In January 2021, I published an article about the Israeli scientist Moshe Szyf, epigenetics researcher and professor at the McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The story featured also his close collaborator and another McGill professor, Shafaat Rabbani from Pakistan.
This follow-up is about Szyf though and the fairy tales he keeps telling.
Szyf orders via his lawyer that I withdraw my allegations and publicly apologise to him, otherwise he and his colleague will sue me and the McGill University.
And this is how we got there. Szyf has a serious PubPeer record, as you can imagine (Rabbani’s is even worse). Some of this evidence is oldish, and apparently there already was an earlier investigation at McGill, but then the sleuth Clare Francis found a lot of new material in Szyf’s and Rabbani’s papers. I wrote a story and notified the McGill University, and in March 2021, the Research Integrity Officer David Ragsdale informed me:
“For 11 of the 14 papers, the issues raised have already been assessed by McGill University, Dalhousie University, CIHR, and/or the journals. These papers will not be re-adjudicated, as per Canadian Tri-Agency RCR policy (https://rcr.ethics.gc.ca/eng/interpretations_allegation.html):
“The second element for an allegation to be considered responsible is that the allegation must be novel and, to the best of the complainant’s knowledge, never previously investigated.”
This leaves three papers:
Campbell, Bovenzi, Szyf (2004) Carcinogenesis, 25:499-507, Figure 1
Torrisani et al, (2007) Molecular and Cellular Biology, 27:395-410, Figure 2E
Weaver et a., J Neurosci (2007) 27:1756-1768, Figures 4 and 5.”
The evidence in the 11 papers was mostly brand new, no way McGill University could have investigated those specific concerns already and decreed these were “unintentional human error and did not affect the scientific validity or soundness of the data and findings“, as they did in 2018 regarding a Rabbani paper.
The McGill letter
I obviously could not take this new investigation seriously, which excludes the heaviest evidence outright, and made my views quite clear to Ragsdale. In fact, I even withdrew my notification of research misconduct and I was particularly rude to Ragsdale and his colleagues, very rude even by my own standards, imagine that.
But McGill University continued investigating these 3 papers. And now they sent me a letter, labelled “HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL”, while knowing perfectly well I don’t adhere to such requests and have published all those earlier communications they asked me to treat confidentially. Szyf and a colleague reacted with legal threats, we will come to that.
Here is the McGill letter:
Now, it very well may be that McGill actually wanted me to publish this letter. Because they are most definitely not bound to communicate with me, or send me any information, confidential or otherwise. Maybe these three (and now two) papers is all they have against Szyf now, the reasons likely being Szyf’s lawyers. Maybe McGill University has enough of this fairy tale uncle, who recently discovered naturopathic quackery, and also dabs in eugenics, up to antisemite baiting, a special achievement for a Jewish scientist.
Whatever is going on at McGill, Szyf and his partners are not taking it lying down and know how to mobilise alliances and lawyers to defend themselves.
Campbell et al Carcinogenesis 2003
This is the first paper mentioned in the McGill letter to me.
Paul M Campbell , Veronica Bovenzi , Moshe Szyf Methylated DNA-binding protein 2 antisense inhibitors suppress tumourigenesis of human cancer cell lines in vitro and in vivo Carcinogenesis (2003) doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgh045
In this regard, the McGill letter states:
“The Investigation Committee determined that there was a preponderance of evidence in support of the following conclusions:
Campbell et al, Figure1D, actin controls, lanes 2,3 and 5,6 are duplicates”
Now, we kind of knew that already, but here is the fun part. On 5 October, the former McGill graduate Paul Campbell, now assistant professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center at Temple University posted on PubPeer a lengthy comment, which was co-signed by Szyf. This is how the comment started:
“We are unaware of any errors made in the assembly of the figure, either at the time of manuscript acceptance approximately 18 years ago or at any time since. We have mobilized strong evidence against the suggestion of inappropriately similar lanes.
