As the peer review system appears to be failing and bogus research keeps surfacing, post publication peer review (PPPR) is becoming a necessity. The problem is who conducts PPPR (*). Certainly an indiscriminate blog run by nonscientists nudging journals into reaction, where anyone can voice their opinion or make misconduct allegations is not the way to go about it. A similar opinion is held by Paolo Macchiarini, the eminent surgeon who saved human lives and was defamed but never vindicated by Retraction Watch. Paolo Macchiarini has chosen to write an open letter in Retraction Watch to voice his opinion on the blog. The fact that he has chosen this course of action after being cleared of misconduct, instead of suing Retraction Watch for defamation (at least for now), attests to his good nature, and may seem perplexing to some.
Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini achieved international fame for inducing the formation of tracheas from implants containing stem cells. His career has seen reversals of fortune, especially when Macchiarini was portrayed as having committed misconduct by Retraction Watch. The blog echoed and disseminated a provisional highly damaging report by a single individual that had only seen a portion of the evidence, thus defaming Macchiarini. With all the available evidence at hand, Macchiarini’s home institution, the Karolisnka Institute, refuted the damaging accusations and issued a very different veredict: Macchiarini acted “without due care,” but did not commit misconduct. Rather than suing Retraction Watch, Macchiarini responded in the blog itself, voicing his critical opinion on the blog and reacting (quite gracefully) to the gross abuses he endured.
In his opening paragraph, Macchiarini agreed (as we do) that the general goals of Retraction Watch may be commendable, notwithstanding the defamation he suffered at the hands of the bloggers. In his open letter, Macchiarini takes issue, and rightly so, with the gross breach of confidentiality by Retraction Watch, as the investigation of his research practices was being officially conducted. Allegedly, Retraction Watch even infringed the confidentiality of patient’s medical records, a major ethical breach possibly actionable in Court.
Retraction Watch has frequently reported false allegations of scientific misconduct against Paolo Macchiarini and other scientists. These nefarious allegations have found their way to the blog, and their dissemination constitutes a gross breach of confidentiality guidelines. We should emphasize that in the case of Macchiarini, Retraction Watch was NOT reporting on a retraction, or on a case of scientific misconduct. In the words of Macchiarini:
“The alleged misconduct was reported to the editors of the very well-respected journals involved, and to my institution, who at the time of the leak were going through the normal process of official investigation. This was nothing more than academic ‘gossip’.”
No, Paolo Macchiarini! We disagree with you. This is defamation, pure and unadulterated, and you are possibly entitled to massive reparations for the damage that Retraction Watch has inflicted to your reputation.
Retraction Watch lives dangerously by its unique set of rules, whereby the infringement of confidentiality in investigations of alleged scientific misconduct is entirely permitted. They chose to live dangerously, as they do not conform to the basic tenet of societies that function under the rule of law, whereby a person is innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law. Retraction Watch fails to grasp the essential operating principle that the defendant must be protected by confidentiality because he/she is a-priori presumed innocent.
Retraction Watch lives dangerously indeed. False accusations of scientific misconduct are common in science and are often motivated by the desire to destroy someone’s career. A blog that indiscriminately publishes any allegation real or false at any stage of investigation will only enhance the efficacy of false accusations. We concur with Macchiarini in that Retraction Watch has grossly overstepped its mark by providing a platform for nefarious gossip and malfeasance in a way that hurts the academic community.
(*) There are serious efforts to curate the corpus of scientific publication. These efforts are largely sponsored by John and Laura Arnold, a young billionaire couple from Houston, that is currently financing large-scale meta-research projects. One such project is the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, or METRICS. These projects aim at effectively addressing major issues like reproducibility.