An editor on why he ignores anonymous whistleblowers – and why authors are free to publish ‘bullshit and fiction’

Guido Schmitz

Just over a decade ago, in the second year of Retraction Watch’s existence, we wrote a column in the now-defunct Lab Times urging journal editors to stop ignoring complaints from anonymous whistleblowers. The Committee on Publication Ethics didn’t think anonymity was a problem as long as the complaints were evidence-based, so why should editors? 

And journals have come a long way over the last decade in this regard. Some retraction notices even credit anonymous – and even pseudonymous – correspondents. 

Guido Schmitz, however, appears not to have gotten the memo. 

Schmitz, the editor in chief of the International Journal of Materials Research, a De Gruyter title, has steadfastly refused to act on credible concerns about the work of scientists believed to be involved in a misconduct ring.  

As we reported in 2020, concerns about the group were raised by one “Artemisia Stricta:” 

In a new report now being made public by Retraction Watch, Artemisia draws attention to four main groups centered on Ali Nazari, Mostafa Jalal, a postdoc at Texas A&M University, Ehsan Mohseni of the University of Newcastle in Australia, and Alireza Najigivi of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. The whistleblower lists a total of 287 potentially compromised papers in the 42-page report.  

Since we published that 2020 post, Nazari has had 41 papers retracted, earning a spot on our leaderboard with a total of 89 retractions. Twelve of Jalal’s papers have since been retracted. And Mohseni has lost six articles to retraction, for a total of seven. So you might say that Artemisia – who has even been featured in Australia’s ABC News following our coverage – was onto something.

One of the papers whistleblowers have identified on PubPeer as suspect was a 2015 article by Mohseni and colleagues titled “An experimental investigation into the effects of Cr2O3 and ZnO2 nanoparticles on the mechanical properties and durability of self-compacting mortar,” which has dodgy images. 

In an August 24, 2021 email to the journal, Artemisia noted that they had notified the publication: 

that your journal published falsified figures by the group of E. Mohseni.  …. As you may be aware, the Mohseni group has so far had seven papers retracted for similar issues, and his work appears to be part of an international research fraud ring. I have previously mentioned that the group has claimed to the journal Construction and Building Materials that the image duplicated therein was the correct one and the one published in your journal was incorrect. I am happy to provide written documentation of this.

That message received a favorable response from one member of the staff, who asked to discuss the matter further by video chat – an invitation the whistleblower declined. 

Artemisia tried again a few months later, by which point Schmitz, of the University of Stuttgart, had taken over the editorship of the publication. In a response to Artemisia dated January 15, 2021, Schmitz expressed his disdain for anonymous complaints: 

I can assure that I do not like fraud in scientific results and I will do my best to prevent them. But on the other hand, I hate anonymous accusations. So it would be my pleasure to follow up this matter after you have discovered your personality to me and send contact data under which I can reach you.

Artemisia pushed back, gently, stressing the strength of the evidence in the complaint and asking: 

Please allow me to inquire: If I do not identify myself, will you not investigate this wrongdoing? What is the policy of the International Journal of Materials Research and Hanser Publications regarding anonymous reports of misconduct? Surely, an allowance can be made in the case where self-identification would endanger the safety of the reporter?

Schmitz remained unswayed. He reiterated that stance this week, in response to a follow-up message from the whistleblower inquiring about the status of an inquiry into the papers: 

As I expressed already in my early communications about two years ago,

I will not take any action based on an anonymous accusation. As soon as you discover your clear name, contact address and your personal motivation in this issue, I will consider the appropriate and required means.

When Artemisia noted that they’d received a more positive response from Viola Segar, a member of the editorial staff of the journal, Schmitz responded: 

we will process exactly as stated in my last e-mail. You discover your personality, I will take action according to your justified interests. 

No further discussion on this matter until my condition is fulfilled. Since it is work on my desk, I will define the conditions.

We’re reasonably sure that “discover your personality” was not an invitation to take a Myers-Briggs. But we’d urge Schmitz to not let his hatred of anonymous complaints blind him.

Meanwhile, Schmitz responded to our request for comment – and his remarks, which we’ve reproduced in full here – were of a piece with what he told Artemisia (he also showed at least a degree of media savvy by admitting that it’s “presumably risky to find this later on the internet.”).

Among the highlights: Schmitz called the Mohseni paper “science fiction” but said he wasn’t editor when the journal published the article. He added that an “unfortunate choice of reviewers” might well lead him to publish a tainted paper – a curious passing of the buck for someone who claims that he’s responsible for all the “work on my desk.”

The editor also expressed the view that scientists are free to try to publish “bullshit and fiction” if they can get away with it. Although editors should work to filter turds from truth, they may fairly decide not to:   

It is one side to behave ourselves ethically and we should, but it is another side acting as policemen watching whether other people behave ethically. The latter is not the task of my first priority.

Besides, he said, “even [a] hundred articles of Iranian cheaters will not affect the core of this science process.”

Finally, in a lovely bit of irony, Mohseni responded to our query about this controversy by stating: 

I have some comments about this report. I would appreciate it if you could communicate through your academic or organisational email address.

The falcon has heard the falconer.

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27 thoughts on “An editor on why he ignores anonymous whistleblowers – and why authors are free to publish ‘bullshit and fiction’”

  1. I thought that an Editor’s role was to ensure that to the best of their abilities researchers do not try to publish “bullshit and fiction if they can get away with it” in their journal. Hence, all the more reason that Editors-in-Chief are typically selected with such care. The journal’s reputation grows or tanks based on the culture set by the EIC. After this little episode, I would guess that credible scientists would think twice about submitting their work to this journal in the future. Unfortunately, this also undermines the credible work that has previously been reported in this outlet. I feel for those researchers also. Pity the EIC has not appreciated that he has lowered his journal’s reputation by his choice to select inaction in these types of cases & take the easy way out. It is much less of a hassle to ignore the accusations & do nothing, because otherwise an investigation, lots of editorial activity & potential retraction might be necessary.

  2. The only useful role of journals in this age is to act as a quality filter. Schmitz has declared that the journal he edits is completely useless.

  3. To many of us the sentiments voiced in the Schmitz letter may sound ridiculous (his German English does not help) but he spells out what many editors (and perhaps even the majority of scientists) are thinking – scientific publishing isn’t about filtering the good from the bad, it’s about getting the maximum exposure for your work, regardless if it’s done well or not.

  4. I am tempted to leave an anonymous comment. 😉

    I would say if publishers think anonymous “whistle blowing” is unacceptable, then they should not accept anonymous peer reviewers either. 🙂

      1. Triple blind. Double blind peer review is traditionally where the authors’ names are removed from the paper so that (in theory) the reviewers don’t know who they are, as well as the authors not knowing who the reviewers are. (It doesn’t work in many fields because the reviewers will know anyway.)

        Since the editor picks the reviewers, it would be rather challenging to blind that interaction….

    1. Perhaps you mean “authors should have no obligation to seriously consider or respond to anonymous reviewers to be accepted for publication in this journal” or similar?

  5. Given the editor’s rejection of any kind of gatekeeper role for journals, screening out fakes or plagiarism or bad papers, it may be that Artemisia stricta‘s critiques would be ignored even if they came from a named source.

  6. I would encourage readers of this article to take the time to read the post by Dr. Schmitz, because it is truly an insight into his thinking.

    For example, in the third paragraph, he discusses “… how the process of science really works…” wherein he describes how papers are published and only after people have replicated and built upon previous discoveries are ideas really ‘accepted’ as truth. He uses this as justification for refusing to retract papers that are false because anyone who is truly an expert will read the paper and recognize it as being false.

    I would argue that that perspective means that he is fine with wasting the time and energy of potentially hundreds of researchers who have to sift through papers to figure out what is and isn’t crap, which is really inconsiderate of him when he knows these works are, in his words, “presumably science fiction”. Which is ironic given the final sentence of his reply “…whether I could trust him [Artemisia Stricta, A.] without checking the hundred papers of the Iranian gang myself, for which I simply will not use my precious working time, as other things are more important in my priority list.”

    1. “he describes how papers are published and only after people have replicated and built upon previous discoveries are ideas really ‘accepted’ as truth”
      <- not actually true in general, but I suppose it could be in some fields.
      1) A nice counter example – of how public policy was set (and a Nobel Prize awaded) due to one bad study – is given by Ed Calabrese here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCRiw6Lg0i8
      2) Also consider "idea laundering" and "information laundering" in academic journals. https://academic.oup.com/ct/article-abstract/22/4/427/4085743

      1. Yeah, I realized that, but he is still the editor of a journal which claims to follow COPE guidelines.

        I hate to sound like “that person”, but maybe his manager might sing a different tune.

  7. He says that in addition to Artemisia stricta’s wallet name and contact information, he expects them to state “your personal motivation in this issue.”

    That sounds like the legal concept of “standing.” I wonder what sorts of “personal interest” Mohseni would consider sufficient.

    He starts by saying that the article is “science fiction,” the duplicated image in question is “nonsense,” and any experienced researcher will see that. But it’s not his fault that none of the peer reviewers noticed that the paper wasn’t true, so he’s not interested in fixing the problem. Because while he doesn’t like falsehood, he hates anonymous complaints.

  8. Vicki, my feeling about the “personal motivation” bit is the opposite of yours. I think Schmitz is insinuating that Artemisia has ulterior motives for making the accusation. So it’s not that he thinks you _need_ “personal motivation” to be entitled to make such accusations, it’s that he thinks that you _shouldn’t have_ “personal motivation” and if you do then your claims are suspect.

    (Hard to be certain, though.)

  9. Two comments of Guido Schmitz stand out: “No further discussion on this matter until my condition is fulfilled. … I will define the conditions.” and “I simply will not use my precious working time”. It is put in an arrogant way. It also insists on formality rather than on quality of the arguments. These are not the qualities of a good editor.
    Further, if I were the whistleblower, I would rather remain anonymous. This editor is likely to be a person who would criticize the person first rather than consider the arguments. It is not worth using precious time on such a man.

  10. How nice that Schmitz’s “priority list” does not include journal credibility.

    It’s obvious that scant effort will be given to flagging and retracting bad science under his watch, because he thinks it will be outed eventually regardless. Maybe he hasn’t heard about the Alzheimer’s research scandal and the enormous waste of resources it has likely entailed.

  11. For what it is worth, the publisher responded on Twitter that they are aware of the situation and looking into it.

  12. If “authors are free to publish ‘bullshit and fiction’” under Editor Schmitz, then it is no wonder that the public opinion of academic science is so low…

    One would hope that editors and journals would set the example of utmost adherence to truth and honesty, as Feynman called it: “bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong” [https://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm]

  13. “It is one side to behave ourselves ethically and we should, but it is another side acting as policemen watching whether other people behave ethically. The latter is not the task of my first priority.”

    This should result in being summarily fired from an editorial position. Otherwise, the journal has to be considered compromised and anything published in it taken as unreliable.

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