Two years of stonewalling: What happened when a scientist filed a public records request for NASA code

Nathan Myhrvold

Retraction Watch readers may know Nathan Myhrvold, who holds a PhD in physics, as the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, or as the author of Modernist Cuisine. They may also recall that he questioned a pair of papers in Nature about dinosaurs. In that vein, he has also been raising concerns about papers describing the sizes of asteroids. (Not everyone shares those concerns; the authors of the original papers don’t, and astronomer Phil Plait said Myrhvold was wrong in 2016.) Last month, Myhrvold published a peer-reviewed paper as part of his critique. The final version of that paper went live today, as did a story about the science in The New York Times and a detailed explanation by Myrhvold in Medium. As the discussion over the results continues, here he shares his experience trying to obtain details about the methodology the authors used.

Two years ago, I uploaded a preprint to describing what I considered serious problems, including apparently irreproducible results, that I had uncovered when analyzing a set of research articles published by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) NEOWISE project. NEOWISE is the largest scientific analysis of asteroids ever conducted; the researchers on the project have so far published estimated sizes of more than 164,000 objects in the solar system, estimates they have claimed were all derived by applying a standard approach to raw observations from the WISE space telescope.

My findings generated quite a stir in the media, including stories in The New York Times, Science, and Scientific American, among other outlets. My hope and expectation was that shining light on these troubling issues would spur the JPL researchers to retract or correct their papers. At the very least, I thought, they would release the various unpublished techniques that they had used in a series of highly cited papers, stretching from 2011 to 2015, thus lifting the veil of secrecy that had prevented me and other astronomers from replicating their results. Continue reading Two years of stonewalling: What happened when a scientist filed a public records request for NASA code

Texas participant in physics breakthrough repaid $5M in misspent funds

utrgvThe Texas institute that participated in the groundbreaking gravitational waves discovery had to repay nearly $5 million in funding after misusing and misreporting benefits, according to audits obtained by The Monitor.

The infractions occurred at The University of Texas Brownsville, which has since become part of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). Once the issues were discovered, UTRGV had to make the reimbursements.

As The Monitor reported: Continue reading Texas participant in physics breakthrough repaid $5M in misspent funds

U.S. gov’t researchers withdraw climate paper after using pseudonyms

adv-space-resClimate scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have withdrawn a study they wrote under eyebrow-raising pseudonyms.

The withdrawn paper, about predicting surface temperatures of planets, appeared in Advances in Space Research in August, 2015, and is authored by Den Volokin and Lark ReLlez.

Normally, a withdrawal wouldn’t raise our eyebrows, but climate scientist Gavin Schmidt pointed out on Twitter that the authors’ names are eerily similar to another pair who have published climate papers together: Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller. Yes, that’s correct — Den Volokin and Lark ReLlez are Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller spelled backwards. Nikolov and Zeller are currently listed as a physical scientist and a meteorologist, respectively, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The notice doesn’t state the reason for withdrawal, and Pascal Willis, editor-in-chief of Advances in Space Research from the Earth Physics Institute in Paris, France, referred us to the study’s authors for more information. Elsevier, which publishes Advances in Space Research, confirmed that the paper was retracted due to an “authorship issue” — namely, that the authors had used pseudonyms.

We used the contact information listed on the paper for “Den Volokin,” and got this response: Continue reading U.S. gov’t researchers withdraw climate paper after using pseudonyms

Authorship, funding misstatements force retraction of satellite study

rslRemote Sensing Letters has retracted a 2015 paper by a pair of researchers in China because the duo was in fact a solo, and the manuscript lied about its funding source.

The article, “A novel method of feature extraction and fusion and its application in satellite images classification,” purportedly was written by Da Lin and Xin Xu, of Wuhan University. But as the retraction notice makes clear, that wasn’t the case: Continue reading Authorship, funding misstatements force retraction of satellite study

Former UCSD prof’s company admits to grant fraud

court caseA company headed by a former astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, has agreed to forfeit $180,000 after admitting to defrauding the government.

If SciberQuest, Inc. is unable to pay back the money — the result of fraudulently obtaining government grants and contracts — then its CEO Homayoun Karimabadi will be personally liable, the lawyer for SciberQuest and Karimabadi told Retraction Watch.

