The rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde

The rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde

For the publisher Elsevier, antivax papers are apparently only a problem when they are too heavily manipulated. It took their journal 12 years to retract the notorious paper by Andrew Wakefield, because of data irregularities (details here and here). But the damage was done, an worldwide antivax movement was born, which keeps spreading bizarre and irrational paranoia that vaccines would cause autism in children (most recently supported by the disastrous US president Donald Trump, in tweets and in actual governmental policy). Vaccination rates dropped worldwide, and consequently deadly diseases considered long eradicated are making a comeback. But scholarly publishers and their journals bear here a heavy responsibility, by repeatedly publishing antivax papers and providing the anti-vax movement with the scientific legitimacy.

This was exactly what Elsevier did just now, again. Their Journal of Inorganic Chemistry published a paper by notorious antivax researchers Christopher Shaw, ophthalmology professor in the University of British Columbia, and his postdoc Lucija Tomljenovic. Both scientists enjoy full support of their Canadian university, despite that, together with another antivaxer, Yehuda Schoenfeld, they once had to retract a paper on the alleged neurotoxicity of aluminium adjuvant in vaccines, from the Elsevier journal Vaccine. The authors then simply republished the retracted masterpiece again in another journal, Immunologic Research, published by Springer.

The newly published Shaw paper in Journal of Inorganic Chemistry is again about alleged neurotoxicity of aluminium (or as authors prefer to call it, “aluminum”) , with a bold claim that it would cause autism in mice, as detected by some biomarkers authors saw as appropriate:

Continue reading “The rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde”

The smelly compost heap of plant-based nanoparticles

A gang of Indian nanotechnology scientists, allegedly from Annamalai University in India, placed in 2014-2015 several papers in different journals, all of them about nanoparticle synthesis using extracts from various local plants. Most papers went into the journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, published by Elsevier. The publications were harshly criticised on PubPeer for their poor science, but also for suspected data manipulations (electron microscopy images, photographs of bacteria dishes and X-ray diffraction measurements were reused across different unrelated papers, see PubPeer examples below).

Five nanotechnology papers at Elsevier are now about to be retracted, at least four of them from Spectrochimica Acta Part A. The concerns about research quality and data integrity may have been however less decisive here. The faculties of the Annamalai University carry no mention of any of these authors as their members, all of the provided corresponding email addresses are from Gmail. A publishing scam, possibly including fraudulent peer review, is the likely reason why these papers are being retracted now. Continue reading “The smelly compost heap of plant-based nanoparticles”

With Voinnet and Cosma cover-up, Cell now admits to have no editorial integrity whatsoever

The elite journal Cell issued editorial notices in regard to 3 papers by the Swiss-based French plant scientist Olivier Voinnet (found guilty of research misconduct in many papers) and one by the Spain-based Italian cell biologist Maria Pia Cosma (some information about her papers here). The journal Molecular Cell (which editorial offices are not entirely independent from Cell) issued same note for a different Cosma paper.

Despite obvious data manipulations, the journal decided not to do even as little as a correction. This is in full agreement with a previous declaration by the Cell Editor-in-Chief Emilie Marcus, who announced one year ago to be tolerating data manipulations in her journal, provided the science described is “wow” and “cool” (see details in my satire article here). Indeed, as a branch of the private business Elsevier, Cell is free to publish whatever they wish, even explicit fraud, lies and fakery. It is however the duty of all scientists, funding agencies and the subscription-paying university libraries to decide if what Cell publishes is actually any good science under such policies.  Even if it reads“wow”.

I will simply list the four editorial notices below, accompanied with some corresponding images off PubPeer. Naturally, none of that author-provided evidence (i.e., where it existed in the first place) which Cell found so convincing, is shared with us nosy readers. Make your own judgement, the notices speak for themselves. Continue reading “With Voinnet and Cosma cover-up, Cell now admits to have no editorial integrity whatsoever”

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’”

Image integrity concerns in papers from a Pfizer lab

Image manipulations are unfortunately a rather widespread practice in biomedical literature, where a large part of research data in figures consists of microscopy or gel images. Some of the most commonly detected issues in this regard are image duplications. These can range from possible negligence like duplicated western blot images, to deliberate data fabrication, evidenced by duplications of select image fragments such as gel bands. Sometimes, it is difficult to believe in the accidental nature of duplications: I reported of a case where one single western blot put an appearance whole twelve times in several publications by the Brazilian diabetes researcher Mario Saad and his colleagues. Some of his papers have been retracted by now.

