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.




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).

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.



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.

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.

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, Civil Death, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Diederik Stapel, Due process, Fraud, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Peer Review, Research Integrity, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Science, Scientific Misconduct

Retraction Watch: Any dignity left?

A few days back Adam Marcus, the main blogger at Retraction Watch together with Ivan Oransky, published a post informing their readers that Dr. Diederik Stapel, the Dutch professor who allegedly admitted to fraudulent activity, has landed on a job in the Netherlands. As expected, the angry commentators poured their vitriol in outrage as they kept vilifying Dr. Stapel. Prominent and always loud was “JATdS”, the most prolific and one of Retraction Watch’s angriest commentators, who hides in anonymity to shoot more comfortably while waving his hand from the upper moral ground. Retraction Watch master blogger Ivan Oransky swiftly came to JATdS’s rescue informing the readers that Retraction Watch is very interested in the downstream consequences of fraud. This is probably true: as I recall, Retraction Watch avidly covered all the recent fraud-related suicides.

By now, Retraction Watch made us too familiar with this kind of grisly onslaught, often identified in some Eurasian nations as “the way of the hyena”.

Guess what, Adam Marcus? The fate of Dr. Stapel is none of business! For all we know, Dr. Stapel may have allegedly erred in his ways and may have allegedly paid the hefty prize that society imposed on him. What he does with his life at this point is none of your business and none of your angry reader’s business for that matter. Neither you nor the haters at Retraction Watch have any right to keep on vilifying him. And when I say right, I mean moral right, not the sort of travesty of Constitutional right that you and Oransky so keenly like to invoke.

As I write this post I realize the futility of the effort: the concept of dignity is simply too alien to Retraction Watch and much of its readership.

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.