Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Yale doc loses 2 HuffPo blog posts after secretly promoting his novel

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David Katz

The Huffington Post has retracted two blog posts by prominent Yale nutritionist David Katz after learning he had posted incredibly favorable reviews of a new novel — and not revealed that he had written the novel himself, under a pseudonym.

There’s no doubt Katz is a prolific writer — in addition to a couple hundred scientific articles and textbook chapters, Katz regularly blogs for the Huffington Post. He’s also the author of a novel, reVision, under the pen name Samhu Iyyam. Last year, Katz wrote a pair of incredibly favorable reviews of reVision on The Huffington Post that implied he had discovered the novel as a reader. The Huffington Post has taken them down, as blogger Peter Heimlich — yes, related to the maneuver — reported earlier this week. According to Heimlich, a 5-star Amazon review of “Iyyam’s” book, written by Katz, has also been removed.

In the reviews, there’s no hint that Katz is the author. In the first column, “Do We Need to Kill Our Heroes?,” published in January, Katz notes he was “delighted to find just such reflections [on that question] in my new favorite book, reVision.” Here’s the retraction note, of sorts, that appears on Huff Po in the column’s place:

Editor’s Note: This post is no longer available on the Huffington Post.

And in the second column, “To See By Common Light,” published in February, he notes that he finished reading the book “with a sense of illumination from a deep source.” Here’s its retraction note:

Editor’s Note: This contributor post contained a previously undisclosed conflict of interest. When HuffPost was made aware of the conflict, we added an editor’s note to let readers know. However, to prevent further confusion, we have removed the post in its entirety.

On April 1, 2014 (April Fools’ Day), Katz decided to reveal that he was the author of the book, on twitter and in a blog post on LinkedIn. According to the Yale Daily News, The Huffington Post then updated the February review, noting Katz was the author.

Last month, Katz wrote in The Huffington Post why he authored the book under a pseudonym, then talked about it in one of his blogs:

For reasons related mostly to the integrity of the tale, the “author” could not be me- so the book was written under a nom-de-plume. Attempting to preserve that separation between myself and the author, I soon realized that left me with no way to tell anyone interested in my writing about this book, which I honestly consider the best thing I’ve written. I decided to write a blog about it in the third person, and express my opinion.

Katz argued that this should not constitute a major scandal:

I am guessing that doesn’t immediately jump out at you as one of the great scandals of 2015, and I must confess, I am with you. It does not, for instance, seem to be up there with the political theater of the so-called Benghazi hearings, which are exploiting the tragic deaths of our fellow citizens for partisan advantage. It does not seem to rival the ill-gotten gains of fantasy football; the hush money intrigue of Dennis Hastert; or even the well-funded sabotage of America’s dietary guidelines.

But there is a group carrying on as if what is confessed above is a great scandal, and there is a good reason. They are the very group employing every means at their disposal to scuttle dietary guidance dedicated to public (and planetary) health to serve their own pecuniary interests, and I have been among those calling them out forconflicts of interest; errors of content; and want of qualifications, every step of the way. They don’t like me, in other words.

That “group” Katz refers to in the post (entitled “National Nutrition Policy, Imperiled by Bullies”) includes critics who disagree with Katz’s support of the United States Dietary Guidelines, explains the Yale Daily News:

In recent weeks, the Amazon and Huffington Post reviews have drawn significant criticism from doctors and pundits who disagree with Katz’s support for the United States Dietary Guidelines, a set of nutrition standards that help determine the contents of school lunches. Katz, an internationally renowned nutrition expert, told the News that the social-media backlash against the reviews is part of a smear campaign engineered by groups aiming to undermine the federal guidelines.

We reported on some of the tension surrounding the new guidelines.  After their publication, The BMJ ran an investigation by journalist Nina Teicholz that was highly critical of the new guidelines, which quickly earned lengthy comments from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and then an official correction from the journal.

After Yale published their story on Katz, and after his blog post about bullies, Teicholz publicly questioned Katz’s undisclosed conflict of interest:

We saw this kind of tension between a scientist and an alter-ego recently in Kevin Folta, who studies GMOs at the University of Florida. As journalist Brooke Borel reported in BuzzFeed, Folta hosted a science podcast as a character called “Vern Blazek,” disguising his voice and interviewing himself, scientist Kevin Folta. Borel notes why Folta’s deception is a problem:

[H]is attempts to hide the podcast’s real origins don’t exactly position him as a scientist with nothing to hide.

Folta told BuzzFeed that the alter-ego was an escape, of sorts, from his position as a scientist:

He was using a pseudonym, he said, because it was fun (“I see why Colbert did the Colbert Report”), and so he could “play in this space” without drawing attention to his role in the project.

Similarly, in his post on LinkedIn, Katz suggests that his identity as a scientist would have inhibited his identity as a fiction author:

First, I did not want ‘who I am’ to get in the way of what Samhu needed to do. Those who know, and love, me best in the world have suggested- despite the obvious and deep commitment to my ‘day job’- that this is the thing I was most meant to do. Perhaps, but if so, I needed to get out of my own way to find out.

Adopting a character is fine, but when you use it to secretly promote yourself, it becomes a conflict of interest, according to a spokesperson for the Society of Professional Journalists, who told Yale Daily News:

It ain’t ethical…You should not review something without revealing you wrote it.

The Huffington Post evidently agreed. They wouldn’t tell us much more, though. Stuart Whatley, the Executive Blog Editor, told us that their blogs go largely unmoderated:

While The Huffington Post offers a platform for bloggers to post their thoughts, opinions, and commentary, we don’t control what the more than 100,000 independent contributors across the globe who have taken advantage of our platform writeOur blogger terms stipulate that they submit their work to us in good faith and, if issues such as factual inaccuracies or conflicts of interest arise, bloggers are expected to address those.

We asked what pushed the publication to fully retract the posts. He wouldn’t tell us:

As to the particulars of these entries, we would direct you to the note that’s been posted in that space, and do not have anything further to add.

We’ve reached out to Katz, and will update this post with anything else we learn.

Update 11/24/15 3:42 p.m. eastern: Katz has posted a lengthy response to the HuffPo retractions on LinkedIn.

Update 2/1/16 7:30 p.m. eastern: We’ve received a statement from Teicholz:

I had nothing to do with the retraction of Dr. Katz’s work. The retraction of Katz’s articles was entirely the work by independent researcher Peter Heimlich, who documented his efforts in detail here  The fact that I tweeted this news after the fact is not evidence of my active involvement in this matter. I tweet many things, as do many people.

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Written by Shannon Palus

November 20th, 2015 at 12:00 pm

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