The comment is suggesting that Lanes 2 and 3 of the β-actin protein blot are more similar than expected, compared to Lanes 5 and 6. It appears that the person who provided the comment was unaware of the fact that this was an actin loading control western blot. The bands look similar because they are supposed to look similar; they are equally quantified (to hundredths of a µg) lanes of a loading control hybridized with an actin antibody. It is expected that all the control bands on the gel will look somewhat alike, especially since the gel was fractionated in the same physical equipment using equal current across the field. If performed well, such an experiment should yield highly similar lanes. The actin antibody is extremely specific, and the actin band is extremely sharp and no size fluctuations are expected between protein samples. Thus, it is highly likely that equally loaded lanes hybridized to actin antibody will look similar, but not identical.
Nevertheless, we have enlarged the TIFF image originally submitted to Carcinogenesis to demonstrate, at the pixel level, that Lane 3 and Lane 6 (and similarly, Lanes 2 and 5) are independent (please see Appendix 2, best viewed at 100-300% for details).“
As reminder, even the official McGill decree is that the gel bands are duplicates. But here is the analysis by Campbell and Szyf:
This is apparently how Szyf does his science. Fancy diagrams, expert analyses, complex calculations, everything but the actual raw data of original uncropped blot scans, smoke in your eyes to distract from the concerns of a questionable science. Sure they found some pixel differences, those always happen when duplicated gel bands are embedded into an image which gets compressed and reformatted a couple of times. It’s like claiming that you never copied your school test from your desk neighbour because you used a different pen.
The Fairy Tales of Curtis Harris
You might wonder, what kind of scientifically illiterate nincompoop will fall for that. The editorial kind, that’s who. The long statement by Campbell and Szyf ends with:
“In our diligence and transparency, we submitted these analyses to the Editor of Carcinogenesis. His reply, as we would have expected, confirms our findings as published and refutes any suggestion of figure mismanagement:
Tue 9/28/2021 12:37 PM Dear Dr Campbell
Thank you very much for your e-mail. Your explanation is acceptable, and the journal will not need to take any further action, especially as you are submitting your additional analysis to PubPeer.
Dr Curtis C Harris Editor-in-Chief Carcinogenesis: Integrative Cancer Research firstname.lastname@example.org
Curtis Harris really looks like a fairy tale uncle, but his main job is senior investigator at NIH National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, USA. And I must be fair: Harris is not stupid. His own papers are also problematic, in his function as academic editor he merely helps peers caught on, ahem, “cutting corners”.
Let’s have a brief detour and look at Harris’ science, which is currently documented by 7 papers on PubPeer. The following is a very suitable case, flagged by Clare Francis in January 2021:
Qin Yang , Ran Zhang , Xin W Wang , Steven P Linke , Sagar Sengupta, Ian D Hickson , Graziella Pedrazzi , Claudia Perrera , Igor Stagljar, Susan J Littman , Paul Modrich, Curtis C Harris The mismatch DNA repair heterodimer, hMSH2/6, regulates BLM helicase Oncogene (2004) doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1207462
Guess how Harris replied:
Of course the bands are same, the PubPeer thread contains a nice analysis by Cheshire, using ImageTwin software even. Pressed into a corner, Harris brought down the hammer argument of editorial authority:
“Yes they were happy with the analysis provided to show differences
Lucinda Haines Senior Publishing Manager
Springer Nature The Campus | 4 Crinan Street |London |N1 9XW |UK T: +44 (0) 207 843 3634
We had the editors of ONCOGENE analyze the western and the enlarged comparison of the two bands is question. As you can read above, they concluded independently that they were different.”
Do you know who Oncogene‘s Editor-in-Chief is? Justin Stebbing, Imperial College professor, producer of fake science and a disgraced oncologist who was finally found guilty of tricking and abusing his wealthy, yet terminally ill patients.
As it happened, the journal Science Advances recently issued a stealth correction for Ditsiou et al 2020 to help Stebbing in his difficult period. Stealth correction is where a manipulated figure gets secretly replaced in the online paper, sometimes this is admited in an virtually unfindable correction notice, sometimes there is no notice at all. These stealth corrections are a service which some journals occasionally provide for their elite authors, Science did it before for a Nobel Prize winner:
In this regard, here a stealth correction Harris achieved at the Nature Publishing Group:
Kaori Fujita , Abdul M. Mondal , Izumi Horikawa , Giang H. Nguyen , Kensuke Kumamoto , Jane J. Sohn , Elise D. Bowman , Ewy A. Mathe , Aaron J. Schetter , Sharon R. Pine , Helen Ji , Borivoj Vojtesek , Jean-Christophe Bourdon , David P. Lane , Curtis C. Harris p53 isoforms Delta133p53 and p53beta are endogenous regulators of replicative cellular senescence Nature Cell Biology (2009) doi: 10.1038/ncb1928
In September 2016, Clare Francis posted concerns about undeclared splicing in Fig 1, having studied the paper’s pdf:
Just days after, someone else commented:
“Unclear where Peer 1 obtained his low-resolution image.
At the journal web site, both the HTML and PDF versions of this figure show dividing lines that explicitly denote these junctions. And the image resolution is perfectly adequate.
This stealth correction was so stealthy, the journal never left even a hidden notice. Yes, some journals do that. For example, Human Molecular Genetics (the EiC Kay Davies is really a special case) issued such a stealthy stealth correction for Claudio Hetz.
Sometimes the journals do edit freshly published papers (or even retract them completely without a notice), but that one was already 5 years old when Clare Francis commented. I wrote to Nature Cell Biology, but received no reply. Anyway, they will need to fix another stealth correction to help Harris, because Clare Francis found more:
Weaver et al J Neuroscience 2007
But our detour got longer than expected, so let’s have a look at that other paper by Szyf et al which McGill University issued a statement on.
I. C. G. Weaver, A. C. D’Alessio, Shelley E Brown, I. C. Hellstrom, Sergiy Dymov, Shakti Sharma, Moshe Szyf, Michael J Meaney The transcription factor nerve growth factor-inducible protein a mediates epigenetic programming: altering epigenetic marks by immediate-early genes The Journal of neuroscience (2007) doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.4164-06.2007
The McGill letter declared:
“The Investigation Committee determined that there was a preponderance of evidence in support of the following conclusions:
Weaver et al, Figures 3e and 4b lanes 1 – 4 are duplicates; Figures 4c and 5d are duplicates; Figures 5a and 5b are duplicates.”
Szyf made that paper in collaboration with the neurology professor Michael Meaney, also at the McGill University, where he directs an institute studying brain health.
“In summary, the ‘I’ and ‘N’ bands should be very similar, with variation only in Lane ‘A’, as this is needed for confident analysis of the true signal. Herein, when comparing the ‘I’ or ‘A’ bands with each other, they are similar but differ qualitatively and quantitively. […]
Given the same molecular outcome of DNA methylation/mutation, highly similar NGFI-A association patterns under the same experimental condition is to be expected. […] Given their molecular functions and dependence on each other, highly similar NGFI-A/H3K9Ac association patterns under the same experimental condition is to be expected and indeed was the predicted outcome. […] Given their molecular functions and dependence on each other, highly similar CBP/H3K9Ac association patterns under the same experimental condition is to be expected, and again predicted.
For further documentation and image analysis please see the eLetter associated with the manuscript at the publishers site.
Ian Weaver, Moshe Szyf, and Michael Meaney”
Now, recall that when they misinformed the PubPeer audience by claiming that the bands were not at all identical, just similar, the three professors most likely knew already about the finding of McGill that these gel bands were in fact duplicates. Yet they even submitted a letter to Journal of Neuroscience, explaining in similar wording that the gel bands were different.
You might say, shame, now the J Neuroscience will crack down on these pathetic attempts in data rigging! Uhm, no. This elite society journal specialises on covering up actual research fraud and cracking down on research integrity sleuths, up to issuing joint press releases with the forgers, the main target of J Neuroscience editors apparently being the image integrity sleuth Elisabeth Bik.
