Frontiers: vanquishers of Beall, publishers of bunk

Frontiers: vanquishers of Beall, publishers of bunk

It is now quasi official: do not mess with Frontiers. My earlier reporting made it a credible possibility that this Swiss publisher was behind the January 2017 shut-down and removal of Jeffrey Beall’s list of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”, and it was now indeed verified by an article in Chronicle of Higher Education. The librarian Beall used to be constantly under attack from Open Access (OA) publishers who were unhappy about his personal opinions and his private decisions to place them on his blog list. With those, his University of Colorado in Denver supported Beall. But the trouble started when he placed in October 2015 the Swiss publisher Frontiers onto his list, thus effectively declaring this Holtzbrinck-owned outlet a predatory publisher, after hearing of scientists’ complaints and reading my reports. To be fair, Frontiers are still defended by a much bigger number of scientists who see the advantage of having a reliable business partner who will publish certain manuscripts which hardly any respectable journal might consider.  Especially certain kinds of psychologists figured out that with the life-science-oriented Frontiers they can easily get merited as proper neuroscientists, or even biomedical polymaths (e.g., here). Regardless of the bunk they place there for $2500 a pop.

Frontiers first tried it nicely with Beall, when the Chief Executive Officer Frederick Fenter and journal manager Mirjam Curno (who is also trustee at Committee for Publication Ethics, COPE, read here) visited the librarian before Christmas 2016 in Denver (see my report here). Since Beall still did not remove Frontiers from his list, Fenter rallied its loyal journal editors and started together with them in August 2016 a campaign against Beall, demanding that his university punishes the librarian or at least forces him to remove Frontiers from his private list (read here). That information on my site served as (utterly uncredited) template for the aforementioned Chronicle of Higher Education article (as its author Paul Basken admitted to me, but his editor Brock Read denied). Basken then contacted Beall, who then also revealed to him that in January 2016 the University of Colorado Denver caved in to Frontiers demands and opened a misconduct case against its librarian. At this point, Beall decided to delete his list and save his job. An academic disagreement was resolved in a honed and cherished academic tradition: with a call to the employer and a threat of sacking.

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The Costs of Knowledge: scientists want their cut on the scam

The Costs of Knowledge: scientists want their cut on the scam

When the mathematician Timothy Gowers, with some co-signers, started in 2012 his initiative “The Costs of Knowledge” to boycott Elsevier for their business practices, he was hoping to release science from the grip of commercial publishers. His reasoning went: with academics boycotting Elsevier en masse as authors, reviewers and editors, the commercial publisher would be forced to change its greedy ways, or the universities would separate themselves from the blackmail-like practice of Elsevier subscriptions (not that NatureSpringer, Wiley or others are much better in that regard). Meanwhile only 16800 people signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge, and some renounced on it silently. Open Access (OA) movement gained speed at roughly the same time, originally with the goal of reducing publication costs. Exactly the opposite was achieved, in fact what subscription publishers did was to usurp the OA movement for their greedy purpose, by subsidising OA conferences and feeding the egos of or simply doing business with those most vocal OA proponents. By now, same megapublishers sell so-called Gold OA on top or in addition to subscriptions; NatureSpringer and Elsevier became world’s biggest and second -biggest OA publishers, respectively.

University library budgets are near breakpoint, in fact Germany just now cancelled Elsevier subscriptions, in a desperate attempt to negotiate a better deal which would include both subscriptions and OA article-processing charges (APC). But some academics seem to have a different viewpoint on how to respond to publishers ripping off their own research institutions. They want their cut on the scam, namely to be paid for their peer review services. The idea is: since peer reviewing duties are not directly specified as such in faculty employment contracts, they must be then not a part of research activities, but a kind of voluntary charity to your peers, or in fact to commercial publishers. As journals and their for-profit owners (because even academic society-run journals are for-profit) make such big money publishing peer reviewed research, the peer reviewers want their share. And they don’t seem to spare a thought if science gets damaged beyond repair in the process.

incompetent referee

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Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented

Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented

Earlier this months, a research misconduct scandal in molecular cell biology broke out in the big news. Yoshinori Watanabe, Japanese researcher of cell division and how cells separate their replicated DNA during mitosis and meiosis, was found guilty of scientific misconduct by his University of Tokyo (read the news here and here). This followed an investigation initiated in the fall of 2016, after anonymous whistleblowers submitted to the university a report accusing 6 Tokyo research groups of data manipulation, first and foremost, Watanabe (I managed to obtain this dossier, and publish it below).

