Oncogene EiC Justin Stebbing, a hypocrite of research integrity?

Oncogene EiC Justin Stebbing, a hypocrite of research integrity?

The cancer research journal Oncogene issued on October 16th 2017 an Editorial on the topic of research integrity:

“The importance of being earnest in post-publication review: scientific fraud and the scourges of anonymity and excuses”.

The editorial contains a list of 8 common excuses dishonest authors used to escape responsibility for manipulated data. It was authored by David Sanders, virologist and professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at the Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, US, as well as Justin Stebbing, professor of cancer medicine and oncology at the Imperial College London, UK, who is also one of the two Editors-in-Chief (EiC) of the journal Oncogene. Sander is one of these rare brave academics who is unafraid to call out scientific misconduct while his peers hide in the bushes and instead even point fingers at whistleblowers like him. As the newspaper USA Today wrote earlier this year, Sanders made himself a very powerful enemy, the star US cancer researcher with Italian origins, Carlo Croce:

“But that didn’t stop Sanders from alleging that Dr. Carlo Croce, a prominent cancer researcher at Ohio State University, falsified data or plagiarized text in more than two dozen articles Croce has authored. For the past two-plus years, Sanders has contacted scientific journals in which the articles appeared to alert them of his concerns. Earlier this month, he went more public with his claims in an investigative piece by the New York Times that delved into years of ethics charges against Croce.

“There are, and I anticipate there will be additional, consequences for my career,” Sanders said Tuesday afternoon while sitting in his office inside the Hockmeyer Hall of Structural Biology at Purdue.

This isn’t the first time Sanders has publicly accused a scientist of bad behavior. In 2012, Sanders had an article by a former colleague retracted on the basis that the colleague used their former deceased research partner’s data in the paper without permission”.

A long article appeared in The New York Times prior to that, “Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass“, detailing the case of Carlo Croce and the role of Sanders the whistleblower, and the Ohio State University, who were mostly covering up the affair. Croce hit back: he is now suing the newspaper, and in separate lawsuit, also Sanders at a New York court, as reported by Retraction Watch.

Hence, Sanders knows first-hand what research misconduct is and how to act upon it. Indeed, the editorial was his idea, and his co-author Stebbing joined afterwards. As Sanders wrote to me:

“The impulse for the editorial and the list was from me.  We discussed the inclusion of particular items and how they were described together”.

Stebbing indeed is not much of a whistleblower, quite the opposite, he can be in fact seen as victim of such. His own publication was heavily criticised on PubPeer, for suspected western blot band duplications. And the piquant bit is: Stebbings, together with his first author  Georgios Giamas (now Reader in Biochemistry at the University of Sussex, UK) offered on PubPeer explanations which sound very much as what he himself has been ridiculing in the Sanders & Stebbing editorial in his journal Oncogene. Continue reading “Oncogene EiC Justin Stebbing, a hypocrite of research integrity?”

Chocolate health: advice by Thomas Lüscher and peer review by Jonas Malmstedt

Chocolate health: advice by Thomas Lüscher and peer review by Jonas Malmstedt

Christmas season is the time to eat lots of chocolate. And as science teaches us, your confectionery is actually the superfood which will make you healthy, slim and clever. Good for you, good for the chocolate industry which often generously sponsors such scientists.

In May 2016, I brought a story about chocolate health research and how it is funded by food industry giants Mars and Nestle. The main protagonist was Thomas Lüscher, cardiology professor at the University of Zürich and head of the heart centre at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland. Lüscher postulated that eating dark chocolate daily is beneficial for heart insufficiency patients and may prevent heart attacks, he now offers some additional advice. Now his peer, the Swedish vascular surgeon Jonas Malmstedt, provides his analysis of Lüscher’s publications below. Another study which Malmstedt unpicks, is an opus from the Luxembourg Institute of Health (Alkerwi et al, 2016), which declared that eating chocolate makes you younger and healthier, and prevents diabetes on top. Continue reading “Chocolate health: advice by Thomas Lüscher and peer review by Jonas Malmstedt”

The Voinnet investigator and the tricky issue of conflict of interests

The Voinnet investigator and the tricky issue of conflict of interests

Great scientists never have any conflicts of interests, and in the case of the investigation of the research misconduct by the plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, led by his Swiss employer ETH Zürich, this was also apparently the case. Voinnet was found guilty of misconduct and admitted image manipulations in many papers. Yet his science remained largely unquestioned, and even original data behind the most outrageously manipulated figures was said to have been available in many cases. The ETH investigation recommended 6 retractions, one of which was even avoided thanks to the concerns the journal Science had towards that paper’s junior authors (Voinnet’s current retraction count stands at 8 papers and almost 20 corrections, where manipulated data was simply exchanged with new one). Professor emeritus Witold Filipowicz, of the Friedrich-Mieschner-Institute in Basel, is like Voinnet a specialist in the field of regulatory small RNAs, and he was therefore one of two external Voinnet investigators whom ETH invited in early 2015. It did not matter to ETH that it was actually Filipowicz who nominated Voinnet for the EMBO Gold Medal, which the disgraced plant scientist then lost after EMBO’s own investigation into his many years of data manipulation. Continue reading “The Voinnet investigator and the tricky issue of conflict of interests”

Regenerating in Hannover, Part 2: Axel Haverich’s “growing” heart valves

Regenerating in Hannover, Part 2: Axel Haverich’s “growing” heart valves

The science of the fallen star of regenerative medicine Paulo Macchiarini was simple: take a dead organ, strip it of its cells and seed the carcass with stem cells (usually the magic cells from bone marrow). After some days in a “bioreactor”, you take out a living trachea, esophagus, even heart, and implant it into a patient. Another human life saved, and not only media, even scientist colleagues fell for this outrageous quackery. As the result of this hubris, several patients died, others remained in permanent critical care. Macchiarini and his partners Philipp Jungebluth, Martin Birchall and others had to fake ethics approvals as well as to lie and cheat about medical records in their publications in The Lancet, all in order to present a miserably suffering recipient of a ”regenerated” trachea as fully recovered. Animal experiments were performed only after Macchiarini’s team operated their first human patient, as indirectly evidenced by Jungebluth’s own doctorate thesis at the Medical University Hannover (MHH) in Germany.

