Retraction Watch

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Citing “scientific dishonesty,” Danish board calls for retraction of controversial paper on decline of Western civilization

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Helmuth-Nyborg-180

Helmuth Nyborg

The Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) is calling for the retraction of a politically sensitive article by Helmuth Nyborg, a controversial Danish  psychologist, over concerns about referencing and authorship.

The 2011 paper, “The Decay of Western Civilization: Double Relaxed Darwinian Selection,” appeared in Personality and Individual Differences, a prestigious journal in the field, and quickly aroused the ire of a group of Danish scientists. As first reported in the Danish press, an inquiry by the DCSD concluded late last month that:

The DCSD found that the defendant had committed scientific dishonesty by appearing as the sole author of an article and by including a reference which did not support the data it indicated to support.

Nyborg, formerly of Aarhus University (and an Olympic canoeist), is no stranger to the DCSD — which we note has also been subject to criticism recently. He found himself under investigation for misconduct after publishing an article some years earlier in the same journal in which he purported to show that men on average have higher IQs than women and that the difference is biological. In that case — which Nyborg called part of a “global witch hunt” against academics interested in question of IQ, sex and race — the DCSD did not find grounds for action.

Nyborg, who, not surprisingly, is a darling academic among the extreme right, has strenuously protested the case against him as politically motivated “censure” of unpopular research. In a lengthy appeal to colleagues Nyborg writes:

the verdict is based on flawed premises (The Case), and the governmental committee was exploited as a useful tool in a long-standing systematic, goal-directed, politically motivated left-oriented attempt to censure psychometric and differential psychology

Nyborg, for his part, acknowledges the referencing issue as “an error of omission.”

I made an error of omission, when I failed in the methodology section to describe a proportional parameter transformation. This transformation was needed, because the UN Fertility Rates at the correctly referenced data source could be used as input in the mathematical projection model only, if transformed to Crude Birth Rates.

And regarding the ghost author, Nyborg says he asked the researcher multiple times if he wanted to be named on the paper but that the person refused.

I wanted to appreciate JEV’s contribution to the analysis, so I wrote twice (documentable) to him, and invited him to co-author the paper. By so doing I unknowingly deviated from the qualifications of the Vancouver Protocol for authorship. This protocol states that in order to be credited as an author, each and every author on a publication needs to have been involved in the:

1.      Conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data

AND

2.      Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content

AND

3.      Final approval of the version to be published.

I informed DCSD that JEV did qualify only on the first of these points – analysis and interpretation of data. However, DCSD did not consider it relevant that JEV twice declined my invitation for co-authorship, and that he had not written one word in the paper. To the contrary, the majority finds that HN’s “… reference to the Vancouver-rules does not change [their] evaluation, because the Vancouver-rules were not followed”.

In other words, if a paid data consultant declines an invitation to appear as co-author, the DCSD decision leaves a scientist with three choices: 1. To physically force him to put his name on the paper (as co-author or in an acknowledgement), which I believe is against the laws, 2. To not publish it, which I believe is against the interest of science, or 3. To respect his decision to leave out his name, publish the paper, and risk being accused of scientific misconduct.

DCSD decided that I had deliberately left out JEV’s name and wrongfully brought myself in the role as sole author of the paper.

We don’t have a position on whether this paper should be retracted, nor on Nyborg’s work. We’re interested in the retraction process, as we say in our tagline. We have, however, received several emails about this case and have seen comments within them supporting Nyborg from both ends of the spectrum — Charles Murray, of the Bell Curve, for example, but another from an avowedly liberal scholar — decrying what they view as the heavy hand of political correctness.

For the moment, the article has yet to be retracted. We’ve contacted the journal for more on the paper and will update this post if we hear back.

We will, however, take issue with one thing Nyborg states in his defense:

 Science is self-correcting. When a paper on an important matter is published with invalid methods or questionable conclusions, other researcher will soon correct this, and science moves on.

As the history of this blog shows pretty clearly, we believe, that Platonic ideal very often — perhaps more often than not — fails to exist in nature, certainly in the “soon” time frame Nyborg seems to be describing.

Update, 2:45 p.m. Eastern, 11/14/13: Tony Vernon, editor of the journal where the paper appeared, tells us he will be looking into the matter.

Written by amarcus41

November 13th, 2013 at 11:34 am

Comments
  • Jelte Wicherts November 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I have had several debates with Helmuth Nyborg and would be happy to criticise his paper (as I have criticised similar lines of research), which is not particularly impressive. But I doubt whether this is actual scientific misconduct, if indeed Nyborg has evidence that he invited the original co-author. The co-author may have simply disagreed (as do I) with some of Nyborg’s conclusions or the co-author may have shied away from authorship because the views expressed by Nyborg are controversial.

