Cat Ferguson, Ivan Oransky, Korea, MacArthur Foundation, Retraction Watch, Science Journalism, Sexist remarks, Social injustice, Social Media, Tim Hunt, University College London, Witch Hunt, Women in Science, Women Inequality

Sir Tim Hunt’s Character Assassination Allegedly Instigated by Ivan Oransky

It takes all kinds, I guess. Sir Tim Hunt spent much of his adult life in the lab with a group of able men and women, leaving us a precious and enduring legacy recognized with the Nobel prize. Ivan Oransky invests in other people’s downfall, trashing careers through his blog Retraction Watch. Not surprisingly, Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man by the Swiss Radio and Television (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft). The contrast between the two men could not be bigger, they are almost antipodes of each other. Bring them together with Sir Tim Hunt having a faux pas and tragedy is likely to unfold, as it did.

As we all know by now, on June 8, 2015, Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt was invited to give an opening lecture at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, and that same day he was invited to a lunch hosted by the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations, where he briefly spoke. After some general remarks on the importance of women in science, Sir Tim Hunt allegedly started to play a very different tune along the lines of “maybe I should tell you about my trouble with girls…” He allegedly went on to say that women scientists tend to fall in love with male scientists and vice versa, that they often sob when criticized, and that because of all those problems, science was better off with gender-segregated labs.

ANTOINE LAURENT LAVOISIER (1743-1794). avec Mme Lavoisier. peinture de 1788 DAVID, Jacques Louis (1748-1825) . The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ©MP/Leemage PRIMARY ILLUSTRATION OF THE GENDER INTEGRATION DURING THE ENLIGHTENMENT

ANTOINE LAURENT LAVOISIER (1743-1794). avec Mme Lavoisier. peinture de 1788 DAVID, Jacques Louis (1748-1825) . The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ©MP/Leema     Gender integration during the Enlightenment.

Sir Tim Hunt obviously has a naughty side to him, as do many scientists in their golden years. His mischief in Korea was probably geared at eliciting some endearing smiles from the audience. It proved to be a miscalculation that is costing him dearly. Sir Tim Hunt did not realize he was walking on a mine field. That day, he was not among his peers. That day, Sir Tim Hunt was in dangerous unfamiliar territory.

What Sir Tim Hunt probably did not know is that science journalism attracts some very angry and dangerous people, as this blog has amply illustrated. Some of these people would be naturally, instinctively hostile to Sir Tim Hunt from the get-go. Some of these people are likely to remain bitter all their lives because, down deep, they know that besides tweeting frantically and vilifying people, they would never be able to accomplish anything of enduring value, let alone something that could remotely compare with Hunt’s towering achievements. Sir Tim Hunt clearly did not know or take into account that Ivan Oransky was in the audience that day, and that oversight proved fatal for him. The cutout below reproduces what Oransky tweeted right after Sir Tim Hunt spoke:

Ivan Oransky's tweets on Sir Tim Hunt on June 9, 2015.

Ivan Oransky’s tweets on Sir Tim Hunt on June 9, 2015.

These people had the opportunity to meet Sir Tim Hunt, but what really counted for them was that they saw an opportunity to score by exposing his pranks in the worst light possible. It was a bad cocktail, where mischief met bitterness, while the attack was launched through the Social Media, dispatched with the label of political correctness…

Ivan Oransky and Connie St. Louis, whose tireless efforts brought down Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt.

Ivan Oransky and Connie St. Louis, who brought down Sir Tim Hunt.

Sources:

For Ivan Oransky: http://yalemedicine.yale.edu/autumn2014/people/alumni/204173 for Oransky

For Connie St Louis: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3141158/A-flawed-accuser-Investigation-academic-hounded-Nobel-Prize-winning-scientist-job-reveals-troubling-questions-testimony.html

But, alas, reality always has an unexpected twist. As it turns out, after all the hysteria settled, people started asking what on earth have they done and who the heck are Connie St Louis and Ivan Oransky, who, after all, brought about the downfall of a Nobel laureate. And they came up with some disturbing findings. St Louis’ CV has been allegedly engrossed with plenty of false information. Ivan Oransky of course DID NOT cover these allegations or tried to investigate them in his all-about-transparency blog Retraction Watch or elsewhere.

Both Oransky and St Louis are very loud people, and the readers can draw their own conclusions as to their intrinsic merits. Just to give you an idea of who are we dealing with, St Louis recently called the attempt of eight Nobel laureates at defending Sir Tim Hunt “idiotic”. Ivan Oransky -and his pal Adam Marcus- run the blog Retraction Watch, where they trash scientists’ careers with or without evidence of any wrongdoing (they would’t be able to tell since they are not scientists). When they lack evidence, they simply rely on hearsay generated by a mob of nobodies seeking notoriety or the so-called pubpeers, who are in effect nobody’s peers. Oransky and Marcus do not merely report challenged papers, itself an absurd redundancy, but also take steps to ruin careers by contacting institutions and journals, investing heavily in the downfall of scientists. Strikingly, one of the first and most abhorrent attacks on Sir Tim Hunt was written on June 9 by Cat Ferguson, a notoriously vicious writer whose meteoric career as scientist trasher earned her an internship at Retraction Watch.  In her article, Cat Ferguson appears to be the first to quote Oransky as witness of the incident.

As the defense of Sir Tim Hunt now picks up steam, Oransky is trying to distance himself from the grotesque incident, from the intellectual Chernobyl that he caused, perhaps finally persuaded that the monstrosity that he instigated will not put him in the right light.

A Londoner commenting in the Daily Mail (UK) aptly described the Hunt scandal:

Social Media has turned us all into the baying masses of the medieval witch hunts, with no mediators of our hysterical views, and with the loudest, most ignorant and angry up at the front with their burning tweeting torches.

We at Science Transparency sincerely hope for a swift reversal of this misfortune for Sir Tim Hunt. Sanity will ultimately prevail and University College London will hopefully grant Sir Tim Hunt due process of law and reinstate him, and this because the UK has not yet receded into the Dark Ages, we hope. As it has been lucidly stated by Howard Jacobson: “A university which is a hotbed of offence-taking is not a university but an ideological prison camp and indoctrination center“. Like all people brought up in the democratic tradition, we endorse the view that the freedom of thought supersedes the right of women to enjoy equal respect to men.

PEOPLE OPINE ON THE CHARACTER ASSASSINATION OF SIR TIM HUNT (https://www.change.org/p/university-college-london-reinstate-tim-hunt-2)

P.C.A. Sims NEW YORK, NY: Hysterical overreaction to a non-issue.

Gerald Hallam BUCKLAND MONACHORUM, UK: The speech in question and its total meaning were taken out of context to facilitate a mean, vicious and abhorrent attack on a decent man.

Kim Nasmyth OXFORD, UK: I have known Tim for over thirty years and know that he is not a misogynist.

Michael Collins BYFLEET, UK: I believe those who have forced Tim Hunt to resign have bowed to pressure from a rather extreme and unpleasant group of people who should be examining their own conduct.

Daphne Gilbert STOCKSFIELD, UK: I believe in Free Speech. Decisions should not be forced by hysterical Twitter mobs. What next? Burning at the stake? These people are a disgrace and are setting dangerous precedents.

Eric Tarkington ATLANTA, GA: University College appears to have been stampeded by a hateful mob that only thinks in sound bites. This is cowardice at best. Reinstatement is not enough — UCL should be begging for forgiveness!

Dean Brickland TULLAMORE, IRELAND: People need to stop pandering to idiots.

Simon Brady SOUTHAMPTON, UK: Stop giving power to the stupid.

Christina Hoff Sommers WASHINGTON, DC: Tim Hunt made a mildly silly comment. His persecutors are the guilty ones here. They behaved like vicious bullies.

Matthew Ventham HAILSHAM, UK: I dislike intolerance of other people’s views and disproportionate responses to petty trivia.

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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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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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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Cat Ferguson, Character Assassination, Corruption, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Hilda Bastian, Ivan Oransky, JATdS, Joshua Cherry, Leonid Schneider, Mass hysteria, Misconduct, NCBI, NIH, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, PubMed, PubMed Commons, Reporting Retractions, Reporting Science Retractions, Research Integrity, Retraction Watch, Retractions, Science, Scientific corruption, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication, Scientific Research, Suicide, Transparency

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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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, 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”…”.

Oransky
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.

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