So I wrote to Szyf and his colleagues, asking why they misinformed everyone if their own university decreed those gel bands were indeed duplicated. Right away, I received this letter from a Montreal lawyer:
Here is the letter by Julius Grey, of the law firm
50 Shades of Grey Casgrain, with my comments:
We have been mandated by our clients Professor Moshe Szyf and Professor Michael Meaney to write to you regarding your defamatory actions in relation to their studies in your recent communication with the journals.
Our clients have informed us of the false accusations you communicated to the McGill investigation Committee and scientific journals, alleging that our clients falsified data for their study.”
I never said that, I merely pointed out that the figures Szyf and Meaney published contain duplicated data. And their own McGill University sees it the same way. Whether it’s indeed intentional falsification and who is responsible for it: this is for the McGill investigators to determine. I just write about expert-vetted third-party material on PubPeer.
“Your allegations are untrue and have severely damaged our client’s reputations. Our clients have had to defend themselves against said accusations, and they have provided both the Committee and scientific journals with scientifically valid quantitative analyses providing irrefutable evidence for differences in their images.”
As I mentioned, image compression and formatting introduce minor pixel differences. That is also an irrefutable scientific evidence which McGill University is obviously aware of.
“You have now chosen to continue to ignore their analyses and have never provided any scientific arguments for rejecting them. One can only assume that your actions are in the upmost bad faith and motivated by destroying our clients’ reputations. You have been cooperating with the McGill research integrity Office to advance your goals, and McGill is also at fault for pursuing their pointless and harmful investigations.”
“Our clients have approached those scientific journals where the study was published on their own initiative and shared with them your complaint. The journals have been provided with highly detailed scientifically valid refutation of the allegations; the same rebuttal document that has been provided to McGill Investigation Committee.
Both highly reputable journals Carcinogenesis and Journal of Neuroscience carefully examined the complaint, and the Journal of Neuroscience examined the raw data as well and accepted without reservation the explanations that our clients provided them with.”
Well, can we see that elusive “raw data” then, or is it for editor’s eyes only? Is it of the same kind of “raw data” Cassava Sciences submitted to same Journal of Neuroscience, and issued a joint press release even?
“You are also aware that the response of our clients to your complaints was published in Pubpeer, where the original complaint was published.
The damages our clients have suffered as a result of your faults are substantial. You continued to destroy our clients’ reputations throughout McGill’s investigation procedure. which ultimately led to McGill’s finding of duplication. Our clients very clearly showed McGill all the raw data and showed that the data was absolutely consistent with the representation in the paper and answered every question to defend their work.”
Those were not my complains, but by anonymous PubPeer sleuths. And again, that alleged “raw data” was never shown on PubPeer. In any case, McGill University was not convinced, they said the gel bands were duplicates.
“Both of our clients are eminent Quebec scientists whose reputations are at stake, and you are well-known for damaging the reputations of scientists by claiming that they falsify data.”
Thank you for appreciating my work and its impact. I am apparently a bit of a celebrity in Montreal even.
“We demand that you publicly apologize to our clients and retract all your statements within one week from today. Failure to do so will result in our taking an action in both public and private law, against you and McGill University.
We also demand that you cease defaming our clients. Such communications will increase our damages tenfold and will put you at peril.”
Consider this post a public apology. See, I am trying. Please don’t hurt the poor little McGill University now.
As you read, Szyf and Meaney seem to argue that their own employer, the McGill University, has no right to investigate their papers, which these gentlemen used to procure actual salaries for themselves from that same employer. Any attempt of a university investigation is according to them an act of defamation. The only parties entitled to negotiate with scientists are their own colleagues at the journals where these papers were published.
Problem is, too often academia loves outsourcing its research evaluation and research integrity to journals. This way the academic cheaters get to supervise themselves, with one hand washing the other. The system is corrupted beyond your wildest nightmares, and yet we still masochistically use the so-called “proper channels” and write to editors or to the publisher lobby COPE, invoking their silly guidelines. Occasionally one finds an honest editor who is also not a chickenshit. In most cases though, you will deal with a hair-raising attitude to research ethics for which an undergraduate student would be expelled from the university on the spot.
