The debate about anonymous whistleblowing in science is old, and frankly speaking boring and redundant. It shouldn’t matter who sent you the evidence of research fraud if the evidence speaks for itself. But still, some editors, academic and professional, reject the evidence from anonymous whistleblowers on principle. And when the whistleblower reveals their identity confidentially, certain editor types immediately write to the accused authors to rat out the whistleblower.
Michael Blatt, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Plant Physiology, is back into the arena, fighting against the anonymity in post-publication peer review (PPPR). I have been in regular email exchange with Blatt, as indicated in my earlier blog post about the advantages of signed PPPR. Now…
Because academia is such a toxic environment it brings out the worst in people. It is a perfectly acceptable practice to confidentially phone colleagues to smear someone you don’t like with false allegations of fraud or sexual harassment or thievery, really anything, without any proof, yet still your peers will trust your rumours and the victim will never know. But an anonymous person sending you evidence of image manipulation in published papers? Never to be trusted, don’t even look at the pictures they sent, who knows what their motives are, and do they even have the required rank, title, status, pedigree, h-index and academic credentials to make such accusations?
So here are some recent cases of editors rejecting anonymously submitted evidence. Coincidence or not, all these editors are old white men.
Enna vs Aneurus
My sleuthing colleague under the anonymous name Aneurus Inconstans uncovered a massive fraud factory in Spain, the common author is the Spanish physiology professor, Javier Gonzalez-Gallego. I published the story, and Aneurus then set off to email the chief editors of each journal of the currently 56 papers affected. Hardly anyone replied. But one did.
“If in any case we consider that the problems with the images really affected the validity of the results, we ourselves would ask the corresponding journal to retract the article.” – Prof Javier González-Gallego
Aneurus wrote to the Editor-in-Chief of the Elsevier journal Biochemical Pharmacology and emeritus professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Sam Enna, about this paper:
Tuñón MJ, Sánchez-Campos S, Gutiérrez B, Culebras JM, González-Gallego J. Effects of FK506 and rapamycin on generation of reactive oxygen species, nitric oxide production and nuclear factor kappa B activation in rat hepatocytes. Biochem Pharmacol. (2003) doi: 10.1016/s0006-2952(03)00288-0.
The actin blot is clearly fake, a pair of bands were copy-pasted.
So how did the almost 80 year old white man react? Grumpily. Enna replied to Aneurus with this one line:
In such cases, I offer myself as named notifier, so I made this offer to Enna. His reaction was:
I explained that I am the guy who wrote that article about Gonzalez-Gallego. But true, I am neither Aneurus nor do I have an institutional email address. And anonymity obviously wouldn’t work if whistleblowers like Aneurus used institutional email accounts.
We three exchanged some emails all of which went around Enna’s refusal to admit me as notifier and his insistence to know Aneurus’ real name. For example, Enna told us this:
Basically, Enna refused to admit evidence from Aneurus because they are anonymous, and he refused to admit this same evidence from named me because he doesn’t like me. A vicious circle which I could only break by revealing to Professor Enna Aneurus’ real name.
Yes, this was what I did.
I told the editor the real name of this anonymous whistleblower.
Don’t judge me, professor’s authority was too strong and his demands too stern.
The name I revealed was…
St Carlos of Oviedo almost was canonised as Spain’s first living martyr, but now Nature revoked his mentoring award. Spanish media and science elites are desperate, even the Queen is not amused. The Royal Academy of Sciences insists Lopez-Otin is a victim of journal’s failure.
Enna sounded triumphant:
Be happy to send Carlos our report as soon as he submits to me a request for it using his real name and email address.
I will also notify the authors that Carlos has raised questions about their research so they can respond directly to him as well if they wish.“
I so much would love to see Gonzalez-Gallego’s face when the Editor-in-Chief Enna informs him that none other but Carlos Lopez-Otin accuses him of fake science in his 56 papers.
But fun aside, did you notice what was the first act Enna announced as editor? To rat out to the accused authors the identity of the whistleblower he received in presumed confidence. This is cruel, sadistic and plain evil. No wait, this is standard behaviour in academia it seems, because this was exactly what another academic editor and Oxford professor, Dame Kay Davies did, for example.
This is the second part of the Bologna whistleblower account. As the university was burying their own misconduct findings, Oxford University Press and their ignoble editor were busy punishing and gaslighting the whistleblower.
