what. Totally immaterial, like asking whether the characters in Plato’s dialogues are real or fake and take away merit if the latter were the case (I prepared that one beforehand, by the way). So, what are the issues at stake?

Ariel Fernandez: As I see it, the only thing worth focusing on is the failure of the peer review system. If the system were water- tight, there would be no need for PPPR [post publication peer review], of course. There are core issues worth focusing on: lobbying, editor courtship, fake reviewers, and cronyism in the peer review system.

WM: Well, so what do we do then?

Ariel Fernandez: Many journals are simply too amateurish to lead in this crisis, and the absence of leadership in times of crisis, often leads to bad things as we all know too well. Opportunists take over, as history has shown time and again. A leadership void has been created concurrently with the peer review crisis and, quite opportunistically, the blog by Ivan Oransky and the other fellow fills in that void. It is a bad thing but it has managed to parasite over the space available, fits right in there. Tragically, everybody watches in complete stupor while these people run the agenda.

WM: OK, so what do we (you and me) do?

Ariel Fernandez: Well, we keep it up. We help them realize that there is a loftier pursuit than indulging in the trigger-happy nonsense of the blog. We try to educate the bloggers and commenters because we believe that there is a higher ground and that they can truly contribute. Oransky, for one, is possibly a very smart person and could do plenty of good.

WM: And the lofty pursuit is…

Ariel Fernandez: Help the establishment fix the peer review system by showing concrete failures of peer review and how we can learn from the mistakes to make improvements, how we can introduce better ways to safeguard the integrity of reported work with concrete working examples while fighting the problems alluded to previously. Above all, ensure that if and when PPPR becomes an absolute necessity, it is subject to the standards that science has upheld for centuries, since professional journals came into existence. In this pursuit there is no room for Ivan Oransky or the other fellow, or the commenters, unless they choose to get serious about fixing the system and stop being silly. Vulgarization of career mistakes and tragic turns of fortune is not going to get them anywhere (except in the eyes of the angry mob of losers in science who invest in the downfall of the winners). They need to help device clever ways to deal with and combat scientific corruption at its root.

WM: My pleasure again doctor, enjoy the rest of the day.

RELATED READING:

Ariel Fernandez and Michael Lynch (2011) Nature 474, 502-505

Disclaimer by Ariel Fernandez

Ariel Fernandez complete CV updated May 18, 2015

Ariel Fernandez featured in Baidu Encyclopedia (Mandarin)

Books by Ariel Fernandez

Ariel Fernandez at ResearchGate

Curriculum Vitae for Ariel Fernandez

The Peer Review Crisis by Ariel Fernandez

Rice University Faculty Catalogue

Ariel Fernandez Consultancy

Transformative Concepts for Drug Design: Target Wrapping, Book by Ariel Fernandez, Springer, 2010

Ariel Fernandez Professional Website

Biomedical Research by Ariel Fernandez, NIH

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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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