Anonymous Commenter, Clare Francis, Defamation lawsuit, First Amendment, Joshua Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, Nature, NCBI, NIH, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, PubPeer, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Scientific corruption

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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Adam Marcus, Blog, Cat Ferguson, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Corruption, Diederik Stapel, Fake Peer Review, Fraud, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Khalid Zaman, Michael W Miller, Misconduct, Post publication peer review, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific corruption

Retraction Watch: Money Can’t Buy You Class

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

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

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

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

“…we recommend reading about the case of Michael W. Miller, who faked data on his federal grant applications and had several papers retracted in 2012. This year, however, Miller bounced back, landing a job as, you guessed it, a consultant for grant applications! (He lost that gig after we called his employers to ask if they knew about his past.)”

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

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

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