And then Aneurus found a problem in one of Enna’s own papers, in a journal where Enna used to be member of editorial board:
Scott A. Sands , Maya Gadhvi Purisai , Bibie M. Chronwall , S.J. Enna Ontogeny of GABAB receptor subunit expression and function in the rat spinal cord Brain Research (2003) doi: 10.1016/s0006-8993(03)02534-4
The overlap is quite clear, but maybe it is OK, showing different areas of same sample? Both Fig 3D and Fig 3E describe an adult rat’s spinal cord, the former microscopy image shows dorsal horn and the latter shows ventral horn, which (I looked it up) lie 1.5-2 mm apart, way too far to be in the same field of the microscope objective. Hence, the images should never overlap, but what can one do, you saw how Enna treats the evidence of data fudging we send him.
Here are other cases previously covered in Friday Shorts.
Rainsford vs Aneurus
I was much more successful by submitting evidence on behalf of Aneurus with a Springer Nature journal. It was about some Indian fraudsters in Allahabad whom Aneurus previously reported about, and the paper got retracted quite fast.
Meet Danish Ahmed and other members of the Sam Higginbottom gang. I am not making those names up.
It was this paper:
Deepika Singh, Ekta Yadav, Neha Falls, Vikas Kumar, Manvendra Singh, Amita Verma Phytofabricated silver nanoparticles of Phyllanthus emblica attenuated diethylnitrosamine-induced hepatic cancer via knock-down oxidative stress and inflammation Inflammopharmacology (2019) doi: 10.1007/s10787-018-0525-6
When Aneurus reported the fraud to the journal’s Editor-in-Chief Kim Rainsford, emeritus professor at Sheffield Hallam University, he received this reply:
“Dear Dr Inconstans,
While appreciating your attention to details about published papers, it concerns me that in your anonymity you conceal affiliation and any potential conflicts of interest.
These details would be confidential if you would disclose them. In their absence any credibility would be totally lost.
Professor K D Rainsford
Editor in Chief”
Right, you saw how confidentially some editors treat such things, hence Aneurus’ reluctance to comply. So I had to resubmit the notification under my own name, to which Rainsford never replied, but the Springer Nature Executive Hans Detlef Klueber did. The paper was soon retracted, the retraction notice from 20 July 2022 stated:
“The Editor-in-Chief has retracted this article because of the following concerns with three of the figures:
- Figure 6a appears to overlap with part of Fig. 2 in Singh et al. (2021).
- Figure 7(b) appears to be identical with Fig. 7(b) in Singh et al. (2018a).
- Part of Fig. 15f appears to overlap with Fig. 9f in Singh et al. (2018b).
- Figure 15e appears to overlap with Fig. 15c.
The Editor-in-Chief therefore no longer has confidence in the data reported in this article.
The data reported in this article are therefore unreliable. None of the authors agree to this retraction.“
I suggested that Prof Rainsford, who seemed now more than happy to claim for himself the credit for Aneurus’ work, should be more distrustful towards authors instead of whistleblowers next time. Especially when these authors submit manuscripts with silly titles like “Phytofabricated silver nanoparticles of Phyllanthus emblica attenuated diethylnitrosamine‑induced hepatic cancer via knock‑down oxidative stress and inflammation“. Rainsford reacted by calling me an “activist” (he thinks it is an insult) and demanded I apologise.
It can be worse. The other paper, Singh et al 2018, mentioned in the retraction notice and also originally flagged by Aneurus, was published in Elsevier’s Toxicology Reports.
Lash vs Cheshire
You probably heard of this antivax journal, Toxicology Reports, and its Editor-in-Chief Aristidis Tsatsakis. If not, here some relevant reading:
Antivaxxery in scientific literature – are preprints to blame?
Aristidis Tsatsakis, Konstantinos Poulas, Ronald Kostoff, Michael Aschner, Demetrios Spandidos, Konstantinos Farsalinos: you will need a disinfecting shower once you read their papers.
“a scientific journal is not a social network, not even a newspaper. People reading papers in FCT are expected to be scientists with a good basis to distinguish between trash and science.” EiC Jose Luis Domingo on new paper by Peter McCullough
Elsevier seems to recruit its editors in the darker recesses of academic depravity, the more toxic and dishonest the better. Yet we won’t be talking about Tsatsakis and his gang here, but about the founding editor of Toxicology Reports, Lawrence Lash, professor at the Wayne State University in USA.