We asked if the company was going to be able to repay the $180,000; in response, Robert Rose of firm Sheppard Mullin told us: Continue reading Former UCSD prof’s company admits to grant fraud

Satellite paper grounded for plagiarizing — from the same journal

1-s2.0-S0094576515X00129-cov150hPlagiarism happens; we see it a lot. But some cases stand out from the crowd.

For instance, we just came across an example where authors plagiarized from a paper in the same journal. Specifically, a 2015 paper on satellite orbits was found to have “extensive overlap” with another paper published in Acta Astronautica four years earlier. The last authors of the papers have connections, too — they used to work together at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in India, and in 2006, they co-authored a paper together.

M. Xavier James Raj is author on the retracted paper. He was a PhD student under R.K. Sharma, author of the paper he borrowed from. Sharma currently works at Karunya University in India.

Here’s the retraction note for “Analytical orbit predictions for low and high eccentricity orbits using uniformly regular KS canonical elements in an oblate atmosphere:”

Continue reading Satellite paper grounded for plagiarizing — from the same journal

Astrophysicists issue two detailed corrections

1.coverA group of astrophysicists has notched a pair of corrections for papers on galaxy clusters, thanks to an error that affected several figures in the papers, but not the overall conclusions.

The errors came in the catalog of “mock” galaxies that first author Fabio Zandanel, a postdoc at the University of Amsterdam, created to model features that are found in clusters of galaxies. Two mistakes canceled each other out “almost perfectly,” says Zandanel, making the changes that resulted from them subtle.

Zandanel explained the errors to us:

Continue reading Astrophysicists issue two detailed corrections

Black hole paper by teenaged prodigy retracted for duplication

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 8.39.44 AMAn astrophysics journal is retracting a paper on black holes whose first author is a teenager about to earn his PhD, after learning the paper “draws extensively” from a book chapter by the last author.

Many papers are pulled for duplication, but few get a news release from the publisher about it. In a move that we approve of, the editors of The Astrophysical Journal announced the forthcoming retraction on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) website.

The paper‘s first author Song Yoo-Geun who turns 18 this month, and is on track to earn his doctorate next year from the University of Science and Technology in South Korea. According to the news release, the paper borrows heavily from a book chapter published in 2002 by his adviser and co-author, Seok Jae Park at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute.

AAS is handling this very quickly. The paper was published in October, someone alerted the journal to the duplication on November 14, and the announcement of the retraction went up on the AAS website just ten days later.

The retraction note for “Axisymmetric nonstationary black hole magnetospheres: revisited” will be published in the next issue of ApJ. In the meantime, the news release explains what happened:

Continue reading Black hole paper by teenaged prodigy retracted for duplication

Harvard-Smithsonian space center retracts ruling on asteroid

Image of near Earth astroid Ida, via NASA
Image of main-belt asteroid Ida, via NASA

Between Mars and Jupiter floats a little rock with big dreams.

For three whole weeks in January and February, it was designated as 2015 BS515, a near Earth object, one of the many space rocks that astrophysicists keep an eye on for their potential to strike our planet. But then on February 12 came the announcement: the Minor Planet Center (MPC) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had downgraded the rock to a “routine main-belt object.” That means the asteroid is far enough away that we don’t have to worry about it hitting Earth any time soon.

The MPC gets sent two million observations of asteroids and comets every month. The five staff members then catalog these findings and figure out what’s new and what’s been seen before. The goal is to keep track of all near Earth objects, which make up about 1% of the observations the Center receives. It’s remarkable that there are so few corrections, given the 120 million observations on the MPC’s books.

Here’s a portion of the note that appeared in the most recent Minor Planet Electronic Circular (MPEC), which provides updates about comets, “observable unusual objects,” and other asteroid news: Continue reading Harvard-Smithsonian space center retracts ruling on asteroid

Hayabusa Science retraction made official, but behind a paywall

science 62714Science has published the retraction of a 2006 paper about an asteroid, following a report in its news pages that the study’s authors had requested the move.

Here’s the paywalled — tsk, tsk — notice: Continue reading Hayabusa Science retraction made official, but behind a paywall