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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TOP: How Science magazine plans to deal with the intrusion of social media

Not long ago Science Editor Marcia McNutt published an appalling editorial entitled “Due process in the twitter age“, where she claimed that social media created an anxiety and added a sense of urgency to the post-publication peer review (PPPR) of reported scientific research. In a post at Science Transparency, we swiftly retorted that if the scientific establishment kept paying attention to blogs like Retraction Watch to conduct their business, they will only have themselves to blame for the current crisis. In our post we felt compelled to quote a Londoner from the Daily Mail (UK) who described the intrusion of social media in the most eloquent terms:

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.

It would seem that Science magazine has decided to review their own position regarding how they intend to deal with the piracy of PPPR by social media. Marcia McNutt now claims that Science magazine will spearhead the implementation of TOP (Transparency and Openness Promotion), a set of new standards of transparency and reproducibility for the publication of scientific research. This initiative is inspired by the policy forum piece “Promoting an Open Research Culture” published in Science nearly an year ago. In fact, at Science Transparency we argued in support of this policy.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Brooks, Henry Jamyn (1865-1925); The Royal Institution, London, UK.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Brooks, Henry Jamyn (1865-1925); The Royal Institution, London, UK.

Transparency, availability of raw data, and full disclosure of all tools required by a person skilled in the art to reproduce the work is surely all that is needed to ensure the validity of reported research. This is true today as it was three centuries ago, when scientists were asked to perform their experiments in front of an audience at the Royal Institution. At Science Transparency we welcome the implementation of these TOP protocols as the best route to do away with corruption in science and to end the current hysteria promoted by social media in regards to the reproducibility crisis, real or perceived.

 

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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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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.

________________________________________

RELATED READING

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.

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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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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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