Another anonymous sleuthing colleague of mine, Cheshire (who comments on PubPeer as Actinopolyspora biskrensis), wrote to Tsatsakis and Lash about this fraudulent paper.
Shahanshah Khan, Sandeep Choudhary , Arun Kumar , Akanchha Mani Tripathi , Amit Alok , Jawahar Singh Adhikari , Moshahid Alam Rizvi , Nabo Kumar Chaudhury Evaluation of sesamol-induced histopathological, biochemical, haematological and genomic alteration after acute oral toxicity in female C57BL/6 mice Toxicology Reports (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.toxrep.2016.03.005
Lash informed Cheshire:
To me, Lash ordered not to “act like some sort of crusader” and explained why he attacked Cheshire:
“There is a procedure to follow when commenting on an apparent problems in a paper, and this has not been followed.“
But Cheshire did follow the due procedure, writing to the acting EiC as well as to other editorial board members including Lash (who was still Editor-in-Chief when the paper was published). But what Lash was actually angry about was Cheshire’s anonymity, like Enna above the Toxicology Reports editor also insisted that he only communicates with fellow scholars using institutional email accounts. Lash informed me:
“If anyone is a bully, it is you. This is not a whistleblower situation, but a commentary on a publication. Your colleague insulted me by condescendingly stating that I obviously am not up on current publication ethics.”
Noteworthy, Lash recently was re-installed as Editor-in-Chief of Toxicology Reports after the antivaxxer Tsatsakis became too embarrassing and unbearable even for Elsevier’s standards.
Predictably, this happened: Cheshire then found a duplicated image in Lash’s very new one-author MDPI paper (apparently, Larry works in the lab all by himself?).
Lawrence H. Lash, Unexpected Enhancement of Cytotoxicity of Cisplatin in a Rat Kidney Proximal Tubular Cell Line Overexpressing Mitochondrial Glutathione Transport Activity International Journal of Molecular Sciences (2022) doi: 10.3390/ijms23041993
Lash replied on PubPeer that those were correct, “representative” images:
“The two panels do indeed look very similar. I have checked the original data files, which were from experiments conducted in 2006 and 2007, and those are the correct pictures for the two conditions, […] Thus, as far as I can tell, these are correct photos.”
The images are however not similar, but identical. It’s a copy-pasted picture, as PubPeer commenters proved. Lash then thanked them for finding the error, admitted “It may be that the panel for the 10 µM CDDP – 4 h was mislabeled” and announced a correction. MDPI then stealthily swapped the offending image with a replacement without issuing a Corrigendum or any other note.
The many fake papers Cheshire found in Lash’s journal: nothing happened so far. It seems the old and new Toxicology Reports editor is busy retracting the antivax covidiocy garbage his successor and predecessor Tsatsakis published. Like Kostoff et al 2021 and Pott-Junior et al 2021, retracted in May 2022 with the note:
In reality, Lash simply does as Elsevier says, while attributing credit to himself as the hero of research integrity. Something he did already in 2016, having penned together with Tsatsakis and his antivaxxer mates Michael Aschner and Jose Domingo a letter in Elsevier’s journal Toxicology, titled:
“We, scientists and signatories of this appeal assert our concern for the erosion of scientific principles in the purported validation ofexperimental evidence, which is manifest in arguments disguised as true science. Such arguments are used to simulate and exaggerate hazards and risks that justify official intervention policies in health, safety and environmental issues. This erodes public confidence in science and government, leads to misallocation of public resources, cause massive economic distortions, and strains court adjudications.
Our concern is motivated by the importance of adhering to the self-evident precepts of the scientific method in arriving at defensible conclusions. Those precepts require observational and experimental data that are authentic and of known measurement error; experimental variables that are relevant to the hypotheses being tested; the control of externalities that may confound observations and experimental results; and reproducibility by other performers or counterfactual verification. […]
We believe it is necessary to affirm the reliable and evidence-based power of science to ensure the rational and ethical integrity of public policies and regulations, and of legal proceedings. Not only is science in play, but also those ideals of justice and rationality that sustain free intellects, free persons and free societies”
It was quite obviously a industry shill piece written to discredit researchers who question the allegedly total and absolute health safety of the herbicide glyphosate.
Garbage and unprofessional behaviour.
