False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!

False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!

Open Science is these days largely about mandatory publishing in Open Access (OA), regardless of the costs to poorer scientists or the universities which already struggle to pay horrendous subscription fees. Meanwhile, publishers openly declare that the so-called Gold (author-pays) OA will be much more expensive than even current subscription rates, yet wealthy western institutions like the Dutch university network VSNU or the German Max Planck Society do not seem troubled by this at all. They seriously expect the publishing oligopoly of Elsevier, SpringerNature and Wiley to lower the costs for Gold OA later on, out of the goodness of their hearts (as this winter’s invitation-only Berlin12 OA conference suggests).

At the last major Open Science conference in Amsterdam on April 4-5 (EU2016NL) the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas and EC Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, announced to achieve the flip to Gold OA by 2020. Open Data, on the other hand, is just a buzzword to them.

Below, I will argue that Open Data is much more important than OA, which in turn will be much cheaper and easier to achieve once unconditional sharing of research data is in place. Continue reading “False priorities at EU2016NL: Mandate Open Data instead of Gold Open Access!”

The stem cell faith healers, or magic inside your bone marrow

The stem cell faith healers, or magic inside your bone marrow

Bone marrow stem cells are magic, they can do everything. If you don’t believe it, you are simply a loser scientist and will never get funded.

Prior to his bombastic fall from grace, the celebrity surgeon and professor of regenerative medicine Paolo Macchiarini was considered a genius stem cell wizard and a miracle healer. He not only fully trusted bone marrow cells to generate any kind of tissue inside his patients, nay, he also published his results in highest profile journals like The Lancet (which, by standard academic definition, is proof enough that his theory and methods were valid). Macchiarini did not chase money, neither funding nor salary, it was chasing him. Even after media revealed mass patient deaths and gross inconsistency between Macchiarini’s published reports and the actual medical files of his patients, the Elsevier-run Lancet is reluctant to retract his papers.

Simply put, the faith in the force of the bone marrow stem cells is stronger than their science. These cells are often referred to as mesenchymal stem cells; basically they are those undifferentiated cells from the bone marrow which do not carry the established markers of hematopoietic (blood-generating) stem cells.  What these “mesenchymal stem cells” are actually a mixture of, and which types of cells or tissues they are really able to differentiate into, is still a subject of an ongoing research. Unless you are a stem cell believer, that is, then you don’t bother with such details. Continue reading “The stem cell faith healers, or magic inside your bone marrow”

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

Many scientists have been receiving unsolicited emails from the Swiss publisher Frontiers, with invitations to submit papers or become peer review “editor” with this Open Access (OA) publisher. In fact, the Holtzbrick-owned Frontiers are occasionally criticized for these activities, which were compared to spamming. These “spam” emails however are not written by robots, but by actual human beings, usually interns. Many of them do not seem very happy about their jobs with Frontiers, as one can read at the employer-evaluation portal Glassdoor. Most of the criticism is directed against middle management, who, as I have previously shown, sometimes nonchalantly manage academic topics way outside of their professional competence.

Now, you can learn what goes on inside the Frontiers “spam” factory from a first-hand source.  I was approached by a reader of my website, who turned out to be a former full-time employee at Frontiers. This person told me that the Frontiers interns (who are recruited for a 6 month period, as advertised here) were expected to write 200 emails a day, canvassing academics to submit papers to this for-profit OA publisher:

This threshold was recommended to all interns by the journal managers based on one “exemplary” staff employee, who could actually send these many emails. The messages included canned follow-up responses to potential authors clarifying what Frontiers is [see Q&A list below, -LS], a similar correspondence with editors, and reminders about the papers undergoing peer-review. Since we sent these emails from shared journal email accounts, everyone could see their quality. It was clear to me that the quantity over quality was an approach applied there. The journal managers asked us to use only template responses, word for word. It was more acting like a robot, without support from permanent staff members”.

Continue reading “Fear and Loathing at Frontiers”

A personal tale of scientific misconduct

A personal tale of scientific misconduct

The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo was found guilty of “negligence in handling and presenting data” in her publications by the European life science society EMBO; she and her doctoral advisor Manel Esteller also had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics 41, 365–370, 2009). Despite further image irregularities in his other publications (where Melo was not a co-author), Esteller was tasked by his Spanish research institution IDIBELL to investigate himself.  As Principal Investigator (PI) he cannot be responsible to vouchsafe data integrity in his own papers, decreed IDIBELL leadership (of which he is actually part of).

The French plant scientist Olivier Voinnet still enjoys full institutional protection of his Swiss university ETH Zürich, despite his self-admitted misconduct. However, before he acknowledged to have been excessively manipulating data in his own papers, his subordinate researcher Patrice Dunoyer accepted sole responsibility. When the first retraction (of currently seven) hit, the retraction notice  of Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell 2004 read: “We wish to state that the first author, Patrice Dunoyer, was solely involved in generating the erroneous figure panels”. Dunoyer’s reward for such loyalty: despite a confidential CNRS investigation against him, he was also allowed to remain in his permanent position as group leader.