If it quacks like a quack
Look what silly stuff Szyf recently published in an utter trash journal, Aging, which is even infested by Chinese paper mills, but sports a bloated impact factor and an editorial board full of what we are expected to call science elites.
Szyf, who demands respect and worship for his scientific genius, or else he will sue you, has now discovered the fountain of youth, which is naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.
Kara N. Fitzgerald, Romilly Hodges, Douglas Hanes, Emily Stack, David Cheishvili, Moshe Szyf, Janine Henkel, Melissa W. Twedt, Despina Giannopoulou, Josette Herdell, Sally Logan, Ryan Bradley Potential reversal of epigenetic age using a diet and lifestyle intervention: a pilot randomized clinical trial Aging (2021) doi: 10.18632/aging.202913
A press release was issued by the publisher of Aging and the story made news worldwide:
“The study, released on April 12, utilized a randomized controlled clinical trial conducted among 43 healthy adult males between the ages of 50-72. The 8-week treatment program included diet, sleep, exercise and relaxation guidance, and supplemental probiotics and phytonutrients, resulting in a statistically significant reduction of biological age—over three years younger, compared to controls.
The study was independently conducted by the Helfgott Research Institute, with laboratory assistance from Yale University Center for Genome Analysis, and the results independently analyzed at McGill University and the National University of Natural Medicine.”
That Helfgott Research Institute in Portland, OR, which openly describes itself as pursing “naturopath” method and “employs traditional approaches combined with natural medicine such as herbs, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and acupuncture in order to prevention and treatment.” And of course, yin and yang is on the programme:
“Instead of studying medicines individually or in a manner that would reduce an herb to its constituent components, Helfgott researchers look at a combination of herbs being administered.“
Helfgott Institute claims to be funded by NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and declares:
“We envision Helfgott as the premier natural medicine research institute. Our vision includes a consortium of researchers from naturopathic medicine, Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, physical medicine, energy medicine, and other natural medicine disciplines.”
Maybe Szyf should leave McGill University, who are so mean to him anyway, and work at Helfgott as a full-time quack. Oh, and by the way, for naturopathy, Ayurveda and TCM, the only way to prove their efficacy is to fake the results. Ask Smut Clyde.
Szyf, described as “Leading epigeneticist”, was quoted in the press release:
A correction from June 2021 replaced problematic data in Figure 5 and Table 4, changed statements in the main text, and declared:
Dang, even in the newer genomics papers by Szyf, those without any treacherous image data, irregularities do get found out when graphs are carelessly duplicated.
Unsurprisingly, Szyf is also member of the rejuvenation cargo cult. His company HKG Epitherapeutics sells kits to “Discover your biological age through DNA methylation” and S-adenosine Methionine supplements for “optimal hormone levels“. Early detection of cancer is also on offer, patents pending.
The company’s owner is Szyf, the only member on the scientific advisory board is his best mate Shafaat Rabbani, read about their Photoshopped science here. And, unsurprisingly, now the two McGill professors joined the resveratrol quack gold rush, belatedly:
Szyf, the devout orthodox, is prone to peddling mystic quackeries: some years earlier this Israeli scientist claimed that “Jewish guilt” can be epigenetically inherited trans-generationally, here his quote in Times of Israel:
Szyf even suggested the Israeli and American Jews are intellectually superior to those who stayed behind in Europe, to be purged in the Holocaust:
“Jews that left Europe were highly self-selected for their survival skills and perseverance […] Jews have always tended to lead lives that emphasized education, family structure and religious values” Szyf says. So it should come as no surprise that these values have been passed on.”
This is of course classic eugenics, but I never thought I will see a Jewish scientist bait the most dangerous of antisemitic cliches, yet here were are. But then again, I myself come from those inferior Ukrainian Jews, my exterminated great-grandparents were apparently not that genetically advanced to emigrate and hence not a big loss.
What an unpleasant fairy tale uncle this Moshe Szyf is.
Some of the material was previously published in weekly Schneider Shorts.