Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

European Science Foundation demands retraction of criticism in Nature, threatens legal action

with 25 comments

Amaya Moro-Martin

Amaya Moro-Martin

The European Science Foundation (ESF) has threatened legal action against a scientist for calling an evaluation process supported by the agency “flawed” in a commentary piece in Nature.

Amaya Moro-Martin, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and an associate research scientist at The Johns Hopkins University, apparently angered the ESF with the bolded phrase below:

There are too many examples to list, but here are some of the most prominent: since 2009, Italy has seen recruitment of scientists fall by 90% and the amount spent on basic research drop to nothing. In Spain, the amount of money spent on civilian research and development has dropped by 40%, and fewer than 10% of researchers who retire are being replaced. Since 2011, the budget of Greek research centres and universities has halved, with a freeze on hiring. Already reeling from budget cuts of 50% for universities and research centres, Portugal may now have to close half of its research units because of a flawed evaluation process supported by the European Science Foundation.

As first reported by the De Rerum Natura blog and confirmed for us by Moro-Martin, Jean-Claude Worms, the head of the European Science Foundation’s Science Support Office, sent the astrophysicist the following letter:

The European Science Foundation hereby requests that you retract the following allegation contained within your opinion piece published on 8 October in Nature (Volume 514, Issue 7521). [Portugal may now have to close half of its research units] because of a flawed evaluation process supported by the European Science Foundation. The European Science Foundation refutes any allegation that the process was flawed and considers that the statement cited above is slanderous, as the independent work performed in the framework of the evaluation of FCT research units followed the best international practices. http://www.esf.org/serving-science/fct-rd-units-evaluation-by-esf.html. While the European Science Foundation is cited in your paper, it is highly regrettable that no one from our organisation was interviewed and no request for clarification made. In addition, and as you may be aware, the Portuguese national union for higher education has launched a formal legal action on the evaluation process, and this has not yet come to a conclusion. If your allegation is not publically retracted in Nature, the European Science Foundation will be compelled to take appropriate legal action.

Moro-Martin said she had been asked by Nature not to comment until they had looked into the issue, which seems quite reasonable. Nature won a hard-fought battle against a libel claim just recently, and they called attention to the growth of “lawyering up” by scientists in an editorial just last week. Worms has not responded to our request for comment.

In the meantime, Dave Fernig called the threat “contemptible,” and we’ll comment: The idea that calling a process “flawed” is slanderous is just ridiculous. What evaluation process is so perfect that calling it flawed is not a reasonable opinion?

Update, 8 a.m. Eastern, 10/16/14: De Rerum Natura reports:

In a reply sent to Dan Vergano, National Geographic Senior Writer-Editor, an ESF spokesperson wrote:
It is not the intention of the European Science Foundation to undertake legal proceedings against any individual at this stage.

How wonderfully vague of them. In legal circles, this is known as “reserving the right.”

Written by Ivan Oransky

October 12th, 2014 at 10:58 am

Posted in nature retractions

Comments
  • Thiago Carvalho October 12, 2014 at 11:31 am

    This is absurd at every level. First and foremost, Dr Moro-Martin (who I do not know personally) was writing an opinion piece- she was not investigating the state of affairs in Portugal. A cursory glance at the local press, the views of prominent researchers & science policymakers in Portugal would demonstrate that her statement is not of her fabrication.

    As you and many others have pointed out, every evaluation process is flawed. Any claim to a perfect evaluation, or even one without significant flaws is ridiculous. For the logic at work here, I would call your attention to the Nature comment thread on Dr Moro-Martin’s piece and the comment posted by a ‘Jane Swift’ on behalf of the ESF. To take this adjective as the basis for legal action can only mean that the ESF is resorting to overt bullying: the threat of costs & time spent when an Institution litigates against a private individual are a coward’s very effective deterrent.

    Which brings us to a final point, also made by Dr Fernig in his blog: why did they not send a threatening message to Nature Publishing Group?

    As a European citizen, I hope this thuggish behavior disqualifies the ESF from consideration where the use of public funds by any of our national institutions is involved. Perhaps they should contact Dr Wakefield and work with his legal team in the future, and leave the difficult task of evaluating public science to people who have some respect for the difficult task of public debate.

    • Nick October 12, 2014 at 12:15 pm

      Well, yes, it’s trivially true that all evaluation processes are flawed. But if we acknowledge that, we should either no longer use the word “flawed” (taking it as read), or use it whenever the words “evaluation process” appear. So let’s be honest: Dr Moro-Martin is clearly implying that the evaluation process was flawed to a greater extent than one would otherwise expect. And of course, when a process seemingly supports a reduction in the amount of research being conducted, scientists are understandably upset about that. I’m not suggesting that she is wrong, but it’s always nice when scientists manage to bring a little bit of objectivity to their political activism.

