Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Following criticism, PLOS removes blog defending scrutiny of science

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plos_logoCommunity blog PLOS Biologue has pulled a post by journalists Charles Seife and Paul Thacker that argued in favor of public scrutiny of scientists’ behavior (including emails), following heavy criticism, including from a group and scientist mentioned in the post.

Their reasoning: The post was “not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines.”

The original post, published August 13, is no longer available online, but you can read it here. In the piece, Seife and Thacker lament what they call a recent backlash against transparency in science:

Last June, the New England Journal of Medicine published a series of articles that questioned whether conflict-of-interest policing had gone too far….A less well-covered volte-face comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Like many other advocacy organizations, UCS has long expressed dismay at the distortion of science. Yet within the past year, UCS has begun a campaign to blunt the tools with which the public can investigate claims of scientific malfeasance.

Earlier this year, the organization released a report in which it decried using open-access requests to “bully” scientists and to “disrupt or delay their work.” The report cited several cases where scientists had arguably been harassed in the name of transparency.

However, the authors list cases where access to scientists’ emails has revealed information that was “crucial for safeguarding public health.” For instance, in the case of Wei-Hock Soon:

Those emails revealed not just that Soon failed to disclose conflicts of interest in nearly a dozen papers stemming from some $1.2 million in funding from oil industry and global-warming-denying funding sources, but also that those conflicts went deeper than anyone had suspected: several of Soon’s published papers as well as congressional testimony he prepared – were described as “deliverables” for corporate sponsors.

Although the tools we use to ensure transparency can be abused, that’s a necessary risk, note Seife and Thacker:

To be sure, the same mechanisms that watchdogs use to uncover scientific wrongdoing have been abused in the past. Climate scientist Michael Mann, for instance, was subject to invasive and harassing requests for information via freedom of information laws, via judicial-branch powers, and via congressional requests. No doubt they will be abused in the future.

But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest.

Finally, they note another case in which a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yielded important information:

Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers. Written by the same journalist who had reported on the FOIA request previously for Science, the story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs. The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them.

The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.

Seife and Thacker presented similar ideas last week in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

On August 17, the authors added a correction to the PLOS Biologue post, which named the University of Florida researcher as Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences department.

Seife told Retraction Watch why they corrected the post:

In referring an e-mail written by University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, we had erroneously described a GMO-labeling initiative as being from California when it was, in fact, from Colorado. The footnote also gave the wrong date for the e-mail. Our correction addressed these issues.

In addition, we knew that Kevin Folta was taking issue with the way we characterized his e-mail, so we wanted to make perfectly clear that we were not asserting that Folta crafted the title of the e-mail; further, we asked PLOS to post the entire e-mail chain so readers could determine for themselves whether our characterization was accurate.

Seife added they named Folta in the correction because he had already revealed himself:

My recollection is that we named Folta in the correction because he had already identified himself in the comments section on the piece.

Indeed, Folta had responded online to the article, arguing on Science 2.0 that transparency has become “weaponized” against science:

In a smear campaign not unlike Climategate, Thacker and Seife make assumptions, bend the truth, or are ignorant of information lacing an email they somehow obtained.

This email was provided from the activist group targeting me, and it smacks of journalists asking the activists for a little something to satisfy some ideological agenda. Why else would US-RTK furnish these coveted resources?

In a breach of journalistic ethics, this author team published false and misleading information. While Thacker contacted me about other information regarding this FOIA request, neither author contacted me for clarification about this email prior to this vicious blindsiding.

At the bottom of the post, Folta explains his response to PLOS, and suggests scientists pause before publishing in one of their journals:

I contacted PLoS and requested equal space to refute Thacker and Seife’s false statements.  PLoS refused to provide equal space. Their representative said, “Respond in the comments section”.

I have published in PLoS journals. I reviewed for PLoS journals.  and have a paper in review there now that I’m strongly considering pulling. While PLoS blogs has a disclaimer that they do not control content, they do offer a visible, reputable brand to host this fact-challenged attack on a public scientist.

Researchers should consider this event when deliberating publication or reviewing with PLoS journals.

Folta told Retraction Watch he believes Seife and Thacker’s post was a “hit job”:

The authors, including a journalism professor, never contacted me to learn the proper interpretation of this captured email.

Clearly, this was a hit job.   Connect me to a company and a contentious state issue in a state with significant anti-biotech leanings.  A great way to harm a scientist.

Folta also denied directly receiving money from Monsanto:

I never received money from them personally.  They do not fund my research.  I am a full-time researcher.

Monsanto did make a $25,000 donation to an established science communications program, no strings attached.  I teach scientists how to talk to the public.  This is exactly what companies should support.  Their support is appropriate and I’m grateful for that. It allows me to teach science communication by covering venue costs, travel and lunch for workshop attendees.

This incident illustrates the larger issues raised in the article, he added:

Scientists fear that abuse of public records requests is a dangerous practice.  We feel that unscrupulous activists with agendas will obtain thousands of our personal emails and then lift the content and skew it to fit their need— to harm the reputation of public scientists.  This is EXACTLY what happened here.  These two authors obtained my emails from activists and then deliberately distorted the information for their agenda.  I was never contacted.

The Union of Concerned Scientists posted its own response August 14, in which it distinguished between “transparency” and “harassment”:

Thacker and Seife correctly note that UCS has used disclosure laws to uncover political and corporate interference in science and the organization has also cited the results of many open records investigations. However, the examples they cite focused on open records requests related to government policy decisions, not overreaching requests targeting academic scientists. Thus, their attempt to paint UCS as hypocritical rests on ignoring those important distinctions.

To be clear, “outside scrutiny” and harassment are two different things. That’s why UCS has also argued that it is in the public interest to protect scientists from harassment campaigns that prevent them from doing their jobs.

On August 20, PLOS Biology followed up with a longer post, “The Trouble with Transparency:”

Against a backdrop where research output doubles nearly every decade and concerns over fraud, misconduct and research reliability are on the rise, we at PLOS Biology believe that efforts to boost scientific integrity, literacy and transparency are sorely needed. That’s why when two journalists with a track record for exposing corruption in science came to us with an article outlining the reasons to protect tools to ensure transparency – even though many scientists see the tools as invasive and disruptive — we offered to consider their piece for our blog.

Nonetheless, we appreciate that some of the parties mentioned in the article took grave offense at the authors’ characterization of their situation. In particular, Dr. Kevin Folta, one of several cases mentioned in the article, has publicly stated some of his issues with the article and the authors’ interpretation. Unfortunately, our processes went wrong and we failed to respond as quickly as we should have to Dr. Folta’s initial message to us. We are reviewing our processes to ensure that a similar failure will not be repeated.

We continue to believe that this is an important, if highly charged, issue that merits discussion. On Monday we offered Dr. Folta the opportunity to provide his views on conflicts of interest on PLOS Biologue. We invite your comments and are currently approaching others to showcase and present a variety of views and experiences relating to the FOIA, COI disclosures and transparency in scientific research and publishing.

On Friday, August 21, PLOS removed Seife and Thacker’s post; in its place is a statement:

PLOS Blogs is, and will continue to be, a forum that allows scientists to debate controversial topics. However, given additional information for further inquiry and analysis, PLOS has determined that the Biologue post that had occupied this page, “The Fight over Transparency: Round Two,” was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines. PLOS has therefore decided to remove the post, while leaving the comments on it intact. We believe that this topic is important and that it should continue to be discussed and debated, including on PLOS blogs and in PLOS research articles.

We sincerely apologize for any distress that the content of this post caused any individual. Comments and questions can be sent to blogs@plos.org

In an email to PLOS after the post disappeared, Seife (who forwarded the email to us) told PLOS Executive Editor Veronique Kiermer:

You say that our piece violated the standards of your site for engaging in civilized debate of matters of scientific importance.

Please explain in what manner we violated those standards?

We were peer reviewed and were deemed to meet the standards of your publication. We endured several rounds of *post-publication* legal and factual vetting — no doubt, a highly unusual procedure — and responded to all of your queries. When a minor factual error was found, concerning the state in which a proposition was being proposed (and the date of a letter), we immediately notified you and corrected it as appropriate. In short, we have behaved as expected of us. And we stand by our piece.

Yet not only do you pull our article without consulting us, or even hinting that this was in the works, you also leave critical comments of our piece out there for all to see — silencing us while giving critics full voice. (I’m surprised that your lawyers allowed this, by the way.)

So, please explain to us how we violated your standards so egregiously that you had to take this dramatic step.  And while you’re explaining, could you please go into a bit more detail about the increasing pressure from scientists that you received to remove our article from the site?

