The travelling circus of research integrity in Strasbourg

The travelling circus of research integrity in Strasbourg

On March 8, an international scientific review board will be evaluating the research at the French CNRS Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) in Strasbourg. This is the place where the former star (and now misconduct-tainted pariah) of plant sciences Olivier Voinnet shot to fame, where his main lab operated since 2002 until he was taken away control over it in 2015, after found guilty of massive data manipulations in many papers by his employers CNRS and ETH Zürich (see my various reports here). The Voinnet lab in Strasbourg had since been led by his right-hand man, Patrice Dunoyer, first author on 3 retracted papers, who also admitted his own data manipulations in several more instances (most recent Voinnet/Dunoyer retraction and correction list here). A serious institute might have reconsidered collaborating with such a questionable scientist as Dunoyer, not so CNRS and its IBMP (which is actually just as fair, because also the Swiss ETH kept his boss Voinnet as their professor). Dunoyer was only punished by a one-month suspension back then in 2015, to CNRS leadership he seems to be a perfect scientist to lead a research lab in this plant science institute. Indeed, Dunoyer is apparently well integrated at IBMP: on March 8th the review board will not only be judging his scientific performance, but also that of his several IBMP colleagues whose publications were also flagged for data integrity concerns on PubPeer, e.g. Christophe Ritzenthaler, Véronique Ziegler-Graff and Pascal Genschik. Incidentally, IBMP invited as review committee members such international scientists who will be well able to understand this delicate matter, because, like for example Martin Crespi, director of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Paris-Saclay, or Serge Delrot, professor at University of Bordeaux, their own publications were reported on PubPeer for serious data integrity concerns as well. One could quip here: it takes one to know one. Continue reading “The travelling circus of research integrity in Strasbourg”

Beall-listed Frontiers empire strikes back

Beall-listed Frontiers empire strikes back

The Swiss publishing business Frontiers was placed by the US librarian Jeffrey Beall on his well-known and hotly disputed list as “potential, possible or probable predatory publisher”. Frontiers however was not prepared to take this lying down. The publisher’s Executive Editor Frederick Fenter first tried it nicely. Shortly before Christmas 2015, he flew to visit Beall at his University of Colorado in Denver, with the senior manager Mirjam Curno in tow. Curno is incidentally also board member and trustee of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Afterwards, Fenter stopped being nice. In August 2016, he bombarded around ten senior officials at the University Colorado in Denver with letters and a dossier (see below) demanding that they make sure Frontiers is removed from their employee’s private list.

Thing is: University of Colorado has nothing to do with the so-called Beall’s List. The list is part of the librarians private blog on WordPress (same platform I use). In fact, this is the disclaimer which Beall placed on his site clear for all to see:

“These views represent the personal opinions of the author (Jeffrey Beall)  and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado System”.

Continue reading “Beall-listed Frontiers empire strikes back”

Frontiers reviewer told: don’t be strict, endorse paper, reports Giulia Liberati

Journal peer review is a mysterious black box all scientists fear. The task of the reviewers is to help authors to improve their manuscripts scientifically and to help journal editors to weed out scientifically substandard and inappropriate works. That’s the theory anyway, in practice there are good reasons why the peer review process is traditionally something to be hidden by all means from the readers of published papers. Probably to avoid occasional shock, disgust  and repulsion, similar to how the supermarket customers should by no means be made aware of the true origins of industrially raised meat. In a kind of a vicious circle, this peer review secrecy is a direct invitation to rig it even more. Editors tend to assign friendly reviewers according to authors’ eminence, while peer reviewer conflicts of interests are routinely disregarded, since no one will ever find out anyway. In the same vein, scientists who made themselves some powerful enemies will see their manuscripts destroyed by unreasonable and aggressive peer review. They often naively hope the editor was decent enough not to invite those same adversaries whom the authors specifically asked to be excluded. Continue reading “Frontiers reviewer told: don’t be strict, endorse paper, reports Giulia Liberati”

Triplicated paper with multiplicated cells and images

There are papers which contain image duplications. There are papers which contain outrageous image duplications, which can only be explained by wilful manipulation and deceit. Then there are papers which are deliberately published twice, which also can constitute misconduct (COPE guidelines are somewhat unclear there).

In this case however, a paper containing outrageously manipulated duplicated images has been published 3 times, in three different journals, which happen to be also Open Access. 

The authors are almost all from Malaysia, and not the same on these three publications Yet all three papers have same two corresponding authors:

Sekaran Muniandy, professor at the Department Of Molecular Medicine at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. He even used his institutional email address: sekaran@um.edu.my. The first and other corresponding author is apparently his PhD student, Nima Samie, who used a Gmail address: nimasamie@gmail.com. Continue reading “Triplicated paper with multiplicated cells and images”

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’”

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

Many scientists have been receiving unsolicited emails from the Swiss publisher Frontiers, with invitations to submit papers or become peer review “editor” with this Open Access (OA) publisher. In fact, the Holtzbrick-owned Frontiers are occasionally criticized for these activities, which were compared to spamming. These “spam” emails however are not written by robots, but by actual human beings, usually interns. Many of them do not seem very happy about their jobs with Frontiers, as one can read at the employer-evaluation portal Glassdoor. Most of the criticism is directed against middle management, who, as I have previously shown, sometimes nonchalantly manage academic topics way outside of their professional competence.

Now, you can learn what goes on inside the Frontiers “spam” factory from a first-hand source.  I was approached by a reader of my website, who turned out to be a former full-time employee at Frontiers. This person told me that the Frontiers interns (who are recruited for a 6 month period, as advertised here) were expected to write 200 emails a day, canvassing academics to submit papers to this for-profit OA publisher:

This threshold was recommended to all interns by the journal managers based on one “exemplary” staff employee, who could actually send these many emails. The messages included canned follow-up responses to potential authors clarifying what Frontiers is [see Q&A list below, -LS], a similar correspondence with editors, and reminders about the papers undergoing peer-review. Since we sent these emails from shared journal email accounts, everyone could see their quality. It was clear to me that the quantity over quality was an approach applied there. The journal managers asked us to use only template responses, word for word. It was more acting like a robot, without support from permanent staff members”.

Continue reading “Fear and Loathing at Frontiers”

Frontiers’ Bread Madness

The journal Frontiers in Human Neurosciences now published a paper titled: “Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease“. It is authored by two psychologists, Paola Bressan and Peter Kramer from the Department of General Psychology at University of Padova in Italy, and claims “in non-technical, plain English” that mental diseases such as schizophrenia and autism are caused by bread (yes, you read right, bread). In their “review article” Bressan and Kramer claim to provide evidence that bread gluten makes “holes in our gut”, thus activating an immune response, and is degraded into opioid substances (“some of them resemble morphine extremely much”). The casein in milk has allegedly exactly the same effect, and cure for “schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and autism” is possible by adhering to a strict bread- and milk-free diet. In fact, other staple foods might make you mad as well, as authors conclude:

“Bread is the very symbol of food, and learning that it can threaten our mental wellbeing may come as a shock to many. Yet bread is not alone; like it, other foodstuffs, such as milk, rice, and corn, release exorphins during digestion”.

Though the paper appeared on March 29th, it was meant seriously and not as an April 1st joke. Continue reading “Frontiers’ Bread Madness”