Scientists, do you feel bullied by critics? These chemists do

Bruce Eaton, via UC-Boulder
Daniel Feldheim, via UC-Boulder

A new site, Stand Up 2 Science Bullies, launched last week: is a forum for scientists to share their experience and provide advice pertaining to scientific bullying.  We welcome questions and comments from all scientists including students, faculty, and members of industry.  We sincerely hope that this forum will serve as an informative resource for scientists who feel that they are being treated unfairly by other scientists.

Bruce Eaton and Daniel Feldheim, the creators of the site are hardly disinterested parties. As they note:

We have been covertly and cyber bullied by one scientist for nine years. We hope our story will help you in some way overcome your science bully experience.

The “one scientist” is Stefan Franzen, of North Carolina State University (NCSU). Franzen, Retraction Watch readers may recall, has been trying unsuccessfully to correct the scientific record, specifically a Science paper by Eaton and Feldheim that both NCSU and the National Science Foundation’s Office of the Inspector General wanted withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Feldheim defended his work in a letter to the News & Observer, which ran a three-part series on the controversy earlier this year:

Feldheim criticized the N&O’s coverage as sensational, biased and inaccurate. His complaints included an error in the story regarding a patent application that the newspaper is correcting today.

The N&O repeatedly sought comment from Feldheim before publication through voice mail, email, the U.S. mail and a spokesman for the University of Colorado, where he teaches. Feldheim first wrote to the N&O earlier this month; he did not agree to a telephone interview and communicated only via email.

According to a 2013 report to Congress by the inspector general of the National Science Foundation, Feldheim, Eaton and then-graduate student Lina Gugliotti “recklessly falsified their work.”

The short report about the inspector general’s investigation, which awaits final action by the NSF director, did not identify the professors or the work, but described a scenario at a North Carolina university identical to the NCSU case. Eaton has confirmed the case is the subject of the report.

Eaton and Feldheim detail their story on the new site.

So far, the only person to have commented on the site is…Stefan Franzen, who says he

was bullied by Dr. Eaton’s lawyer who wrote to NC State University and asked that my laboratory be stopped from doing research in the area of RNA structure and function.

We contacted Franzen, who confirmed that he had left the comment and sent us this response along with documents to which we link:

For Eaton and Feldheim to accuse anyone of bullying is truly a donkey talking about ears. They use lawyers to threaten anyone they can.  They have reported me to the NSF for grant fraud based on trumped up charges that did not last more than one afternoon once the investigation actually began. Dr. Eaton’s and Somalogic’s lawyer wrote to my university and asked to have my research shut down because I published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.  Indeed, I did post that comment on their website and I was gratified that it posted.  Dr. Feldheim wrote to Peter Stang and made allegations in an attempt to discredit me.

Update, 10:30 a.m. Eastern, 4/2/14: Raphael Levy reminds us that Philip Moriarty and Neuroskeptic have written about another case in which scientists alleged they were being bullied.

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29 thoughts on “Scientists, do you feel bullied by critics? These chemists do”

  1. I went to Prof. Franzen’s recent talk at Duke on misconduct, and had a bit of a chat with him afterwards.

    The talk was quite good, and very thorough. He presented a lot of evidence that the crystals were, in fact, made of carbon; as well a reasonable physical model for their formation. What stuck me the most about his presentation was how some folks seem to think they can sue the universe into working a certain way.

  2. It is quite possible to use claims of bullying in order to bully people. South Park covered this in one of their weekly documentaries of school behavior.

    It is difficult to know who is right in this controversy. It might be useful if Retraction Watch worked up a summary of the relevant papers, retractions, press statement and accusations.

      1. I’ve got a dimmer view from my own years of experience. If two guys are publicly calling each other hacks, chances are that both of them are indeed hacks. I’m not saying that’s the case here, but that’s what I’ve seen in other situations like this.

      2. While this might be true in many cases, I think this point of view has the danger of putting academia outside the rule of law. Already now, many advisors, administrators, and funding agencies are constantly involved in illegal activities, but they get away with it because their victims are too scared to stand up against it. Sure, they could go to the courts, but that would make them pariahs inside academia and they would never get a job, grant, etc. again. It’s really like a mafia-style omerta in many situations.

    1. Fascinating read Helene.

      You never wanted to be a whistleblower, but it was your duty to do so. Others may have wained, you did not. Ten Feizi did not wain either:

      Neither yourself or Prof Feizi are bullies so lets not become confused about those who do science fraud and cry wolf. The work of finding fraud is tough and I applaud yourself and Prof Feizi for pursuing it. We have to remember that lives are saved by outing science fraud and there is no greater cause.

      I suspect part of this cyber bullying claim is to smokescreen the science fraud that was discovered. It won’t wash.