Inglis vs Clare Francis
Let’s end with another new case I haven’t reported in Shorts yet.
Clare Francis is a pseudonymous sleuth whose real identity even I don’t know exactly. They have been screening biomedical papers for over a decade already, much of PubPeer’s record was generated by Clare Francis who hardly ever uses the same automatically generated pseudonym there twice. And each of their findings gets delivered right away to journal editors by email. Many papers were retracted based on Clare Francis evidence.
But many were not, not even corrected, and it seems that is because some editors and publisher executives simple DELETE Clare Francis’ anonymous emails right away.
As apparently the allegedly respectable academic publisher Cold Spring Harbor Labs Press (CSHL Press) does. Which is sad, because CSHL Press are supposed to be the good guys, they host the preprint platform BioRxiv.
The following is a rant in praise of preprints. I blog of usefulness of preprints, open science and open access, how BioRxiv works and their Plan U.
Clare Francis sent CSHL Press this paper by Alan Storey, a former professor at Queen Mary University London and University of Oxford, who since 2013 for some reason works as medical writer for changing businesses.
Sarah Jackson , Catherine Harwood, Miranda Thomas , Lawrence Banks, Alan Storey Role of Bak in UV-induced apoptosis in skin cancer and abrogation by HPV E6 proteins Genes & Development (2000) doi: 10.1101/gad.182100
Now, Storey has had even more fake stuff in his papers exposed on PubPeer, maybe this is somehow connected to his abrupt and surprising career change. In any case, the editorial team at CSHL Press and the journal Genes & Development should have been concerned and taken Clare Francis evidence seriously. Yet this is how an editorial assistant reacted (they accidentally replied to Clare Francis instead of forwarding):
I couldn’t resist and replied from my named email account to the editorial assistant that yes, please “go ahead and delete”, and signed with “Laureen”. I also informed CSHL Press executive director John Inglis, again signing as “Laureen”. His reaction was a bit unexpected:
“You replied to an email mistakenly sent by an administrative assistant to Claire Francis. And you made up two emails and fraudulently signed them with someone else’s name. And went on twitter with this charade.
You should get back on twitter and admit what you did, and why. Perhaps it was a joke.
If you don’t correct the record, we will have to.“
I did what?
Inglis kept demanding I apologise:
Eventually, Inglis admitted that this accusation of his was made up:
But as far as I know, Clare Francis is not even on Twitter, and hasn’t tweeted anything Inglis accuses us of. Inglis went silent when I confronted him with that.
Then I found the tweet:
It seems Clare Francis forwarded the initial misguided CSHL Press email to Cheshire, who then tweeted it. Inglis first misconstrued Cheshire’s tweet and falsely attributed it to me, failing that, to Clare Francis.
Nobody ever tweeted my “fake” correspondence to CSHL Press where I jokingly signed as “Laureen”. Inglis made it all up, presumably to discredit mine and Clare Francis’ work. Remember, false accusations against people you don’t like being standard practice in academia?
But most importantly: I asked Inglis several times to deny if CSHL Press indeed deletes emails by Clare Francis, and stated that if he doesn’t I will take it as confirmed. Inglis did not deny. He never apologised, also not to Clare Francis, and seemed only angered by the “clerical error” of an internal email landing in the hands of us, the enemy.
Look what other emails by Clare Francis Inglis may have had trashed. Here a case reported to CSHL Press in May 2020:
Anna Polesskaya, Sylvain Cuvellier , Irina Naguibneva , Arnaud Duquet , Eric G. Moss , Annick Harel-Bellan Lin-28 binds IGF-2 mRNA and participates in skeletal myogenesis by increasing translation efficiency Genes & Development (2007) doi: 10.1101/gad.415007
Nothing at all happened. Here another French case Clare Francis reported to CSHL Press in April 2020, also here nothing at all happened:
Vera Schramke , Holger Neecke , Vanessa Brevet , Yves Corda , Giovanna Lucchini , Maria Pia Longhese , Eric Gilson , Vincent Géli The set1Δ mutation unveils a novel signaling pathway relayed by the Rad53-dependent hyperphosphorylation of replication protein A that leads to transcriptional activation of repair genes Genes & Development (2001) doi: 10.1101/gad.193901
In the email thread, Clare Francis asked Inglis:
Cancer research giant Joan Massagué has no time to correct his old papers.
Because they delete your emails.
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