Should scientific misconduct be handled by the police? It’s fraud week at Nature and Nature Medicine
Those are three highlights from a number of pieces that have appeared in Nature and Nature Medicine in the past few weeks. Not surprisingly, there are common threads, so join us as we follow the bouncing ball.
First, a piece about the case of Alberto Fusco, which we’ve covered following some stories in the Italian media. Two big themes jump out here: One, Italy has no real official body to deal with allegations of scientific misconduct, so the police have ended up working the case. That fact led to an editorial accompanying the piece headlined “Call the cops.” The editorial concludes, with echoes of investigative reporter Brian Deer:
At the very least, academic investigators could learn from police methods for dealing with allegations of serious misconduct — that word again. And researchers might be less tempted to be cavalier with the truth — and with our money — if they knew who else could knock on their door.
Two, a molecular biologist named Enrico Bucci found likely image manipulation in a quarter of papers he analyzed with a new software program his company has developed. (Bucci has contacted us over the years, but we’ve never had substantial conversations with him. At one point a few months ago, he offered to walk us through the software, but our other priorities — day jobs, an endless stream of retractions — intervened. So we’re glad Nature‘s Alison Abbott ran with this one.)
This sounds like a really big and alarming number. It is, however, dramatically larger than the 1% of papers Rockefeller Press’s Mike Rossner and colleagues found to have image problems when they examined them years ago. [Update: See comment from Rossner below.] The explanation for the difference can be found in the story:
Bucci and his team created a database hosting all accessible biomedical papers published since 2000. But cleaning it of scientific contamination was not the quick job he had imagined. First he removed retracted papers; then he created a network of scientists who had been co-authors at least three times with authors of the retractions.
In other words, this was a highly selected group of which Fusco was a part. In addition to the retraction we’ve reported on, another will appear in Cell Death and Differentiation of a 2006 paper by Fusco and colleagues, Nature reports.
The search for problematic images brings us to a piece in last week’s Nature which featured Clare Francis — the pseudonymous whistleblower whose name will be familiar to Retraction Watch readers. Editors quoted in the piece said “many of her claims did not check out” (we should point out that Clare is actually a “he,” although the confusion is understandable given the pseudonym):
By 2011, editors were growing increasingly frustrated by Francis because — quite apart from her anonymity — many of her claims did not check out. “I have no problem taking time to look at an allegation — but I don’t like people wasting my time,” says Eric Murphy, editor-in-chief of Lipids. Moreover, many of Francis’s complaints are oblique and hard to follow, says Sullenberger. “It is helpful to know specific details about the concerns from a scientific standpoint, not just, ‘The bands in the 10- and 60-minute lanes are geometrical and superimposable’ or ‘Background is silvery smooth’,” she says, referring to some of Francis’s e-mails. Some journal editors have warned Francis that they are less likely to follow up on her requests than other complaints. In September 2011, Wiley’s then legal director, Roy Kaufman, sent her an e-mail saying that the company could “not guarantee that all anonymous allegations sent to us will be investigated”. Francis made the note public, sparking debate over how such allegations should be handled.
Having seen thousands of Francis’s emails, we’d respectfully disagree with these editors’ characterizations. What we’d like to know — and what Nature‘s Richard van Noorden was also trying to figure out — is just how many of Francis’s critiques lead to retractions, if properly investigated. We have a sense that percentage is higher than editors are acknowledging.
That means we must respectfully wonder whether some editors would rather find excuses not to investigate what are actually legitimate complaints. There is a typical quote in the Nature piece from one editor: “One has to wonder about the motivation of the whistle-blower,” says Ulrich Brandt, editor of Biochimica and Biophysica Acta. Brandt has made it clear elsewhere that he thinks editors should ignore anonymous whistleblowers.
But that sort of approach ignores the fact that, well, facts are stubborn things, as we’ve pointed out when calling for editors to pay more attention to such whistleblowers. We’d encourage Cell Death and Differentiation editor Gerry Melino to take a look at an email from Francis about another Fusco paper, for example. (By the way, Elsevier spokesperson Tom Reller, in comments that didn’t make it into the Nature piece but that he posted at Elsevier Connect, raised some other questions about Francis’s methods. His responses are worth a read.)
Finally, that stubborn refusal of many journal editors to properly correct the scientific record brings us to a refreshingly honest Nature Medicine editorial about why it is so difficult to get an obviously flawed paper retracted. (We’re not just praising it because it mentions us in the first paragraph.) The short version: Count the number of times the words “lawyers” (2) and “legal” (5) appear in the piece.