    2. Filing a Qui Tam is $u$pisiou$ , as one can see a second motive for the accusations… I thought Quo Tam would only have a chance when there is a TON of money in involved. Like a company lying to sell equipment bought by the Federal Government all over the US. Something doesn’t add up.
      How much money could the two people in your case have stolen?

      1. There was a grant and renewal from NIH. Total $$ 2.5 million. Small stuff but good scientists could get a lot done with that.

      2. $2.5 million. But it was never about the money — only about falsification of data in scientific reports.

  3. Jo Boaler, an education professor from Stanford, has claimed that she was bullied by James Milgram (a mathematics professor from Stanford) and Wayne Bishop (a mathematics professor from California State University Los Angeles). She has devoted her whole Stanford website to this:
    Her claim was also reported in Inside Higher Ed:
    A facebook page was started where many education researchers gave their support to Boaler:

    The dispute is the following. Boaler wrote a (high profile) article about 3 (anonymized) California schools. Since the time of that study, California has put lots of historical data regarding school performance online. Using the data provided in the article of Boaler, Milgram and Bishop tried to identify the schools she wrote the article about. However, there were no schools that matched the data provided by Boaler. The unsaid implication is of course that Boaler manipulated the data to fit her story. Boaler’s reply was that identifying schools which participated in a research study is illegal…. She has never explained the problems with her data. Instead, to make Milgram and Bishop shut up, she accused them of bullying.

  4. Bullying does happen in science, but by definition bullying has to be by someone with power over the powerless. So women scientists by men, PhD students and postdocs by PIs and so on. Arguments between equals at different institutions cannot be construed as bullying. A frank and open discussion between peers is what science is about. If there are differences in the evaluation of evidence and shortcomings are apparent, then evidence has to be supplied. There are many examples of this happening, as well as a few “intramural” examples, where a lab realise their results not what they first thought – the latter are catalogued here at RW under “Doing the right thing”.
    To charge those who are critical with bullying when they are at another institution strongly suggests that something is amiss. It is possible that the person(s) arguing that the evidence is faulty cannot accept that this is the case, in which instance it is clear that community at large will have reproduced the results and they are accepted. The alternative is that the charge is in essence correct and that those complaining of bullying are simply reaching for the nearest stick to try to justify the unjustifiable.
    So the charge of bullying cannot be right. Is it harassment? The answer is simple: has the work of Eaton and Feldheim been reproduced. Given that both NCSU and the National Science Foundation’s Office of the Inspector General wanted the paper withdrawn, the conclusion is clear: Eaton and Feldheim doth protest too much, methinks….

  5. Clearly these guys don’t comprehend the meaning, emotionality or depth of the term “bullying”. Its frivolent use in reference to a simple fight among equals, devalues the term and is deeply offensive to anyone who’s actually experienced it. Sure, I get that Franzen may be a royal pain in the backside for these guys and their company (Somalogic has licensed a butt-load of Eaton’s work), but “bully” is a term not to be used lightly. This is especially the case when you carry the big stick of a company-backed lawyer.

    1. This was bound to happen, a counter-force to the retraction wave. According to their web-site, they use the following basal definition: “bullying is when someone or a group of people with more power repeatedly and intentionally causes hurt or harm to another person or group of people who feel helpless to respond. Bullying can continue over time, is often hidden from adults and will probably continue if no action is taken.” But the basal premise is difficult to establish, namely, WHO has more power over WHOM? If I am a scientist in country A, and I identify what are valid problems with a paper by another scientist in country A, or B, and I make complaints about a paper’s duplication, plagiarism or self-plagiarism, and the authors of the paper do nothing, the editors do nothing, the publisher does nothing, then what is the person who issues the complaint supposed to do? This reflects that there are two serious faults with science publishing, still. Firstly, those who complain still have few established venues and recourses to do so. They either have to do so anonymously, and even so in the shadows, through very limited sites like PubPeer, or they have to expose their true identities and suffer terrible consequences, maybe even for the rest of their careers. The publishers have a “hands-off” approach, unless there is a clear copyright violation or unequivocal trespass of sorts, like the duplication of an entire paper or large tracts of data, so they are pretty much useless, egoistic and unhelpful. So, this “void” has invited the sharks to enter the water, as there is a lot to be scavenged. Although I do fully agree that someone whose paper is being “attacked” also deserves rights of defense, surely a discussion about the academic quality of a paper must stay academic, and not enter this “legal” realm, where a fine line exists between a complaint, bullying, and libel. That fine line will adjust position based on very subjective views, least of which is “attacker” vs “attacked”. I have already indicated on several occasions two practical ways to resolve this grey zone:
      1) A badly needed site or blog that allows for criticisms of the literature to be posted, including on the original published PDF files as issued by publishers without the fear of copyright infringements. This can only be a publisher-approved movement, and thus should also involve COPE, which would oversee the ethics of the complaints, and thus put massive “membership fees” to good use for the scientific community;
      2) An alternative to 1) in which publishers would allow a rolling critique to exist alongside every published paper. In that case, critiques would be accumulated, simply into one PDF file, assigned a DOI and archived exactly as a published paper. Critiques would be subject to moderation, primarily for language that would remove “bullying” or “libelous” related language, but leaving in the facts, no matter how critical they are.