    • [deleted] November 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm

      [Comment removed at commenter’s request]

      • Bob November 15, 2013 at 6:07 am

        You could “unfortunately not convince the UVVU that plagiarism had taken place”, yet you remain convinced despite having no evidence that Nyborg plagiarized?

  • Michael Kovari November 13, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Nyborg has responded to the criticisms in detail – something most of the denials quoted on this blog fail to do.
    This is obviously a witch hunt.

    • JATdS November 14, 2013 at 4:07 am

      The Vancouver Protocol for authorship and the authorship definitions as defined by Elsevier, the publisher that is responsible for this paper, are INCOMPATIBLE. The former is an AND+AND while Elsevier is an OR+OR. Now that’s something worth chewing on. It should be noted that these rules, guidelines and protocols are simply self-centered rules, and not laws. There is no universal rule on authorship for scientific papers no matter what garbage anyone tries to shove down your throat. Authorship is (and should be) determined exclusively by authors provided that they fall within ethical constraints imposed by the respective research institutes and countries. This will thus clearly differ from country to country and institute to institute.

  • Mike Steinberg November 16, 2013 at 3:03 am

    Dr James Thompson, has commented on this bizarre and seemingly unfair process here. Thompson writes:

    “The three pursuers have found him guilty of two crimes: “that the defendant had committed scientific dishonesty by appearing as the sole author of an article and by including a reference which did not support the data it indicated to support.” There is no appeal allowed. Helmut writes to me, in great detail poor fellow, showing that he offered co-authorship to a colleague who did not accept it, and that the reference was to the correct dataset, but should have included a note on a technical correction about birth rate projections which makes no real difference to the results. You can get the very much fuller account from him (see email address below). I shudder to think what this committee could do to any authors of any published paper if it classifies omissions of this sort as “scientific dishonesty”.

    Is there a back story? Yes, Helmuth got on the wrong side of a colleague at his university. They applied for the same job years ago. The other guy got the job. Helmut, who had 40 publications at that stage, which was far more than the other candidate, protested. They have been on very poor terms ever since. Incredibly, this guy was one of the three members of the committee. The other two are also on public record as being hostile to him. Publication rates for two of them are 0 and 0, and 32 for the other one, so he is hardly up against stellar scholars.

    More of a back story? Helmuth thinks we are going to the dogs in a hand cart, and that we are showing dysgenic fertility in the sense of reverse Darwinian selection. All this is possible, and the impact on nations depends on assumptions about birth rates and intelligence in the next decades, but it is not a popular story in some quarters.

    More back story? Helmuth is unusual in psychology, in that he had a period in his life when he had a real job. He was a sailor on merchant ships, and on the long sea journeys began to catch up on an education he had never had as a young man. He went into psychology and made a new career for himself, initially in the perception of the rod and frame illusion and later in more general behavioural differences. He still has some of the blunt manners of a man who gets things done. I would let him captain my ship through pirate waters, but I would not elect him to be Chairman of the Diplomatic Committee for the Management of Academic Sensibilities and Polite Evasions (and Innovation).

    Is there even more of a back story? This has the stink of a common room feud. Has your institution ever had such a thing? Of course not, but surely if you are being tried for your academic life you deserve to appear before an unbiased set of assessors, and have full legal representation, and not be judged by accusers who have strongly opposed positions in their politics and world outlook, and have personal animosities to boot.”

    http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.co.nz/2013/11/helmuth-nyborg-gets-watsond.html?spref=tw

    Nyborg has been targetted previously, leading Steven Pinker to write in his defence:

    “letter Pinker wrote in his defense a couple of years ago:

    I am writing to protest the shocking and disgraceful treatment of Dr. Helmuth Nyborg following publication of his report on possible gender differences in average IQ scores. Dr. Nyborg may be mistaken, but the issue he is addressing is a factual one, and can only be evaluated by an open examination of the evidence. To “investigate” him, shut down his research, or otherwise harass him because his findings are politically incorrect is unworthy of an institution dedicated to the understanding of reality. It is reminiscent of the persecution of Galileo, the crippling of Soviet science and agriculture under Lysenko, and the attempt of the American religious right wing to inhibit the teaching of evolution in the schools.

    No one has the right to legislate the truth. It can only be discovered by free inquiry, and that includes investigations that may make people uncomfortable. This is the foundation of liberal society, and it is threatened by attempts to interfere with Dr. Nyborg and his research. If he is incorrect, that will be established by a community of scholars who examine his evidence and arguments and criticize them in open forums of debate, not by the exercise of force to prevent him from pursuing his research. These are the tactics of a police state, and bring shame on any institution that uses them.”