Macchiarini began to develop his “decell-recell” method of organ regeneration while working in Hannover, close to the renowned heart surgeon and MHH clinic director, Axel Haverich (see Part 1 for the background). In 2009, the Italian cheater then moved on to a professorship at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, where he was showered in funding money and received best institutional protection, despite his patient abuse and his lies about his qualifications. Continue reading “Regenerating in Hannover, Part 2: Axel Haverich’s “growing” heart valves”

The 3rd editor and failure of ‘proper channels’

The 3rd editor and failure of ‘proper channels’

A scientist finds serious measurement errors in three publications of his former collaborators. He alerts the journals and makes his concerns public, openly under his own name. The errors would make obsolete several key observations of an established German neurophysiology lab. Indeed, one journal retracts the criticised paper, another issues a correction describing the affected results as “not reliable”. The Editor-in-Chief of the third journal however accuses the whistle-blower of unspecified conflict of interests and retracts his already published letter to editor, in the process tainting his reputation with a public insinuation of research misconduct.

Here is this story in detail. Continue reading “The 3rd editor and failure of ‘proper channels’”

Chocolate is good for your funding

Chocolate is good for your funding

Chocolate is good for your health, scientists keep saying. This may sound counter-intuitive; given that chocolate is an extremely calorie-rich confectionery, which mostly contains industrially refined cocoa fat and huge quantities of added sugar, a substance finally about to be recognised as the prime cause for the obesity epidemics.

A recent clinical study from the Luxembourg Institute of Health, published in the British Journal of Nutrition (Alkerwi et al, 2016), discovered that “chocolate consumers (81·8 %) were more likely to be younger, physically active, affluent people with higher education levels and fewer chronic co-morbidities”. The authors used data from the nationwide Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg (ORISCAV-LUX) survey to determine that “chocolate consumption may improve liver enzymes and protect against insulin resistance, a well-established risk factor for cardiometabolic disorders”. Basically, this paper advices hyperglycaemic and diabetic patients to eat sugar-rich confectionery, which may appear somewhat irresponsible or even dangerous. These alleged chocolate benefits on diabetes prevention present a new turn in a long history of bold claims about the medicinal magic inside the sweets wrapper. Moreover, the lead author Ala’a Alkerwi also determined that chocolate improves cognitive capacities (Crichton et al 2016).

A fresh editorial in the BMJ journal Heart simply asked: “Is life longer with a box of chocolates?”. The authors Donaldson et al present “the health benefits of eating chocolate” as a scientific fact, which only needs physiological and molecular elucidation. Clinical studies have allegedly proven that regular consumption of chocolate reduces risk of heart attack and heart failure. The authors, led by Phyo Kyaw Myint, Chair for Medicine of Old Age at University of Aberdeen, decree that “future studies will need to narrow down exactly how chocolate exerts its beneficial effects”.

There were however quite a lot of chocolate studies done for more than a decade, funded with millions from the public, but also from the chocolate industry. Reliable reports of people cured of any cardiovascular diseases by eating chocolate do not exist. Even the health benefits of the purportedly medicinal raw cocoa ingredients of the flavanol compound family are far from being conclusively proven. Continue reading “Chocolate is good for your funding”

Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism

Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism

Bruno Lemaitre is professor at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where he works on insect immunity. He is also a personal friend of mine, this is one of the reasons I wish to introduce here his new book on narcissism in science. Disclaimer: I also received a one-time payment from Bruno for my help with the text and editing of his book, titled: An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?”

The book and its order options are introduced on Bruno Lemaitre’s website.

Lemaitre’s discovery of the Toll-receptor won the 2011 Nobel Prize, which however was awarded not to him, but to his former boss, Jules Hoffman (who apparently used to be rather disinterested in Lemaitre work in his lab, until he understood the impact of Lemaitre’s findings). This conflict was reported in media (e., in Science), also Lemaitre himself addressed it on his personal blog “Behind Discoveries”.

This experience, and his later observations, likely prompted Lemaitre to study the prevalence of narcissistic personalities among our science elites. Indeed, anyone who ever worked in academia was likely directly affected by the arrogance, power games and ruthless “networking” there, which push aside actual scientific competence and even research integrity, to allow those with lowest scruples and highest ambitions to climb the academic career ladder. According to Lemaitre, narcissism can be briefly described as the propensity to “get ahead” rather than to “get along”. Narcissists are only concerned about their own self-advancement and self-promotion and have little regard for the rules of social interaction. At the same time, their inflated confidence allows narcissistic researchers to radiate professional competence, knowledge and leadership, while their “meticulous” colleagues struggle with the imposter syndrome.  Finally, while narcissists strive for personal power and dominance, they are actually very good in manipulative networking and even sycophantic Macchiavelism towards senior influential figures, all with the goal to advance their careers. Narcissism is a character trait, and is probably only in small part bestowed secondarily by the acquired institutional position: the abusive narcissistic professors of today used to be career-minded narcissistic students in their past. Continue reading “Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism”