Adam Marcus, Anonymous Peer Review, Blog, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Clare Francis, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Donald Trump, Expression of concern, Ivan Oransky, John Ioannidis, Joshua Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, Reporting Retractions, Research Integrity, Retraction Watch, Science, Science blogs, Science Journalism, Science Transparency, Scientific corruption, US President

Anonymous peer review is fine, while anonymous post-publication review is not

When a scientist submits a paper for publication to a journal, he entrusts the journal editor with the task of finding peers would be able to review the paper and are knowledgeable enough to assess its scientific merit. The names of the reviewers are typically concealed to the author. The intent is to grant the reviewer complete freedom in his candid assessment without fear of retaliation. The system is imperfect, very much so, but during the last three centuries scientists have not managed to come up with anything better.

Post-publication peer review (PPPR), on the other hand, cannot be said to be imperfect. It is not even wrong. It is a grotesque aberration. PPPR is usually anonymous but in this case we have absolutely no assurance that the reviewer of the paper is a peer of the author, that is, someone capable of passing serious judgment, or rather someone with an ax to grind launching his or her personal attack. There is simply no editor that arbitrates PPPR, just reporters or science outsiders, like Ivan Oransky, who typically know nothing of the scientific subject of the paper and who merely reproduce a note in a journal or a piece of gossip or an opinion without adding any value. The consequences of this lack of leadership are dire for science: about 90% of the attacks launched by Oransky’s blog Retraction Watch under the pseudonym Clare Francis are either false or lacking merit, even if they manage to elicit an “expression of concern” (an illegality stigmatizing a person presumed innocent unless proven guilty). If US president Donald Trump branded reporters as a pathetic dishonest bunch, just imagine what he would have to say about blogs like Retraction Watch, where the founding reporters usually know nothing about the science related to their mini-scandals.

 

Oransky

This atmosphere of dishonesty provides a fertile soil for PPPR, where a few snipers like Joshua L. Cherry (NIH/NCBI?) strive. As readers may recall, Joshua L. Cherry has been identified by Science Transparency. Cherry is truly obsessed (read Cherry’s exchange with Prof. John Ioannidis), but unfortunately not with producing good science. When he launches personal attacks, Cherry disguises under multiple pseudonyms and e-mails, he cowardly shoots from the shadows, yet his style remains unmistakable: He obsessively insists in performing statistical analysis of large datasets with no scientific understanding of the data, or obsessively tries to reproduce data in a field he knows nothing about, failing miserably. Unfortunately, Joshua L. Cherry is the kind of byproduct that Retraction Watch and other such blogs generate. Were it not for the lack of leadership in PPPR, Cherry would have probably remained a scientist perhaps not incapable of generating interesting ideas. Yet, like many at Retraction Watch, he got trapped in futile battles against windmills.

As the Romans used to say: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor ( I see the best and verify it, but I follow the worst). Tragic, tragic…

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美国国立卫生研究院, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, John Ioannidis, National Institutes of Health, NIH, NIH funding, Peer Review, Principal Investigator, Research grant, Study Section

Peer Review: Is NIH Rewarding Talent?

In a striking analysis published in Nature, Stanford University researcher John Ioannidis, the expert on metadata investigation at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, has seriously questioned the way the National Institutes of Health fund research proposals. He and his colleague Joshua Nicholson have argued in what seems like a rousing condemnation of the status quo that peer-review, the process by which study sections review and rank research applications, is totally broken.  The researchers argued that peer review at NIH (简称) encourages “conformity, if not mediocrity”, favoring proposals submitted by people who know how to network and play the petty games of academic sociology, rather than those by people who have original and potentially influential ideas.

These conclusions rest heavily on the observation that only 40 percent of scientists with highly cited papers (say, those with more than 1000 citations) are principal investigators on NIH grants. That is, those scientists whose peers value their work most highly are often not receiving NIH support for that work.

Of course, the analysis may be imperfect. Here is my critique for one: Using high citation level as a proxy for originality is probably not entirely correct (but then what is a good proxy for originality?). It is also possible that a good percentage of these investigators have not even applied for NIH funding in the first place. And, finally, they may have other sources of support for their research, most likely, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (should we then conclude that HHMI funds more original research than NIH?).

It is perhaps true that the peer review system is broken. The majority of the authors of the most influential papers in medicine and the life sciences seem not to have NIH funding according to Ioannidis and Nicholson, and their funding rate is possibly less than average. Perhaps the most disturbing observation, the one that truly needs the closest scrutiny, is that study section members are almost always funded while their citation impact is typically low or average: they are not the high-impact innovators.

This leaves us with a sad reflection. Probably a truly innovative idea cannot be appreciated by the peers, while if peers can readily grasp it (to the level they are willing to fund it), it is probably not innovative.

NIH is seemingly aware of this problem and has earnestly tried to address these concerns introducing specific award categories such as the Pioneer and New Innovator Awards. Perhaps Ioannidis and Nicholson may be willing to evaluate the efficacy of these categories in capturing true talent.

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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).

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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Argentina, Clare Francis, Defamation, Expression of concern, Fazlul Sarkar, First Amendment to US Constitution, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, lawsuit, Michigan Court of Appeals, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, protected free speech, PubPeer, Retraction Watch, Scientific publication, Sock puppetry, Wayne State University

Retraction Watch, Clare Francis, the Mockery of the First Amendment and a Recent Court Order

The blog Retraction Watch plays a game both dangerous and revolting. By making a travesty of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, Retraction Watch has allegedly managed to generate and propagate slander while protecting the anonymity of their tipsters. A recent Court order indicates that this allegedly venal practice will eventually come to an end, possibly making Retraction Watch the target of massive lawsuits.