      Apart from the above, I agree that this is ridiculous, starting with the attempt to intimidate the author when the legal responsibility is with the publisher, as pointed out by Dave Fernig. I’m not sure I would have written his blog post in exactly its present form (going for the full Godwin in only the third paragraph, and explicating — rather than simply invoking — Arkell vs Pressdram, the comic value of that case being generally agreed to lie in its nature as an in-joke rather than when spelled out in full), but his mention of the European Convention on Human Rights is apposite, not least because the Council of Europe’s head office is a 15-minute, $2 tram ride away from the ESF’s.

      By the way, note that the ESF is a consortium of funding bodies, not an organisation of member states. So you could also complain directly to whichever of your country’s funding bodies are members of ESF. You can find that here: http://www.esf.org/esf-today/member-organisations.html. (The ESF is not an EU body, so being “a European citizen” doesn’t help, or indeed hinder, very much.)

      • Thiago Carvalho October 12, 2014 at 1:11 pm

        Dear Nick:
        What I object to as a citizen is that public bodies (in this case, the Portuguese Science & Tech Foundation/FCT) contract, with our money, an entity that behaves like the ESF. Evaluation panels convened by public bodies (the FCT, an NIH study section, etc) have done the job in the past, and continue to do so. They have certainly done it in a flawed way. But if this little episode is any indication, at least they are accountable. I know it is fashionable to be of the opinion that citizens are no longer relevant in public policy. But, what the hell, the democratic farce is still fun for me.

      • FCT October 20, 2014 at 3:11 pm

        Please read the post dated 04 July 2014 entitled Bad news for academia in Europe. This article was published much before the opinion piece in Nature

        “It is probable that this was done as a way to protect FCT from accusations of bias, and to promote ESF in its new role in European research assessment. The results of this review exercise are appalling, partly because of factual errors in some of the reviews, but mostly because of the new policy to concentrate all the funds for research in a few institutions, and cutting funding from all the remaining. The errors and mistakes in the review process transform this bad policy into a tragedy for Portuguese research.”

        You can see the full article here http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/07/bad-news-for-academia-in-europe.html

  • ferniglab October 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Retraction Watch is no stranger to scientists reaching for lawyers (“lawyering up”) – it is to be resisted, otherwise our scientific enterprise will be no better than genetics under Stalin (remember Lysenko?).

    Nature, in fairness, are happy to take plenty of critique on the chin (I hold my hand up here) so why shouldn’t they dish out what is the mildest of hints that something was not absolutely perfect? Moreover, Nature edits in an old-fashioned way – pieces go through the editorial mill, with plenty of red ink flowing from the editorial pen, so the editor and publisher were fully aware of the text they published and should be the primary targets of any legal action. Of course Nature is a journal, so taking them on may well, once the case if over, lead to a lot of editorials and questions asked in the parliaments of member states and in the European Parliament.

    I think it is reasonable to give 4 “working days” for a response from ESF. If there isn’t a suitable response from ESF on Thursday 16 October I shall be contacting my representatives in Westminster and Strasbourg to request them to look into how the ESF can wander so far off its remit and waste taxpayer’s money in doing so.

    I would suggest that my colleagues do likewise – nothing quite like a bulging “postbag” to focus the minds of our elected representatives. The Chairs of relevant Science/Technology parliamentary committees are also well worth contacting.

    • Toby White October 13, 2014 at 10:54 am

      This is why I don’t comment much any more on RW, Ferniglab. You typically say it faster and better.

  • Richard Tomsett (@richardtomsett) October 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Always good to know the difference between slander and libel when you throw legal threats around… either way, totally bogus.

    • FooBar October 12, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      The proper way for the bureaucrat at ESF to respond is to write a letter to the editor, calmly explaining why Dr. Moro-Martin was wrong.

      Instead, they couldn’t resist their totalitarian instincts and are attempting to intimidate and muzzle scientists. They miscalculated though, as their actions are attracting far more attention to potential mis-mangement than the original piece in Nature.

      • Nils October 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm

        Apparently the ESF neglected to consult Barbra Steisand…

      • fernando pessoa October 15, 2014 at 11:34 pm

        In reply to FooBar October 12, 2014 at 1:54 pm

        “couldn’t resist their totalitarian instincts”

        “attracting far more attention to potential mis-mangement than the original piece in Nature”.

