There are zombie papers, those are the long-discredited or even misconduct-riddled publications, which somehow avoid retractions and continue contaminating scientific literature. The “Arsenic Life” paper in Science is such a parade example, but also cancer and stem research hide an impressive collection of zombie papers.

Zombie scientists are those once renowned researchers, who were caught on misconduct and had their papers retracted, yet were still able to retain their faculty positions, where they teach students and sometimes even receive funding and continue publishing. This might appear somewhat cynical, given how many good and honest scientists struggle to keep a foot in the door or are forced to give up academia and search for “alternative careers”.

A recent glitch in the website of the clinical research centre Forschungszentrum Borstel in northern Germany brought back an old and seemingly forgotten case of research misconduct. A list of 12 retractions of the Italian immunologist Silvia Bulfone-Paus appeared last week as a “Pressenotiz”, and soon disappeared. It is however still available in Google cache. The Scientific Officer Bettina Brand explained that it was the same press release as the one published on March 21st 2011.

Bulfone-Paus is well known to regular RetractionWatch readers, her last count was at 13 retractions. Originally, data manipulations in numerous of her publications were made public by an anonymous whistle-blower, using cover names like “Fernando Pessoa”, “Marco Berns” and seemingly, the legendary “Clare Francis” as well. Basically, he (for it is likely a “he”, and I used to communicate with him some time ago by email) did what is nowadays rather common on PubPeer. In 2010 however, it was deemed a “smear campaign”. An indignant Nature editorial spoke of a “trial-by-Internet” and lamented that “little can be done to stop” the anonymous accuser. Maybe just as well, for who knows what would have happened (or rather, not happened), without that public dissemination of damning evidence.

Until then, Bulfone-Paus used to be director of the Department of Immunology at the Forschungszentrum Borstel, from which she retreated already in December 2010. She also had a tenured professorship at the University of Lübeck, which she resigned from soon after the investigation into her misconduct by the German state funder DFG was concluded. Bulfone-Paus was seemingly exonerated by the DFG: her two Russian postdocs took the exclusive responsibility for data manipulations, while their professor was only found guilty of “gross negligence of her supervisory duty” and banned from DFG funding for 3 years. Yet, Bulfone-Paus’ research career in Germany was obviously untenable.

Ethics and integrity

Strikingly though, Bulfone-Paus retained her immunobiology professorship at the University of Manchester, where she currently leads a research group of 5 scientists at the Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research (MCCIR). As Times Higher Education reported in 2011, “the University of Manchester announced that it did not believe the concerns about the papers merited a formal investigation”. Since the unpleasant career stutter in 2011/2012, what with the 13 retraction and losing highly paid professorships in Germany, Bulfone-Paus was able to publish five papers. No, not at all with some obscure or predatory publishers. In fact, she was very welcome as author with the subscription publishers Wiley, at the European Journal of Immunology and the journal Allergy, and most recently with Taylor & Francis, at their journal OncoImmunology.  Bulfone-Paus even published with PLOS One, a paper largely consisting of Excel diagrams. This is of course a very wise choice, once one had so much trouble with manipulated images.

It is puzzling why the journals do not blacklist such scientists. Science operates largely on trust, and Bulfone-Paus has destroyed it. What evidence is there for the Manchester faculty and the journal editors as well as peer reviewers that Bulfone-Paus research has suddenly become trustworthy? It seems in this context rather ironic that same publisher Taylor & Francis has banned the scientist Jaime Teixeira da Silva for “continuing challenges” and using “inflammatory language”. One can safely assume that Bulfone-Paus would never employ untoward wordings with her manuscript submissions to this or any other publisher, and this is apparently all what counts.

Update 10.06.2016. Bulfone-Paus now received funding from Cancer Research UK, in form of the “Cancer Immunology Project Award“. Question remains: is this charity money, donated by many idealistic citizens, really in good hands here?

Other examples of Zombie Scientists are:

  • The German stem cell researcher Thomas Skutella, who had to retract a Nature paper due to unavailability of reagents and irreproducibility (see my German-language report in Laborjournal). He won a court case against University of Heidelberg, which intended to sack him. As I learned from a reliable source, Skutella was banned by his university employer from any research and has no institutional access to a laboratory. He now uses his external collaborations to continue publishing research papers.
  • The Italian cancer researcher Alfredo Fusco, entrenched as professor of pathology at the Napolitan University “Federico II”, and seemingly indestructible. He scored according to RetractionWatch already 8 retractions, and is being investigated by Italian justice. Yet Fusco keeps intensely on publishing, and he is also, despite everything, still valued as associate editor at Frontiers in Medicine. There are credible rumours however that Fusco was recently cut off from the Italian public funding by the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR).

 

And then of course, there is Olivier Voinnet.

9 thoughts on “Zombie Scientists

  1. In plant science, following the footsteps of Olivier Voinnet, two attractive (because of their lovely smiles) and one exquisite (because of the colourful turbans he tends to use in public meetings) high-profile zombies. The fourth zombie pretends he doesn’t understand the content of communications about his flawed literature. There is also a fifth category of zombie, of the mute type, that relies on silence to substitute for accountability, but I limit my list to four for now. Search for them in PubPeer: the entries make for entertaining reading. Some of them also have some incredible awards and prizes for their academic achievements.

    I can say that all these zombies are:
    a) highly protected by the powerful institutes they are in who see fame and position to be perhaps, a step above publishing ethics;
    b) given a free pass by the COPE member journals whose policies and guidelines they have violated, while COPE conveniently looks the other way.

    Samir C. Debnath
    President of the Canadian Society for Horticultural Science, Canada

    Toyoki Kozai
    Former President of Chiba University, Japan

    Zora Singh
    Professor at Curtin University, Australia

    Mohammad Anis
    Senior Professor at Aligarh Muslim University

    I think we need to turn to the Hunger Games or similar TV series or movies to gather some fresh ideas about how to deal with these zombies. It is clear that zombies are highly resistant to emails, ignore PubPeer and probably zombie-free gadgets like Twitter. I’m thinking of something like a zombie-bazooka…

    I also vote for the inclusion of zombie editors, zombie journals and zombie publishers, the latter category the type that bite hard and leave you bleeding until you die.

    Finally, there is the category of zombie institution. And in plant science, we have the perfect zombie institution: The International Society for Horticultural Science whose cornerstone journal, Acta Horticulturae, is full of scientifically flawed papers, papers with self-plagiarism and plagiarism, duplicated data, tables and figures, all unattributed, of course, but bringing in a productive flow of profit to the publisher, which claims to be the greatest, most ethical and grandest in the history of global horticulture.

    So, at least in plant science, the zombie culture is alive and well, with lots of blood to give.

    I am curious what other areas of science have such a zombie-friendly niche as plant science? Cancer perhaps?

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    1. Erratum: zombies should be referred to as potentially soon-to-be zombies as they are still in successful, high ranking positions without having suffered any retractions.

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  2. A fascinating blog post. It would be interesting to look at this in more depth.
    You could gather a wider dataset to see what careers those who have a clear track record of publishing manipulated data are now in. Are there effects of scale? Are there others implicated, but not formally investigated/charged, so perhaps there has been a degree of damage limitation, as may have occurred in the Melendez case? Are there differences between countries?
    Retraction Watch has enough data for these questions to be addressed.

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    1. There are other examples of Zombie Scientists:
      – Gizem Dönmez (http://retractionwatch.com/2014/10/16/neuroscientist-who-threatened-to-sue-science-fraud-org-retracted-two-papers-is-out-at-tufts/), the one who sued Paul Brookes, is (as I was informed) now medicine faculty member at the Adnan Menderes University in her homeland Turkey http://www.akademik.adu.edu.tr/fakulte/med/?idx=313235
      – Charles Vacanti, probably THE mastermind behind the STAP-fraud (http://www.labtimes.org/editorial/e_497.lasso). He is still listed as Director of the Center for Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine at Brigham&Women’s Hospital in Harvard: http://research.bwhanesthesia.org/research-groups/cterm It is however less certain if he really still works there. In fact,
      – Piero Anversa is still listed as faculty member at the same institute as well: http://research.bwhanesthesia.org/faculty/piero-anversa he seems to have moved on to work in Switzerland, likely at the Cardiocentro Ticino: https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/is-piero-anversa-heading-to-cardiocentro-ticino-in-switzerland/

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