      The fact that we have still no such safety net for complainers and “complainees”, despite hundreds of years of history in science publishing, indicates how the business model has been established primarily to pump out facts, but not to correct them, at least not efficiently, or to the same level at which they are produced (published). I do admit to be tracked by one scientist for 9 years might be a little more than just seeking to correct the academic record, and the claim of bullying might be valid, as may the term “stalking”. However, the exact language used and actions by both parties, as well as the superior “power” of supposedly Franzen over Eaton and Feldheim would have to be proved.

      Strictly, by definition, does that mean that someone of no position, with little power is fully validated to bully?

      1. Any serious journals except Science offers a possibility to publish a peer-reviewed comment critical to a previously published manuscript, alongside with a reply from the criticized authors. Each contribution gets assigned a separate DOI.

        1. Bernd, that is certainly not my experience with one paper published in Publications: The “peer review” of my Letter to the Editor, was a total fiasco, and the 171 retraction notices, or at least their verbatim wording, continue to not be published as a post-publication supplement. The fact that all editors are aware of the inherent flaws of that paper, the fact that the authors have also been formally requested to respond, and the fact that absolutely no corrigendum, eratum, or retraction has been issued says volumes about the Guest Editor, the authors and the publisher. Based on your definition, I can thus conclude that MDPI’s Publications is not a “serious journal”.

          1. I completely agree that most of MDPI’s journals are not serious. There’s a reason why Jeffrey Beall finally put them on his list of predatory publishers.

  6. Reading their website as well as Franzen’s view, I feel like Eaton and Feldheim are bullying Franzen, and they are doing so by creating such as website.

    And I fully agree with previous commenters: quarrels among equals such as this should not fall in the definition of bullying.

    1. If, for example, a lecturer in a University stumbled across science fraud, and reported it to the University authorities it may be a learning, even educating, experience for the lecturer involved.

      I suspect the big club constituting University authorities will form a coalition-of-the-unwilling and use their power (abuse their power?) and silence the lecturer concerned. There may well be some applaudible exceptions, but they are exceptions to the rule.

      Presumably, lecturer objections will be noted, considered and duly ignored and the science fraud will be buried by the lecturer and University. A promotion may well result. It may well be that, or the lecturers career be buried. And the pension. That is bullying. Real-life threats to ones livelihood.

      In days of recession who wants to be without a pension?

      1. this is exactly what happens in reality. I am referring to the point raised by Stewart. If the lecturer is involved in some reviewing committee – for grant applications for e.g. – he will be conveniently removed from such committees..

  7. Calling one out on the facts is not bullying. It’s science. Perhaps Feldheim should work in a different field. May I suggest Astrology.

  8. Some of the comments on this site have come across as bullying at times. Especially when accusations are made prematurely.

  9. I think there may be a more subtle form of bullying in science: political bullying. I’m aware of examples of established researchers who like to nominate less established individuals for awards, society offices, etc. with the thinly veiled implication that the less established person will later do something for them and that failure to do so would not be good for the “lower” person’s career. I suspect that this is actually somewhat common, and more of an issue than cases like Eaton and Feldheim v. Franzen. Of course, political maneuvering is not limited ti science either.

  10. Its hard to know what the truth is, but I get the feeling these two guys (Eaton and Feldheim) are trying to save their careers, despite following a line of science for many years and many millions of dollars that they got excited about and misinterpreted to be something exciting that is not. It sounds to me they were standard advisors who did not pay attention to the the students doing the experiments, but it just so happens they got caught with a collaborator who wont let this go until they confess that their stuff is wrong.

    A cursory google search of the first author who did the work (disputed by Franzen) has a good job at the NIH. Another example of the great reward for misinterpreting data in an exciting “science-i-ness” way and abandoning care in their work. It pays to be sloppy.

    Careless (and possibly lazy) advisors. Ambitious and careless researcher. Both the advisors and researcher get better jobs (they moved on to another insitiution) and millions of tay-payer dollars are waisted. No surprise here.

  11. Eaton and Feldheim claim that their work has been reproduced. Who has reproduced it? No reference was provided by them. Our group’s findings have been corroborated by the De Yoreo lab (article published in Particle|44925290). Evidence from laboratory notebooks and grant proposals can be found on the Franzen group website (

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