        The bureaucrats/”scientist managers” might be annoyed (there will be no repercussions for them in a million years), and they will still be lying in wait.

        In another age they would have held different positions.

  • herr doktor bimler October 12, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    The European Science Foundation refutes any allegation that the process was flawed

    They think that a denial is the same as a refutation?

    considers that the statement cited above is slanderous, as the independent work performed in the framework of the evaluation of FCT research units followed the best international practices.

    “Best International Practice” translates to “all the other kids were doing it too” and is a phrase I associate with petty bureaucrats covering their asses so that they can spread the blame around if things go pear-shaped. Precisely how “international practices” <b<guarantee an absence of flaws escapes me.

  • QAQ October 12, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Flawed: “blemished, damaged, or imperfect in some way” What process is not in someway imperfect?

    I can’t see anyone winning a lawsuit over a grant awarding process being called “flawed.” Everything is flawed. Coupled with the conditional “may” in the beginning and this seems pretty solidly defensible.

  • Stefan Heßbrüggen October 12, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Apparently, the contract between Portugal and the ESF has been leaked. I found a link via http://theconversation.com/funding-review-casting-shadow-over-portuguese-research-could-cloud-other-countries-29366:
    http://www.fct.pt/apoios/unidades/avaliacoes/2013/docs/ESF_FCT%20Service%20Agreement.pdf
    If this document is authentic, Dr. Moyro-Martin is thoroughly vindicated. Scroll to page 14 of the PDF, and there you will find the following clause:
    “Stage 1 evaluation will result in a shortlist of half of the research units that will be selected to proceed to Stage 2.”
    That would not just be flawed. That would be screwed and abonimable. If indeed the ESF has signed this contract, it has lost any credibility as an institution capable of peer review of anything. My personal opinion is that it should then be dissolved immediately.

    • Narad October 12, 2014 at 8:25 pm

      If this document is authentic, Dr. Moyro-Martin is thoroughly vindicated.

      At very least, “international standards” remains a pretty nebulous concept as far as legal agreements go. The term occurs on pages 2 and 28 (based on an Acrobat Pro OCR). The word “standards” does occur five times, but Annex III isn’t really helping.

      • Narad October 12, 2014 at 8:34 pm

        “Practices” does not occur at all, for sticklers.

        • Narad October 12, 2014 at 8:39 pm

          Finally, it’s not defined here, either, unless the assertion is that the ESF itself defines “international standards.” There’s a difference between enumerating criteria and elevating them to the clergy.

  • stone fox cerebri October 12, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    I think this is actually not so crazy as the other recent incidents mentioned — if I’m reading correctly, it’s not one scientist’s research in question, but the entire scientific output of the nation of Portugal. The lawyering-up may be a little aggressive and early, but if the process is under investigation I don’t think popping a simple “alleged” in there would be unreasonable.

    • Narad October 12, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      The lawyering-up may be a little aggressive and early….

      Or completely nonsensical. I have no idea which venue the ESF was imagining: The UK? Switzerland? Portugal? The ECHR?

      It has been observed that “vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.” The complaint that “the European Science Foundation refutes any allegation that the process was flawed and considers that the statement cited above is slanderous” seems to fall into the category of awfully vague.

      • Dave Langers October 13, 2014 at 7:40 am

        It is my opinion that the ESF’s expressed response in this case is indeed, rather typically, flawed.
        But perhaps I ought not state that, as it might be slander?
        😉

  • The Iron Chemist October 13, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I thought these guys were supposed to support scientists, not sue them.

    PS: If their evaluation process is so great and above reproach, why has the Portuguese national union for higher education decided to “[launch] a formal legal action on the evaluation process?”

  • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) October 13, 2014 at 11:04 am

    “ESF spokesperson, did you like Moro-Martin’s article?”
    “No.”
    “Do you think Nature should have published it?”
    “No.”
    “So you’re saying that their editorial process was flawed?”
    “Ye…errrr…”

  • David Paton October 13, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Last time I checked, everyone had a write to their own opinion. Rather than being a bunch of pricks, and sending your lawyers in to gag someone for speaking their mind. I’d like to see you prove her wrong with evidence to the contrary. Or is there a problem with that?

  • David Marçal October 15, 2014 at 11:26 am

    ESF backs up for now but keeps the threat on spanish researcher:
    http://dererummundi.blogspot.pt/2014/10/esf-backs-up-for-now-but-keeps-threat.html

    • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) October 16, 2014 at 8:51 am

      What a pathetic move. They should have the courage to either sue her now – if they truly think that they have a case – or apologize to her.

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