When asked how he felt when he learned his post had been removed by PLOS, Seife told Retraction Watch:

It’s a mixture of feelings. I’m saddened that PLOS let pressure from scientists and scientific organizations lead to the retraction of our piece without even the courtesy of explaining what was objectionable or, if we were in fact in error in some way, explaining what it was so we would have an opportunity to correct it. I’m annoyed that not only was our point of view expunged from their site, the criticism of our opinion — much of which is inaccurate and inflammatory — is allowed to remain intact, giving an extremely distorted view of what happened. And I’m bemused by the hypocrisy of a number of actors in this drama who claim to be fighting a “chilling effect” on public debate and academic freedom while cheerfully silencing a viewpoint they don’t like.

Keith Kloor, author of the Nature news article mentioned in the retracted post, told us he also disagreed with the decision to remove the article.

As much I think the PLOS post is deeply flawed and erroneous, it bothers me that it was retracted. 1) The official explanation is really vague. Not very transparent! 2) I have to wonder if there was intense pressure brought to bear from scientists…I find myself in the odd position of defending the flawed PLOS post from these presumed pressures, in part because I’ve been the subject of similar pressure campaigns. (Of course, I’m only assuming pressure was brought to bear. I have no idea if this was actually the case.)

Indeed, it was the “community reaction” to the post that made PLOS consider removing it, Kiermer told Retraction Watch:

The community reaction caused us to reexamine particular assertions made in the piece about individuals and groups. We concluded that some were not consistent at least with the spirit of the guidelines that we apply to all community writing and commenting on PLOS blogs. We want to hold all PLOS blogs to the same standards and after careful consideration we decided it was appropriate to remove the post.

She also clarified what the publisher meant by saying it “failed” in its response to Folta after the article appeared:

PLOS received Dr. Folta’s objection on Saturday morning and that information was not passed onto a senior editor in a timely manner. We should have offered Dr. Folta an opportunity to respond faster but it did not happen because of a lapse in our internal communication.

They kept the comments, she said, because that’s what they did before:

PLOS simply followed the same protocol for the only other blog post that was removed.

In 2013, PLOS removed a post that it said “crossed the line” in its criticisms of another writer during a discussion of a conference session on sexual harassment.

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Written by Alison McCook

August 24th, 2015 at 11:30 am

Comments
  • Brian Vastag August 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    I wonder what PLoS is hoping to achieve by un-posting this story. The story is still available on Archive, and the two authors had a similar piece in the LA Times. It’s unclear that the editors at PLoS had any reason to pull the article other than pressure from a certain segment of the research community. The two small factual errors that were corrected would not be reason to pull an investigation like this from a newspaper. I think journals are inherently poor venues for investigations about research…journal editors are going to tend to protect the interests of the research community over the public interest.

  • Eli Rabett August 24, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Folta understands full well that money is fungible. A gift of money to a program can (most often is) used to support projects favored by the program director. Having opened that Pandora’s box, he can anticipate FOIA requests for how the money was spent.

    Seife and Thacker understand that FOIA can be abused but they don’t have a solution to how the time spent by the researcher answering can be compensated for. If you are working 24/7 on a funded research program, who and how are the couple of weeks necessary to deal with a comprehensive FOIA request to be dealt with.

    • Christopher Ball August 27, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      If the money is designated for a specific program, it is by no means fungible. This is different from an industry directly funding research or having paid a researcher for other contracted work.

  • CarolunS August 25, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    I think this approach is potentially quite abusive and questionable. I think PLoS did the right thing by pulling the blog post. I assume FOIA only applies to certain academics at public universities and not to researchers at Harvard or Yale, so wading through people’s emails is already selective right there. And I don’t think scientific evaluation should depend on what almost accounts to character assassination.

  • Michael August 26, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Might want to correct the title (i.e. add the word post), the blog is still there.

  • pjb253 August 28, 2015 at 12:12 am
  • Mary Mangan September 10, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    The more I think about this and watch the drama continue, the more baffled I am. Thacker and Seife claim this post was peer-reviewed: https://twitter.com/thackerpd/status/636178115866284032 In case that tweet vanishes, here’s a shot of it: http://screencast.com/t/Foippu5BNooY

    So, if it was peer-reviewed, where’s their competing interests statement? For the paper I was on at PLOS, we had to submit one. And there have been so many questions and such silence from Thacker on whether his clients are in the organic industry. Does anyone know if blog authors have to meet the PLOS author standards of disclosure?

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