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?
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.
The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo has now achieved the status of a zombie scientist. After an internal investigation which records are kept secret, she was cleared of all suspicions of scientific misconduct and re-installed as group leader at the Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) in Porto (see my report here). This despite an impressive PubPeer record of data integrity concerns, and despite the fact that the European research society EMBO revoked Melo’s Installation Grant funding after having determined problems with her publications. EMBO nevertheless stick to their decision, but Melo’s Portuguese funders like Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) apparently see absolutely no need to reconsider their support, certainly not after the I3S whitewashing. Melo previously had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics, 2009) for data manipulations, her other works were however found not problematic by the I3S commission. In two papers in Cancer Cell (Melo et al 2010 and Melo et al 2014), the alleged duplications were apparently proven not to be duplications. As I learned, this was probably because while the top part of the gel images indeed did look suspiciously similar, the lower parts were clearly different. A possibility of digital image splicing was not considered, as it seems. In any case, even if the top bands are indeed the same, it doesn’t really matter. Cell editorial offices made on several occasions perfectly clear that data integrity is not one of their top concerns.
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”→
The British research funder Wellcome Trust (now just Wellcome) is about to launch its own journal, where the funding recipients and their collaborators are invited to published their research free of charge (since Wellcome will be covering those costs). Wellcome Open Researchwill be open access (OA) and offer fully transparent post-publication peer review, i.e. all reviewer reports, manuscript versions as well as reviewer identities will be posted alongside the final articles. Manuscripts which received peer review approval will become proper research papers and feature accordingly on PubMed and other databases. Wellcome specifically invites scientists to publish negative and null results as well as databases. Importantly, the funder also promotes data sharing through “inclusion of supporting data”. The platform on which Wellcome Open Research will operate is that of F1000Research, a post-publication peer review journal which prides itself of its open science approach.
This sounds like excellent news for science, which is plagued by irreproducibility and misconduct crises, and many welcomed the Wellcome initiative, hoping that other national funding agencies in Europe, North America and elsewhere might follow. It is indeed the first serious attempt by a major western funder to move away from publisher-dependence towards a “samizdat”, a self-publishing service run exclusively for own researchers and their partners. However, a similar model of university press proved unsuccessful before and never became accepted by the scientific community. Therefore, some are sceptical that this Wellcome publishing enterprise may ever take off. Continue reading “Wellcoming the samizdat publishing revolution”→
Sweden is a tolerant country, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, sometimes this Swedish tolerance seems ill-advised. Dishonest scientists caught faking data are happily given another chance and fat funding, like the case of the diabetes researcher Pontus Boström shows.
This scientist was found to have fabricated data during his PhD studies with late Sven‐Olof Olofsson at the University of Gothenburg, and went afterwards to publish a seminal paper in Nature with the biggest godfather of the diabetes research field, Bruce Spiegelman. Also this high-impact study turned out to be irreproducible by other researchers and a likely artefact of erroneous antibody use. Yet due to his impressive publishing record and unwavering support of the mighty Spiegelman, Boström was invited to head a group leader position at several Swedish universities, while he settled on the best offer by the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, supported by the elite EU funder ERC. All despite his previous convictions of research misconduct in Gothenburg and ensuing retractions of two meeting abstracts, which were at all times perfectly known to all parties involved. Continue reading “Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden”→
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.