The Olivier Voinnet scandal of almost two decades-long research misconduct and data manipulations has reached its logical conclusion. The French plant pathogen researcher, and everyone who helped him manipulating and publishing dishonest (and occasionally retracted) papers was either forgiven or declared as fully reformed. The siRNA-co-discoverer Voinnet who, cynically put, was too big to fail, remained professor at ETH Zürich and kept his ERC funding. He is meanwhile back to publishing in exactly the same elite journals where he had to retract and correct papers for manipulations. Of all his “partners-in-crime”, only his dependent right-hand man (or sidekick) Patrice Dunoyer was ever investigated, and as punishment suspended for an entire month by his French employer CNRS. His lab was about to be dissolved, but the Nature Publishing Group came to rescue and accepted his paper (Incarbone et al 2017) just in the nick of time (it’s not even Dunoyer’s only recent publishing success, another one is Montavon et al 2017 in Nucleic Acids Research). The accompanying editorial in Nature Plants, written by the chief editor Chris Surridge can only be described as bizarre, and is titled: “Giving research a sporting chance“. Surridge, who apparently sees data manipulation as a professional sports in race with doping detectives, wrote:
“Dunoyer has been a long-time colleague and collaborator of Olivier Voinnert, and recently a number of their studies, three with Dunoyer as first author, have been retracted while a number more have had formal corrections published to address problems with presented data. However, these instances were investigated by the CNRS and Dunoyer served a temporary suspension as a result. We therefore treated the study we received as we would any other. It was accepted following two rounds of review, during which it was seen by four reviewers. The published paper contains substantial supplementary information (SI). Along with 10 additional figures, there are a further 12 pages presenting the raw data from which the presented figures have been assembled”.
Continue reading “Voinnet’s sidekick Dunoyer welcomed at Nature Plants, despite retractions and admitted misconduct”
Roland Lill is the quiet star of German molecular biology. The 63-year old professor works at the University of Marburg, on mitochondria, using yeast as a model organism. Lill is also since 2014 member of the Senate at the German Research Foundation (DFG), re-elected just recently, where he represents the interests of German molecular biologists and decides on federal funding distribution and research policies. Since 2016, the Marburg professor is also Senator for Biochemistry and Biophysics at the Leopoldina, which is the German Academy of Sciences. Furthermore, Lill is EMBO member since 2013 and he also used to be Fellow of the Max Planck Society.
Lill’s research focus is on iron-sulfur biogenesis, and his achievements for German science are indeed strong as iron, as evident by his awards and medals (including the Leibniz Prize of €1.55 Mn in 2003), his impressive funding acquisition success and publication record. Recently however, a sulfuric smell of rotten eggs emitted from the whistleblowing platform PubPeer, tainting his legacy. Currently 9 Lill papers are affected, the evidence looks worrisome, and might indicate possible data manipulations. Mostly it is about apparently duplicated gel bands. Luckily however, most papers are 13 and more years old, nobody would expect Professor Lill to have stored the original data for so long, even if it was ever available. The despicable attack on Professor’s Lill research record will be surely thwarted by the journals’ reluctance of dealing with problems in old papers, and of course by the tremendous respect and influence this Senator enjoys in German academia. In fact, both DFG and the two research integrity Ombudspersons of the University of Marburg refused to comment on the PubPeer evidence. Leopoldina announced to me to have the “accusations” addressed by their Ombudsman; DFG mentioned to have had the PubPeer information “forwarded inside the house”.
Continue reading “Data integrity conspiracy against German research senator Roland Lill?”
The EU €1-Billion-Flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) started in 2013 as an closed enterprise run by three men. The triumvirate is no more: the visionary founder Henry Markram sidelined into almost insignificance after a coup, his Lausanne colleague Richard Frackowiak almost retired, only the German Karlheinz Meier, physics professor at University of Heidelberg, still seems to hold quite a lot of sway. The control of HBP is now basically in German hands: the “independent” mediator of the anti-Markram coup and director of Forschungzentrum Jülich (FZJ), Wolfgang Marquardt, is key member of the all-decisive HBP Stakeholder Board representing Germany, his FZJ colleague Katrin Amunts is the new scientific director of HBP. The bombastic goal of HBP used to be simulating the human brain in a supercomputer, including various brain diseases and even consciousness (read here and here for HBP background). That Markram’s “brain child” was silently mothballed, the big plan is now only revealed to select insider audiences (who occasionally blab on Twitter). The once high and mighty Markram, whose not-so-groundbreaking Cell paper (Markram et al, 2015) was once touted as HBP’s mega-success, was apparently forced to publish his recent brain simulation research in his own publishing outlet Frontiers (Reimann et al 2017), where he proclaimed a discovery of nothing less but a “Multi-Dimensional Universe in Brain Networks”. Regardless of what Markram thinks he is doing or what fairy tales HBP graduate students are told: dissolving the monster HBP and redistributing its EU funding onto smaller projects was obviously not an opinion. The new purpose of HBP seems to be:
- distributing the EU Flagship money, in the way HBP see it best fit, thus
- sparing the EU Commission the tedious work of research grant reviewing and management
Continue reading “Human Brain Project and other Flagships: is EU outsourcing funding decisions?”
The MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas and located in Houston, is a giant hub of huge cancer research money, even for US standards. They also do a lot of science there, which only purpose seems to be publishing in big journals in order to generate even more money. If there is any genuine interest to help cancer patients with actual research: this stands in a stark contrast with MD Anderson’s evident attitude to research reproducibility and data integrity. A number of their star researchers who published in most respectable journals papers, had their data flagged on the whistleblowing platform PubPeer as highly problematic. Yet MD Anderson apparently cannot care less. Their star cancer researcher and businessman Raghu Kalluri was never investigated for many problems in his publications, either in those with or those without his misconduct-tainted Portuguese co-author and ex-MD Anderson employee Sonia Melo. When nobody ever investigates your research practices (e.g., because your research institution is blinded by the investor money you brought in), you will per definition never be found guilty of any misconduct. This is probably exactly why the elite journal Nature recently accepted a new paper from the Kalluri lab (Kamerkar et al 2017), on the same topic of exosomes as cancer biomarkers as his irreproducible earlier masterpiece with Melo (Melo et al, Nature 2015). The new Nature paper even again features the same disgraced co-author, who lost a Nature Genetics paper (Melo et al, 2009) and her EMBO Young Investigator funding due to data manipulation.
There is more evidence for research misconduct at MD Anderson. Continue reading “Anil Sood and other questionable stars of MD Anderson”
The court trial against me by German trachea transplanters Heike and Thorsten Walles ended with the settlement in the appeal court in Bamberg. A costly one, which I had to accept, giving the danger of seeing me and my family driven to bankruptcy before the next very costly court instance can even be invoked for my defence, what with the two impending court fines for the alleged breach of the injunction Walles passed against me with the help of a certain evidence-allergic judge in Würzburg. My legal costs tally up to at least €12,000 and I am now stuck with those. On the plus side, none of my own and my generous donors’ money goes to Walles, they have to pay their own lawyers and half of the court fees, which made them very fuming and livid indeed, as their behaviour in the court room showcased. There the married trachea transplanters also made clear that they saw the operation on their 3 patients (described here and here) as successful research. This Walles stance is unblemished by the undisputed fact that their patients received no actual health benefits from those pig-intestine-based tracheal grafts whatsoever, in fact it looks quite the opposite. Thing is, those 3 operations were all performed in 2003, 2007 and 2009 as compassionate use, without any previous animal experiments, appropriate safety tests or in fact any ethics approvals. A question rises if, or rather how far Walles breached the Nuremberg Code of 1947 and the German medicinal product law, which forbid exactly that kind of research on patients. Continue reading “Walles court trial against me ends with “amicable settlement””
Sweden and the international research community recently faced yet another research misconduct scandal. It was about a Science paper by Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, which in 2016 made worldwide headlines with its findings that young fish larvae (or fry), namely Eurasian perch, would eat up plastic pollution like teenagers eat fast food. It soon turned out the research was apparently never performed as described, the original data was missing (allegedly stored only on a laptop, which was then stolen from a car), the results likely made up. The Lönnstedt & Eklöv 2016 paper received an editorial expression of concern in December 2016 and was eventually retracted on May 26th 2017 following misconduct findings by the Swedish Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN), while the two Swedish whistleblowers Josefin Sundin and Fredrik Jutfelt, initially themselves stiffly criticised by the University of Uppsala, were finally exonerated (see panel verdict here and here, further documents here and here). I also make available here the original report by the whistleblowers to the University of Uppsala and CEPN, detailing their “Key points highlighting scientific misconduct by Lönnstedt and Eklöv”. For further reference, read Martin Enserink’s reporting for Science here, here and here.
However, there was more to that Science paper than fraudulent science. Even if the results were not made up, their objective scientific value would still be very questionable, because it had very little connection to the reality of the plastic pollution in the oceans and the fish feeding behavior. The uniformly small, freshly industrially synthesized plastic balls which were fed to the fishes were not really representative of the actual plastic particles polluting our seas. But even those arbitrary chosen particles were not likely to have been eaten by the fishes voluntarily. If the fishes ever did swallow those, it was probably because they were simply made to, being at the point of death by starvation, something which rarely ever happens to actual plankton-feeding fishes in the sea. Of course one cannot expect peer reviewers to spot misconduct and data manipulation, but objectively assessing scientific methodology, result and conclusions of a manuscript is actually what the peer review is all about. One does wonder why the “highly qualified, dedicated” reviewers at Science failed to notice all these obvious scientific shortcomings, and instead decided that Lönnstedt & Eklöv work belonged indeed to “the very best in scientific research”. Was it because the socially and ecologically relevant conclusions sounded so important and welcome, that one simply had to blindly ignore the poor science behind them?
Continue reading “Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held”
Every academic will probably agree that plagiarism is wrong. It is absolutely not OK to pass someone’s else’s intellectual work as one’s own. Plagiarised research papers get retracted regularly, on several occasions plagiarism in dissertation led to withdrawal of doctorate, most notably among several German politicians. There is however one aspect of academic life where plagiarism is so normal that the parties involved do not even consider it to be plagiarism, neither the plagiarist, nor the victim of plagiarism. It is the academic peer review, the process where research colleagues are invited by journal editors to submit their expert opinion on the scientific quality of the manuscript under editorial consideration. and it is not the incompetent youth plagiarising there, but professors, principal investigators (PIs), research institute directors and clinic heads. Our academic elite plagiarises daily, without anyone even raising an eyebrow. Continue reading “Peer review ghost-writing, or do professors understand plagiarism?”