Frontiers, the Switzerland-based publishing company run by EPFL professor and brain simulant Henry Markram and his wife Kamila and owned by the German giant Holtzbrinck and some investors, describes itself as “a community-rooted, open-access academic publisher”, and as such it boasts a ~71,000 head strong “virtual editorial office” which is bigger than the number of all Frontiers articles published since its inception in 2007 (~65,000). This communal character however doesn’t mean that the editorial board the size of a large town is invited to have any actual influence over editorial policies at Frontiers (which fits into one open-space office in Lausanne). In fact, the following guest post by Regina-Michaela Wittich, a former senior editor of a Frontiers journal narrates how she was sacked by Frontiers because she rejected too many papers for being of insufficient scientific quality, instead of sending them into the “rigorous” Frontiers peer review process (allegedly “enhanced with artificial intelligence”) where rejection becomes quite unlikely, and reviewers are sometimes reminded of their duty to be constructive. Continue reading “Editor sacked over rejection rate: “not inline with Frontiers core principles””
We all have been there: you read a paper and wonder: how did this ever pass peer review? Who were these incompetent peer reviewers? The following email exchange gives some insights into the farcical quagmire which the traditional peer review process is. It took place between the Editor-in-Chief of an Elsevier subscription journal Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice and a professor of physics and astronomy, who was invited to peer review a clinical trial study on gestational diabetes, his expertise assumed from some obscure “keywords”. Apparently any academic can be spontaneously invited to act as Elsevier reviewers, actual expertise doesn’t matter.
In the end, the indignant editor Antonio Ceriello, Italian research clinician with an h-index of 80, appeared to be threatening the physics professor with legal consequences from his own lawyer and Elsevier’s legal department, should he not cease complaining about these editorial practices of recruiting inappropriate reviewers.
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 Springer, 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; SpringerNature 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.
Sweden and the international research community recently faced yet another research misconduct scandal. It was about a Science paper by Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, which in 2016 made worldwide headlines with its findings that young fish larvae (or fry), namely Eurasian perch, would eat up plastic pollution like teenagers eat fast food. It soon turned out the research was apparently never performed as described, the original data was missing (allegedly stored only on a laptop, which was then stolen from a car), the results likely made up. The Lönnstedt & Eklöv 2016 paper received an editorial expression of concern in December 2016 and was eventually retracted on May 26th 2017 following misconduct findings by the Swedish Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN), while the two Swedish whistleblowers Josefin Sundin and Fredrik Jutfelt, initially themselves stiffly criticised by the University of Uppsala, were finally exonerated (see panel verdict here and here, further documents here and here). I also make available here the original report by the whistleblowers to the University of Uppsala and CEPN, detailing their “Key points highlighting scientific misconduct by Lönnstedt and Eklöv”. For further reference, read Martin Enserink’s reporting for Science here, here and here.
However, there was more to that Science paper than fraudulent science. Even if the results were not made up, their objective scientific value would still be very questionable, because it had very little connection to the reality of the plastic pollution in the oceans and the fish feeding behavior. The uniformly small, freshly industrially synthesized plastic balls which were fed to the fishes were not really representative of the actual plastic particles polluting our seas. But even those arbitrary chosen particles were not likely to have been eaten by the fishes voluntarily. If the fishes ever did swallow those, it was probably because they were simply made to, being at the point of death by starvation, something which rarely ever happens to actual plankton-feeding fishes in the sea. Of course one cannot expect peer reviewers to spot misconduct and data manipulation, but objectively assessing scientific methodology, result and conclusions of a manuscript is actually what the peer review is all about. One does wonder why the “highly qualified, dedicated” reviewers at Science failed to notice all these obvious scientific shortcomings, and instead decided that Lönnstedt & Eklöv work belonged indeed to “the very best in scientific research”. Was it because the socially and ecologically relevant conclusions sounded so important and welcome, that one simply had to blindly ignore the poor science behind them?
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?”
My attempt recently to inform the readers of the journal Tissue Engineering Part A about grave omissions and factual inconsistencies in the Steinke et al 2015 publication by Heike and Thorsten Walles failed spectacularly. Not because the concerns I raised about their tracheal transplants where deemed is irrelevant, far from it. It was the messenger who was seen as disreputable. The editor chose to send my letter out for peer review, despite the fact that I was never addressing the science of the paper, but the omitted, yet verified medical complications and deaths of the patients, as well as non-existent animal tests. Two of three peer reviewers simply chose not to believe me and my evidence, one of the reasons was: my blog site where I published it is not peer reviewed. I was also decreed to be scientifically incompetent, driven by personal vendetta against poor Walles (who are presently suing me at court for reporting about these transplants) and simply as a liar, who made all these things up. At the same time, the notorious third reviewer warns the editor that the journal’s readers must never see or hear of my accusations. Continue reading “My Walles trachea transplant reporting fails peer review”
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”