Most recently, Cell Press was faced with a dilemma. It was contacted by a junior author, Yao-Yun Liang, who admitted to have “manipulated the experiments to achieve predetermined results” in the papers in Cell and Molecular Cell. It is safe to assume this whistleblower also provided solid evidence, since Cell Press issued two Expressions of Concern (here and here). The last author, Xin-Hua Feng from Baylor College of Medicine in USA, denied everything “citing concerns about Liang’s motives and credibility”. Yet, this being Cell of Elsevier, the publisher simply tasked Feng with investigating himself. He was invited to reproduce the flagged experiments elsewhere, presumably followed by some “Voinnetting”, namely to use those to correct his manipulated paper. Unfortunately, I did not succeed reaching out to Liang, also his past collaborators did not know his current whereabouts. Feng, unsurprisingly, did not reply at all.

One can continue listing ad nauseam examples of retractions, corrections and expressions of concern where a junior author was assigned the exclusive blame, while the PI was presented as a hapless victim. It seems labs all over the world are truly infested by ruthless scheming PhD students and postdocs, whose only goal in life is to bite the hand that feeds them. The innocent PI is guilty of nothing more than keeping such snakes at his honest bosom, this is at least how universities and journals like to publicly present the instances of research misconduct. No-one wants reputational damage or loss of funding to hit their faculty, or to lose important contributors of exciting research papers. However, the reality is often somewhat more complicated. Continue reading “A personal tale of scientific misconduct”

Frontiers’ Bread Madness

The journal Frontiers in Human Neurosciences now published a paper titled: “Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease“. It is authored by two psychologists, Paola Bressan and Peter Kramer from the Department of General Psychology at University of Padova in Italy, and claims “in non-technical, plain English” that mental diseases such as schizophrenia and autism are caused by bread (yes, you read right, bread). In their “review article” Bressan and Kramer claim to provide evidence that bread gluten makes “holes in our gut”, thus activating an immune response, and is degraded into opioid substances (“some of them resemble morphine extremely much”). The casein in milk has allegedly exactly the same effect, and cure for “schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and autism” is possible by adhering to a strict bread- and milk-free diet. In fact, other staple foods might make you mad as well, as authors conclude:

“Bread is the very symbol of food, and learning that it can threaten our mental wellbeing may come as a shock to many. Yet bread is not alone; like it, other foodstuffs, such as milk, rice, and corn, release exorphins during digestion”.

Though the paper appeared on March 29th, it was meant seriously and not as an April 1st joke. Continue reading “Frontiers’ Bread Madness”

Academic self-plagiarism: misconduct or a literary art form?

Academic self-plagiarism: misconduct or a literary art form?

Plagiarism, the misappropriation of the (usually written) work of others in order to present it as one’s own, is universally regarding as academic misconduct. A number of German politicians and even government ministers saw their stellar careers damaged (sometimes beyond repair), and their beloved doctorate degrees occasionally taken away, after they were discovered to have plagiarized large sections of their dissertations.

But what about self-plagiarism, where scientists recycle their own texts and data for new papers, and occasionally even re-publish entire articles (with minor changes)? Most journals, keen to publish original works only, do not allow self-plagiarism. But the science publisher and Open Access pioneer Jan Velterop even suggests that self-plagiarism should be an acceptable or even welcome thing in academic publishing.

Debora Weber-Wulff, professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and THE specialist for plagiarism detection, disagrees. She is one of the contributors of the anti-plagiarism platform VroniPlag Wiki where the above-mentioned German politicians and many medical doctors were exposed for stealing texts for their own dissertations. Here is what Weber-Wulff told me: Continue reading “Academic self-plagiarism: misconduct or a literary art form?”

Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites

Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites

Olivier Voinnet, the disgraced former star plant scientist and professor at ETH Zürich, is apparently on extended sick leave, his lab members have been redistributed to other research groups inside the faculty. This I learned from several independent sources, which made the information sufficiently reliable to share here. Previously, Voinnet was investigated by two expert commissions, one very secret by CNRS at his former Institut de Biologie Moleculaire des Plantes (IBMP), and another, more transparent one, at ETH (report here, my overview of the Voinnet scandal here). There, the investigative team comprised of four peers, two of whom were Voinnet’s faculty colleagues, and one was Witold Filipowicz, professor at Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. Filipowicz had been evaluating Voinnet’s research as IBMP review board member in 2008, before he nominated him for the 2009 EMBO Gold Medal:

“Olivier Voinnet’s discoveries represent true breakthroughs in his field. He has written several illuminating reviews recently, and participated as a speaker in many prestigious meetings. I consider him to be one of the most talented, original and effective young scientists”.

Update 8.04.2016: The supposedly impartial Voinnet investigator Filipowicz was also a recipient of the 2014 Chaire Gutenberg at Voinnet’s own IBMP as well as neighbouring IBMC in Strassbourg. The Gutenberg Chair is financed by the Alsace Region and the Urban Community of Strasbourg  with € 60,000 of which € 10,000 went to Filipowicz personally as ‘Gutenberg Prize’ and € 50,000 were awarded to his host, the teams of LabEx NetRNA of IBMP and IBMC. Coincidently, one of LabEx NetRNA teams is still headed by Voinnet’s  IBMP lab keeper and key partner in data manipulation, Patrice Dunoyer.

Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the ETH investigative commission concluded that Voinnet’s research was still largely reliable, despite his inexplicably compulsive urge to manipulate his perfectly good experimental data. As ETH press release then announced, Voinnet research was “Conducted properly – published incorrectly”. Well, this depends what ETH leadership understands under proper research.

Below I will show evidence from Voinnet’s peers that the published experimental evidence for his bold discoveries was shaky even before the data manipulations were discovered. Finally, I could not find a single lab which could confirm to me that they reproduced his results. Continue reading “Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites”