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, 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.

Adam Marcus, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Fraud, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Office of Research Integrity, Peer Review, Research Integrity, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Science, Scientific Misconduct

Debunking Retraction Watch and its Easy Route to Fame

Science is undeniably hard. First you come to grips with failure in the lab and when you finally believe you got it right, another front opens up: the quest to pass peer review and get your findings published in a good journal. These days, a new cloud looms over the embattled researcher right at the end of the publication pipeline: Post publication peer review (PPPR). PPPR has become the new way to challenge publications, at least that is what the self-published blog “Retraction Watch” by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky would like us to believe as they relentlessly report retractions and other sins and ruin reputations right and left. Calling PPPR peer review is of course a misnomer, since no real established peers are known to be involved, or enable their credentials to be checked, and no serious editorial participation of peers is involved at this post publication stage.  PPPR is, for all we know and from what we have seen, a trigger-happy operation, conducted by a horde mostly hiding in anonymity and driven by anger and rage, seeking to get their easy share of fame.

In essence, the McCarthyian agenda of PPPR is drawn by journalists (it takes all kinds) and by angry people who, often emboldended by anonymity, comment in Retraction Watch (one of them signs “Hater Jonny”) and in other aberrations, as they hysterically seek to find a place in history by vilifying scientists. Marcus, Oransky and the hatred troupe are a very diverse bunch: while “Hater Jonny” writes only seldom, other haters like “JATdS” or “Neuroskeptic” contribute abundantly, writing veritable essays as they keep sending scientists to the scaffolds.

What motivates Marcus, Oransky and the post-publication transparency champions to embark in their retraction watchdog crusade?  Not the quest for transparency, of course, otherwise they would play by the rules of science and demand that the post-publication challengers submit their comments to the incumbent journals seeking publication which would be granted provided, of course, that their comments successfully pass peer review. Transparency or fair play would then dictate that the author who has presumably sinned be given the chance to retort within the same forum and subject to the same rules of publication.

The motivation of the post-publication transparency champions is likely to be very different. Doing great science is hard, and yet there are easier routes to fame and one such route is to “bring down the phonies”, to paraphrase the novel “The Catcher in the Rye”. The frame of mind of the transparency champions is more akin to “I cannot do great science (or anything creative for that matter) so those who can surely must be phonies, right?” Wrong!

If this sounds familiar it is simply because it fits into an ancient psychological pattern (“sour grapes”), first illustrated by Aesop and probably as old as human civilization.  It took a grotesque and tragic turn in the John Lennon assassination at the hands of Mark David Chapman, a criminal obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye” and the “anti-phoniness” message.

Let us hope the science journals recover their lost ground and drive away the angry hordes as they regain the transparency territory. Scientific McCarthyism will only come to an end when the scientific establishment tightens up peer review.