Science issues expression of concern nine months after one of its reporters uncovers potential misconduct

Danielle Dixson

Science has issued an expression of concern for a 2014 paper on the harmful effects of ocean acidification on fish and coral after the first author of the article was accused of fabricating data in the study and other research.

The article, “Chemically mediated behavior of recruiting corals and fishes: A tipping point that may limit reef recovery,” was written by a group at Georgia Institute of Technology led by Danielle Dixson, then a post-doc at the university. Dixson has since moved to the University of Delaware, Lewes, where she runs her own lab studying corals. 

The work – cited 171 times so far, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science – received immediate challenge from other researchers, who questioned the validity of the findings. 

Those challenges eventually swelled into a request in 2020 for a full-scale investigation into nearly two dozen papers by Dixson and/or her former mentor, Philip Munday of James Cook University, in Townsville, Australia. 

As Science itself reported in May of 2021, a group of four concerned scientists:

asked three funders that together spent millions on Dixson’s and Munday’s work—the Australian Research Council (ARC), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)—to investigate possible fraud in 22 papers.

The request, which they shared with a Science reporter, rests on what they say is evidence of manipulation in publicly available raw data files for two papers, one published in Science, the other in Nature Climate Change, combined with remarkably large and “statistically impossible” effects from CO2 reported in many of the other papers. They also provided testimony from former members of the Dixson and Munday labs, some of whom monitored Dixson’s activities and concluded she made up data.

According to the EoC:

On 22 August 2014, Science published the Research Article “Chemically mediated behavior of recruiting corals and fishes: A tipping point that may limit reef recovery” by D. Dixson et al. (1). Science has been made aware of data manipulation accusations pertaining to this paper. Science is publishing this Editorial Expression of Concern to make readers of aware of these accusations while the lead author’s current and postdoctoral institutions investigate the claims.

Science editor in chief Holden Thorpe told us that the editorial action was spurred by the publication of the news story:

We began looking into the issues in the paper after the news story was published.  After collecting information on the situation, we decided the EEOC was needed while the institutions continue to investigate.

Dixson told Retraction Watch that publication of the EOC “should raise alarm bells for all researchers:”

I categorically deny the allegations, and while I cannot comment on any ongoing investigation, I can confirm that one formal, impartial investigation into similar allegations concluded there were no issues of concern. I expect any other properly conducted and impartial investigation to reach a similar conclusion.

However, the fact this EOC has been published at this time should raise alarm bells for all researchers.

While Science states it must publish an EOC whenever it becomes aware of allegations, in this case they “became aware” because my accusers, having never spoken to any of the paper’s authors, publicized “conclusions” rather than respecting the established, confidential and impartial investigatory processes available to them. 

These individuals do not research in my field and engaged in highly questionable “discovery” tactics that did not abide by basic investigatory standards, let alone the professional norms of scientific discovery. This “rogue” approach seems far more intended to increase their stature than it does ensuring scientific integrity. I am disappointed, therefore, that this vigilante style behavior is being rewarded, and worry it may encourage more people to tactically circumvent due process for their own benefit. And, if ignoring formal processes becomes acceptable anywhere, it will be open season on scientists everywhere.

Dixson said she could not share the report of the investigation she said “concluded there were no issues of concern,” saying she does not have a copy of it because it was “kept confidential from everyone.”

Mark Hay, the senior author of the paper and the Teasley and Regents’ Professor of Biological Sciences at Georgia Tech, told us:

The issues of data reliability are being evaluated by committees at the Georgia Institute of Technology (where Dr. Dixson was a post-doc when the data were collected) and the University of Delaware (where Dr. Dixson is a faculty member).  Because I saw these data come in a bit at a time over 2-3 recruitment seasons (as would be expected when opportunistically collecting and assaying newly recruiting juveniles representing multiple species and across multiple sites) and because Dr. Dixson was extremely dedicated and hard working during her time in my group, it is my hope and expectation that finding will confirm that issues with the posted data were an honest mistake made during cut and paste processes and that the original data, analyses, and presentation in the manuscript are reliable.  However, final assessments will be up to the university committees that are evaluating these issues.  

The paper in Nature Climate Change, published in April 2014, has not been flagged.

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5 thoughts on “Science issues expression of concern nine months after one of its reporters uncovers potential misconduct”

  1. I only have one question, was the intent to exaggerate the effects of climate change? In other words, “climate science”

  2. “… former members of the Dixson and Munday labs, some of whom monitored Dixson’s activities and concluded she made up data.”

    In what underground spy movie laboratory is Dixson working in that other members (presumably subordinate members, given that she took on lead roles in both labs) are “monitoring” her activities to a degree that they can make that conclusion?

    1. Perhaps her subordinates became aware of the misconduct and gathered evidence in order to bring more credibility to the accusations.

  3. Without data all comment is speculation. Surely there is a story here that can be reported. This article disappoints.

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