As the outcome of the University of Tokyo investigations, which concluded on May 31st 2017, misconduct was determined in 5 publications from Watanabe’s lab, which appeared between 2008 and 2015 in the elite journals like Science, Nature and Nature Cell Biology. However, the whistleblower dossier lists 7 papers, one of them a paper in Cell from 2015 with duplicated gel images, and a 2011 EMBO Reports paper which contains a western blot which was obviously digitally retouched to remove unwanted bands. Watanabe’s assistant professor Yuji Tanno was also found guilty of misconduct, and indeed his 2015 Science paper with Watanabe looks like a total train wreck of data manipulations.  Yet it seems there is a tendency to present Watanabe’s deeds as mere mistakes (though grossly inappropriate ones) by a great genius scientist, who was confused by the complexity of rules on data acquisition and incidentally broke some while producing outstanding and absolutely reliable top-level research. Some of his peers seem to be calling for leniency or at least some understanding for Watanabe. The selected evidence from the whistleblower dossier which I post below suggests that Watanabe knew perfectly well what he was doing, and he did so in order to produce desirable results which his lab experiments failed to deliver, and which he needed in order to impress the choosy elite journals.

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Peer review ghost-writing, or do professors understand plagiarism?

Peer review ghost-writing, or do professors understand plagiarism?

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?”

Journal announces to clean up past literature, gets “smeared” by Retraction Watch

Journal announces to clean up past literature, gets “smeared” by Retraction Watch

On June 9th 2017, the research integrity news website Retraction Watch brought an article titled: „Journal won’t look at allegations about papers more than six years old, nor from “public websites””. A public outcry followed, protesting about what was perceived an outrageous case of editorial cover-up of research fraud. The journal in question was Molecular & Cellular Biology (MCB), published by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM); the vituperative Retraction Watch article was prompted by an editorial in the June issue of this journal. The problem with that name-and-shame Retraction Watch article however was: the accusatory title did not fit their own main text at all, which did actually clarify that evidence on public websites like PubPeer is in fact very much looked at by the MCB journal editors, just not publicly commented upon. And that:

“The ASM spokesperson explained that, like the ORI, ASM journals will make exceptions to the six-year statute of limitations, for instance if older papers “provide evidence of an extensive pattern of misconduct.””

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Carlisle’s statistics bombshell names and shames rigged clinical trials

Carlisle’s statistics bombshell names and shames rigged clinical trials

John Carlisle is a British anaesthesiologist, who works in a seaside Torbay Hospital near Exeter, at the English Channel. Despite not being a professor or in academia at all, he is a legend in medical research, because his amazing statistics skills and his fearlessness to use them exposed scientific fraud of several of his esteemed anaesthesiologist colleagues and professors: the retraction record holder Yoshitaka Fujii and his partner Yuhji Saitoh, as well as Scott Reuben and Joachim Boldt. This method needs no access to the original data: the number presented in the published paper suffice to check if they are actually real. Carlisle was fortunate also to have the support of his journal, Anaesthesia, when evidence of data manipulations in their clinical trials was found using his methodology. Now, the editor Carlisle dropped a major bomb by exposing many likely rigged clinical trial publications not only in his own Anaesthesia, but in five more anaesthesiology journals and two “general” ones, the stellar medical research outlets NEJM and JAMA. The clinical trials exposed in the latter for their unrealistic statistics are therefore from various fields of medicine, not just anaesthesiology. The medical publishing scandal caused by Carlisle now is perfect, and the elite journals had no choice but to announce investigations which they even intend to coordinate. Time will show how seriously their effort is meant.

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COPE, the publishers’ Trojan horse, calls to abolish retractions

COPE, the publishers’ Trojan horse, calls to abolish retractions

Four private scientists without any agenda whatsoever published a research result preprint on the portal BioRxiv. The “new results” reported in the article are actually new ideas which are just as good as any research results, because they are supposed to bring the field of scholarly communication forward. The question is, where to, and why should anyone go there. Because the idea is to abolish the only tool science now has at hand to punish research misconduct: retractions. Fraudulent papers are to receive instead an amendment, which will notify those particularly inclined readers that research data or ethics approval (for clinical studies) might have been falsified or missing. Those proposing to remove the only punitive measure available in scholarly publishing are in fact the very people who are supposed to be overseeing the editorial integrity. The goats whom science welcomed as gardeners now dropped the pretence and declared their true vision for the garden. Continue reading “COPE, the publishers’ Trojan horse, calls to abolish retractions”