On the surface, Retraction Watch appears to be a broadcaster of post publication “peer reviews” (whose peers?) that prompt a reaction in scientific journals, motivating the publication of a note, expression of concern or even a retraction notice in case of invalid data. In reality, Retraction Watch is served by what allegedly constitutes a serial defamation ring. The ring often (not always) feeds on comments from angry people with no verifiable credentials, who are typically not the peers of any reputable scientist. These people hide in anonymity to launch their attacks. This modus operandi is of course the despicable way of cowards and is usually fuelled by sheer career frustration: “I am failing, so those who succeed must be phonies, etc.” The angry individuals publish their comments in tributary blogs like PubPeer or simply convey their “critiques” to Ivan Oransky or Adam Marcus, founders of Retraction Watch. These comments are then conveyed to the journals usually in coercive defamatory terms and often under the pseudonym Clare Francis. Clare Francis, or others serving directly the interests of Retraction Watch, allegedly threaten and intimidate the journals and institutions and use words highly reminiscent of Oransky’s style, such as: “many think of this as scientific misconduct”. This wording is naively intended to avoid the defamation lawsuit (not for long). Once Clare Francis or others allegedly on behalf of Oransky manage to elicit a reaction from the journal or institution allegedly under duress, Retraction Watch immediately jumps in and broadcasts the published note, expression of concern or retraction usually in defamatory terms. This leaves us wondering why Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man by the Swiss Radio and Television (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft).

Oransky

Ivan Oransky portrayed at Yale Medicine.

As they allegedly intimidate journals and institutions, Clare Francis or Oransky, or a person on his behalf, brings up PubPeer “investigations”, as if PubPeer were reporting investigations carried out by scientific peers. This in itself constitutes a gross distortion of reality. Thus, the Oransky clique allegedly intimidates the journals within a defamatory context that includes wording like “many people believe this constitutes misconduct”. Not surprisingly, many of these accusations prove to be incorrect, as PubPeer contributors are usually not scientific peers. Yet, a damage is done to the scientist reputation as Retraction Watch hastily publishes the journal reaction it has allegedly elicited through intimidation and coercion.

Most of the time (not always), the Retraction Watch tipsters only have a vested interest in harming the person they target. A case in point is Joshua L. Cherry, a presumed NIH software contractor embarked in a crusade against a specific researcher. The dishonesty of these tipsters is evidenced by the fact that they operate hiding in anonymity as they seek to destroy careers by feeding into Oransky’s blog. Joshua Cherry and others go even further: They seek institutional involvement and immediately inform Retraction Watch on any reaction. Oransky or his cohort of angry people (including the tipsters) then allegedly coerce the journals and institutions seeking to elicit a quick reaction which Oransky (Clare Francis, etc.) demands must be published. Once this is done, the note (expression of concern, correction request, etc.) is immediately disseminated to the general public by the blog Retraction Watch sometimes within a libelous context. This is done even before the results of a formal investigation are known or the validity of the accusations is scientifically established. The alleged slandering is serially committed by Retraction Watch and its associated ring and pipelined along the PubPeer – Oransky axis.

Recent developments, specifically, a court order, suggest that this alleged venality may soon come to an end, with dire consequences for Retraction Watch and its cohort. Prof. Fazlul Sarkar is a professor at Wayne State University who may have lost a generous job offer because of scathing comments about his research posted on PubPeer and channeled into the Retraction Watch defamatory apparatus. His attorney 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 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.”

No kidding! This statement cannot pass even the most basic scrutiny! 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 may just be the pseudonym for an angry person who hates Fazlul Sarkar or someone with a vested interest in his downfall (like the Retraction Watchers). There is not a shred of evidence that the reported anomalies were detected by a competent scholar, that they are scientifically sound or that they were generated by anybody even coming close to be named a peer of Fazlul Sarkar.

b)      Where is the proof that Clare Francis is reporting on a matter of public interest? It could just be that Clare 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 is surely a personal matter, not a matter of public interest.

c)       How do we know the slanderer of Prof. Sarkar is being honest? He is most likely 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 like the US.

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 attacking? Clare Francis is not revealing his scientific credentials! Strikingly some journals took him seriously and a few still do.

e)      Given that the person using Clare Francis pseudonym is most likely dishonest, and not a scientific peer of Dr. Sarkar, we obviously cannot assert that the case weakens the foundation of scientific research in any way.

We remain hopeful that the alleged serial defamation ring and venal operation described in this post will soon be brought to justice. With the help of the journals that have been contacted by Clare Francis (or others serving the interests of Retraction Watch) we would be in an ideal position to recruit the necessary elements for formidable lawsuits that will bring to a halt this abominable practice.

RECENT COMMENT

LIPING XIE says:

First and foremost, who says PubPeer contributors are scientific peers of anyone??? Nobody has verified whether they really are!!! This is complete nonsense and the way Retraction Watch harvests and uses the PubPeer feedback is absolutely revolting!

UPDATE FROM MAY 24, 2015

It is odd that we continue to have this discussion on these nobodies taking shots at people doing research, Cardiff University in the UK already led the way and did the right thing. Its policy now in place as described here enables automatic dismissal of all the incognito attacks from PubPeer, Clare Francis, Ivan Oransky and their associated haters!

 

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