Elisabeth Bik is not only a competent microbiologist at Stanford University and public-outreach-blogger, she is also a human image fabrication detector. Even the most cleverly spliced band duplications are unlikely to be overlooked by Bik, who by now screened over 20,000 papers from 40 different journals for duplications and other image irregularities. For her project, Dutch-born microbiologist teamed up with colleagues and known research integrity activists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang (who previously established misconduct as lead cause of retractions and demanded a reform of the Nobel Prize).  The trio presented the results of Bik’s analysis in a bioarxiv-preprint titled “The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications”, where they calculated that

3.8% of published papers contained problematic figures, with at least half exhibiting features suggestive of deliberate manipulation”.

Continue reading “Image integrity concerns in papers from a Pfizer lab”

A personal tale of scientific misconduct

A personal tale of scientific misconduct

The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo was found guilty of “negligence in handling and presenting data” in her publications by the European life science society EMBO; she and her doctoral advisor Manel Esteller also had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics 41, 365–370, 2009). Despite further image irregularities in his other publications (where Melo was not a co-author), Esteller was tasked by his Spanish research institution IDIBELL to investigate himself.  As Principal Investigator (PI) he cannot be responsible to vouchsafe data integrity in his own papers, decreed IDIBELL leadership (of which he is actually part of).

The French plant scientist Olivier Voinnet still enjoys full institutional protection of his Swiss university ETH Zürich, despite his self-admitted misconduct. However, before he acknowledged to have been excessively manipulating data in his own papers, his subordinate researcher Patrice Dunoyer accepted sole responsibility. When the first retraction (of currently seven) hit, the retraction notice  of Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell 2004 read: “We wish to state that the first author, Patrice Dunoyer, was solely involved in generating the erroneous figure panels”. Dunoyer’s reward for such loyalty: despite a confidential CNRS investigation against him, he was also allowed to remain in his permanent position as group leader.

Most recently, Cell Press was faced with a dilemma. It was contacted by a junior author, Yao-Yun Liang, who admitted to have “manipulated the experiments to achieve predetermined results” in the papers in Cell and Molecular Cell. It is safe to assume this whistleblower also provided solid evidence, since Cell Press issued two Expressions of Concern (here and here). The last author, Xin-Hua Feng from Baylor College of Medicine in USA, denied everything “citing concerns about Liang’s motives and credibility”. Yet, this being Cell of Elsevier, the publisher simply tasked Feng with investigating himself. He was invited to reproduce the flagged experiments elsewhere, presumably followed by some “Voinnetting”, namely to use those to correct his manipulated paper. Unfortunately, I did not succeed reaching out to Liang, also his past collaborators did not know his current whereabouts. Feng, unsurprisingly, did not reply at all.

One can continue listing ad nauseam examples of retractions, corrections and expressions of concern where a junior author was assigned the exclusive blame, while the PI was presented as a hapless victim. It seems labs all over the world are truly infested by ruthless scheming PhD students and postdocs, whose only goal in life is to bite the hand that feeds them. The innocent PI is guilty of nothing more than keeping such snakes at his honest bosom, this is at least how universities and journals like to publicly present the instances of research misconduct. No-one wants reputational damage or loss of funding to hit their faculty, or to lose important contributors of exciting research papers. However, the reality is often somewhat more complicated. Continue reading “A personal tale of scientific misconduct”

Does The Lancet care about patients?

Does The Lancet care about patients?

The Lancet, an elite medical journal published by Elsevier, is responsible for a number of controversial publications, on which its Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton and his editorial office have not always acted to everyone’s satisfaction.

The Lancet and the magic of stem cells

The probably biggest Lancet scandal now is that of the trachea transplant surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, the recently sacked professor at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet (KI). His most prominent critic, Belgian thoracic surgeon Pierre Delaere has publicly called on my site for a retraction of all four of Macchiarini’s paper in The Lancet (Macchiarini et al. 2008Jungebluth et al. 2011Badylak et al 2012,  Gonfiotti et al. 2014); also the Swedish Academy of Sciences asked the journal to act on Macchiarini’s papers. Elsewhere, Italian media provided evidence that the Gonfiotti et al. 2014 case report paper “The first tissue-engineered airway transplantation: 5-year follow-up results” misrepresented the true medical condition of Macchiarini’s first stem –cell regenerated trachea recipient. Corriere Fiorentino reported in February 2016: Continue reading “Does The Lancet care about patients?”