Top Science Scandals of 2014

The stem cell that never was; post-publication peer review website faces legal trouble; biosecurity breaches at federal labs

By | December 25, 2014

As always, in addition to the scientific breakthroughs that make headlines throughout the year, there is also a dark side to science. From misconduct to human error, there is always the possibility for something to go wrong. This year saw the announcement and retraction of a new method of cellular reprogramming; a lawsuit against users of an anonymous post-publication peer review website; and multiple biosecurity breakdowns at federal facilities.

The STAP saga

HARUKO OBOKATAThis January, Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, along with her colleagues published two papers in Nature that described pluripotent stem cells that had been derived simply by applying a physical stressor to adult cells. Known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, the findings attracted the attention of the scientific community and media. But it didn’t take long for some researchers to raise questions.

Scientist bloggers led the way, posting the results of their attempts to replicate the study in real time. Users of the post-publication peer review website PubPeer  also raised concerns. By February, RIKEN had launched its own investigation, which led to a finding of scientific misconduct against Obokata. In July, Nature retracted both papers. Sadly, in August, Obokata’s supervisor Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide, after having been hospitalized for stress and exhaustion.

PubPeer’s legal woes

FLICKR, BRIAN TURNERThe post-publication peer review forum found itself it hot water this October, when Wayne State University pathologist Fazlul Sarkar brought a lawsuit against the site’s users for allegedly making defamatory comments questioning some of Sarkar’s publications. According to Sarkar, the comments cost him a job at the University of Mississippi. He and his lawyer subpoenaed identifying information about the users, but PubPeer has refused to turn it over. This month (December 10), the site filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

 

Containment issues at federal agencies

CDCUS government labs also ran into some trouble this year. In June, as many as 75 scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exposed to live Bacillus anthracis when anthrax-causing microbes were shipped to laboratories not equipped to handle the pathogen safely. Then in July, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employees packing up an old storage unit run stumbled upon 16 forgotten vials of smallpox. Later that same month, researchers at the CDC’s influenza lab reported that a shipment of benign avian influenza virus sent to a Department of Agriculture facility was contaminated with the highly pathogenic H5N1.

In the wake of these safety breaches, the CDC called for a moratorium on movement of biological materials from biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) and BSL-4 facilities in July, the head of the CDC Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory resigned, and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was overhauled. “These are wake-up calls. These are events that tell us we have a problem,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said during a July press briefing. “We’re going to fix them.”

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Comments

December 29, 2014

What a way to end the year?

Don't worry. Causing scandals in science is not acceptable. Another noteworthy scandal is the proliferstion of predatory journals! Hundreds of new journals are sprouting out. Not a day passes without the practicing scientists receiving an invitation to publish in those journals. Publish them, buy one get one style if you agree to be a reviewer!

Some measures to arrest this tendency are called for. So long as there are enough individuals willing to pay for the dubious glory of getting the name in print, nothing can be done. We must create awareness by exposing such journals. This writer suspects that when there are funds to support  publication, the virus will continue

 

December 29, 2014

In the academic world, the totem pole gets greasier by the minute and there will always be some intent on the climb equipped with little beyond phony tools.
Avatar of: Weishi Meng

Weishi Meng

Posts: 16

April 9, 2015

Wayne State's Prof. Sarkar is as far as I can see a victim of the misnamed post publication peer review, which consists of people hiding in anonymity, with no verifiable credentials, and who are nobody's peers. If an honest person has something to say about Dr. Sarkar's research, he should step forward, identify himself and subject his challenge to the same peer review process that Sarkar's publications have been subject to. If the challenge passes peer review, Prof. Sarkar should be invited to respond and the entire conflict should be brought out in the open. This is how science has dealt with challenges for centuries, and the way it should deal with the Sarkar case, as described here.

Avatar of: Weishi Meng

Weishi Meng

Posts: 16

April 14, 2015

PubPeer, Clare Francis and the Travesty of the First Amendment

(see also previous Science Transparency coverage of the Sarkar case).

An attorney for Prof. Fazlul Sarkar, the Wayne State University professor who may have lost a generous job offer because of scathing comments about his research posted on PubPeer, has asked a judge to reconsider last month’s decision not to release information about the site’s anonymous commenters. The brief introducing that motion identifies the PubPeer commenter with the pseudonym Clare Francis.

On March 19, a Michigan court ruled that PubPeer had to disclose identifying information about the PubPeer commenter, identified as the author of the second of the comments below:

Unregistered Submission:
(June 18th, 2014 4:51pm UTC)
Has anybody reported this to the institute?

Unregistered Submission:
(June 18th, 2014 5:43pm UTC)
Yes, in September and October 2013 the president of Wayne State University was informed several times.The Secretary to the Board of Governors wrote back on the 11th of November 2013:  “Thank you for your e-mail, which I have forwarded to the appropriate individual within Wayne State University. As you are aware, scientific misconduct investigations are by their nature confidential, and Wayne would not be able to comment on whether an inquiry into your allegations is under way, or if so, what its status might be. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention”

In a supplemental brief filed on April 9, Sarkar’s attorney Nicholas Roumel informs the court that Wayne State provided the email exchanges quoted in the comment, and that they were between “Clare Francis” and Julie H. Miller, secretary to Wayne State’s Board of Governors. Thus, the court learned that on November 10, 2013 Clare Francis wrote:

“I am writing to you about multiple scientific concerns about the published work of Fazlul H Sarkar which have been aired on Pubpeer."

“You can find the entries on Pubpeer here: …”

“Many of the entries mention things which amount to what many think of as scientific misconduct….”

Following the supplemental brief and after spotting the libel, the court rightly ruled that PubPeer must provide the IP for Clare Francis to Roumel.

The blog Retraction Watch offered PubPeer’s attorneys the opportunity to comment, and they had this to say:

“We are deeply troubled that a scientist who exercised his or her right to anonymously report anomalies in scientific research is being threatened with possible liability. The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously precisely so that, in circumstances like this one, individuals can report on matters of public interest without fear of retribution. This case is especially troubling because it threatens to weaken the foundation of scientific research, which relies on honest feedback and criticism from one’s peers.”

Nice words, but so meaningless! Let’s see:

a)      Where is the proof that Clare Francis is the pseudonym for “a scientist who exercised his or her right to anonymously report anomalies in scientific research”? Clare Francis could just as well be an angry person who hates Fazlul Sarkar!

b)      Where is the proof that Clare Francis is reporting on a matter of public interest? It could just as well be that Francis is simply the pseudonym of someone who hates Sarkar, envies his success, or has a vested interest in his downfall, and this surely is a personal matter, not a matter of public interest.

c)       How do we know the slanderer of Prof. Sarkar is being honest? He could just as well be dishonest. In fact, everything suggests the latter to be the case: honest people who do the right thing do not usually hide, they don't need to, at least in countries under the rule of law.

d)      How do the PubPeer attorneys know that Sarkar’s attacker is one of Sarkar’s peers? In fact, how do they know anybody at PubPeer is actually a peer of the scientists they are slandering? Clare Francis is not revealing his scientific credentials!

e)      Given that we don’t know whether Clare Francis is honest, or even whether Clare Francis is Sarkar’s peer, how can we assert that the case weakens the foundation of scientific research?

This one was an easy one, wasn’t it?

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