    • Marco November 16, 2013 at 9:19 am

      I am confused here. It appears to me as if Thompson claims there are three scientists with 0, 0, and 32 publications as the accusers (that would be wrong, they all have publications) and that it is those same three who then found him guilty; this is wrong, too, since the DCSD committee did not include any of these three, but consisted of in total seven members (of which two did not agree with one of the decisions on the authorship.

      Do I just misunderstand what Thompson writes? Or are there others who understand that piece the same way?

      • JATdS November 18, 2013 at 8:11 am

        I don’t know about all the rest, but there is one thing about Nyborg’s notion that I do agree with, namely the decline of Western civilization. And in fact, we need only look at what is taking place in science and science publishing to see that science publishing is now facing a truly existential threat, particularly in the West. Traditionally the Anglo-Saxonic, American (US) and German-Dutch centers of publishing houses have held a firm grip on publishing power, and have, to some extent, been able to enforce some “respectable” level of quality control and ethical stability. However, with tough financial times, the need to generate greater profits at whatever cost (ultimately to generate more CEO bonuses) and the plastic nature of marketing is rapidly eroding the ethical boundaries of what was once a narrow band of elitism held in the hands of only a few. Now, any person who has some PC skills, access to a modem, a mouse and screen can set up a “publisher”, and with the open access movement, and tough financial times, it is possible for more and more to want (and get) a slice of the evolutionary publishing pie. For exmaple, this is what Bohannon may have been trying to show, rather crudely, in his controversial Science paper. This is what Beall is trying to transmit, while cataloguing journals, on his equally controversial blog (www.scholarlyoa.com). These valid attempts to show the ugly truth about the degradation of values in science publishing are only just the tip of the ice-berg. When our results eventually become meaningless because the level of fraud has reached an equilibrium with the level of honesty, even if the number of retractions is far inferior to the number of publications, then we will maybe hail Nyborg’s criticisms, rather than criticising him for being critical. Very unfortunately, I have suffered tremendously (physically and professionally) to try and persuade the elite in plant science to see the risks and the problems. Unfortunately, too many of “them” are too busy attending expensive symposia (with no intrinsic value except for the cheeze and wine) rather than focusing on their editorial duties or on correcting the literature, with urgency, through post-publication peer review. Just yesterday, I had a testy exchange with an editor in chief from a university in the state of California. Imagine, after he and his editor board (and the publisher) totally bungled the review of my paper (which was already accepted and with a DOI), the “dude” actually had the arrogance to ask my why I was angry. Well, herein lies the decline of Western civilization, in this case Western ethics and science publishing: a certain element of the elite in editorial positions who cannot even see when they are wrong and who blindly and arrogantly assume that they are always right, even in the face of documents sometimes dozens of pages long that show that fraud, duplication, or other editorial problems exist.

      • James Thompson November 21, 2013 at 4:55 am

        Dear Marco, No, you haven’t misunderstood, but I may have got it wrong, because there is no English translation of the judgement, so I cannot look at the process in detail, and have used accounts from readers who have some knowledge of Danish. I have asked the Minister to provide an official English translation. The data on publications came from another colleague, but he may be using citation indexes. If the judgment had been published in the international language of science we would be able to get a detailed understanding. I am sorry to have to rely on second hand accounts and brief translations, and will correct my account the moment I know what the actual judgment says, including a proper description of the judgment process in this case.

        • Marco November 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

          A little bit too much hearsay, then. I can only assume that someone heard from someone who then told you, resulting in a translation from “they only listened to the accusers” to “the accusers made the decision”.

          I cannot translate the judgment (well, I can, but won’t, too much work for no gain), but maybe I can clear up some things.

          Note that the following is all information freely available in the Danish media or the DCSD document cited in the main post, so naming names here should not hurt anyone

          The accusers were Jens Mammen, Morten Kjeldgaard (both from Aarhus University), and Jens Kvorning (Aalborg University). You can look up all three and find some publications. None are or have been very prolific, and it certainly is possible that specific indexes will not find many of their publications (some are textbooks or in Danish journals, for example). Nonetheless, the numbers given did not fit what I could easily find.

          The DCSD committee that looked at the accusations consisted of Caroline Heide-Jørgensen, Michael Møller, Hans Henrik Edlund, Lene Koch, Signild Vallgårda og Henrik Gunst Andersen (chair). Mogens N. Pedersen participated also, but only until last August when his term at the DCSD ended.
          These are all well established scientists in their field, and as you can see this did not include any of the accusers.

          Before writing more about this case, you may want to check your previous sources more critically. If they told you the accusers were also the adjudicators, they are not credible sources.

  • nyc November 25, 2013 at 5:37 am

    Well, the Nyborg paper is of low quality and poorly reasoned, however the charges of academic misconduct are of low quality and poorly reasoned as well.

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