Discussion of scientific retraction and fraud is not just entertainment, and co-authors are not the only ones hurt

June 25, 2012

David Dobbs posted a lengthy comment over at retractionwatch from Jonathan Levav. This individual purports to have two manuscripts in revision with the central figure of the retraction watch post, one Dirk Smeesters who has “has resigned amid serious questions about his work.”. Dr. Levav was addressing the commentary, particularly that which seemed to smear prior co-authors of Smeesters, with some justifiable outrage:

Neither one of us ran the questionable studies in these papers, and neither one of is us guilty. We’re associated with Dirk as coauthors, but we’re not guilty. You might find this “peculiar”–that we’re not guilty–but those are the facts. I’m not afraid to say this and I have nothing to be ashamed about, so I don’t have to hide behind an anonymous initial.

Fair enough.

I have a problem, however, with Dr. Levav’s apparent assumption that people who follow retractions and data fraud, and choose to comment about them online, are just sneering looky-loos, entertaining themselves at the misfortunes of others.

So there you have it, SF, and all the rest of you voyeurs, haters of social psychology, great scholars, crappy scholars, cool people, losers, innocent bystanders, or whoever the fuck is still reading. You have your missing suspect paper, with another researcher to add to the mix of affected (infected?) names.


And although for many of you this whole incident provides much needed entertainment, for those of us caught up in it, the situation has been extremely distressing. I shudder to think how Cammie feels right now; most people would just quit the field in her shoes. Personally I’m over this whole thing now–it’s been a few months since I’ve known–so I feel free to write about it and have my writing cached in cyberspace for posterity (probably a terrible idea). I don’t know what motivated Dirk to do what he did, but I do know that he didn’t have to do it because, in reality, he was smart enough to be a respected scholar without doctoring data. This whole situation plain sucks.

Look, I can understand the pain of the innocent co-author, brought under suspicion because of the bad behavior of someone else. I do. I’m not one of those who thinks, totally irrationally, that every author has to be responsible for the contributions of the other authors as if she herself had done the work. Otherwise we’d have single author papers….only. Collaborative, multi-person science is a good thing. It relies on trust and if your co-authors are up to shenanigans, you can’t always know.

As I said above, it is wrong for us to tar all authors with the same brush….although I will stand by my position that it is fine to discuss whether or not a PI might have set a culture in which the fraud perpetrated by the lowly postdoc or grad student is…encouraged. But we should be as circumspect as possible and not rush to assume all authors are complicit or guilty.

This, however, is a long, long way from saying we have no interest if it is not something that directly involves ourselves. A long way from saying that our only interest is of a base nature.

We have a legitimate interest in the fraudulent doings of other scientists and we too have taken real injury. Not always directly, but injury nevertheless.

Real jobs, of the professorial rank variety, are a limited (dearly limited?) quantity. As everyone (outside of NIH) knows. So are major research grants. Acceptance of your paper at one of the more high-faluting journals is hard to come by and is competitive. If the next group is presenting more awesome data, more quickly…then they are going to get the acceptance and your more pedestrian looking dataset will be pushed away. Ultimately, those with a string of high-faluting-journal publications (or a longer string of publications) will do better in this career path.

Those who lack such things will struggle, fail to achieve and may have to leave the career entirely. In part through the comparison with other scientists. Because this is a competitive business we are in.

If a part of the population against which you will be judged has been cheating to get to where they are…this does you an injury. The alcohol research fraudster Michael W. Miller, once Chair of Neuroscience and Physiology at SUNY Upstate Medical University, is a recent example of a data faker that did direct injury to people in my fields of interest. He was hired as a Chair in a Department and awarded many NIH grants (including a Center) on the strength of his faked work. He had a position in the field reviewing grants, papers and probably tenure files that cannot help but have been influenced by his own opinion* of his place in the world.

There are people out there, real ones, who did not get their grant because a cheater got his. And because even when the cheater is busted, the NIH just passes off the award to someone else. So it isn’t like any of the grants that scored just behind the fraudulent one get dragged out for funding**.

Other people who did not get the Assistant Professor appointment won by a fraudster. How do you account for those people? The scientists who just gave up because they could never get into “that Journal” doing science the honest way and they had been steeped in a (fradulent?) culture of Glamor-or-Bust.

So, Dr. Lavev, while I have sympathy for your defensive posture, understand that those who are interested are not merely standing around, throwing tomatoes at the poor sap in the stocks. They may be injured parties themselves. Or simple parties who have a strong interest seeing the messes in their own chosen fields of endeavor cleaned up.

*Ok, I’m going on some assumptions here about the way these fraudsters usually believe their own bullshit. That’s why the fraud in the first place, if you ask me….they think they ARE this kind of successful scientist so when the data do not support it, well, the data MUST support it, mustn’t they?

**Be nice wouldn’t it? Terminate the fraudster’s award and give the out years to the next grant on the list from that round of funding.

ps. wrt:

SF, you coward in hiding, before you publicly speculate about people’s careers and judgment, take a deep breath and ask yourself who the hell you think you are to so freely besmirch people’s reputation in a public forum. If you have something to say, stand behind your name. Your NAME. You know Camille Johnson’s name. You know mine.

HAHAHAAH. because that would make the speculation that a co-author was also a fraudster just magically disappear. c’mon.

No Responses Yet to “Discussion of scientific retraction and fraud is not just entertainment, and co-authors are not the only ones hurt”

  1. Pinko Punko Says:

    The commenters at Retraction Watch fall into a few categories. One aligns well with the standard newspaper article crowd for whom it is a little bit of bloodsport. This is not all the commenters there, and it is not the posters, but it is definitely some of the commenters- and these are the ones that would get the most attention.


  2. Dave Says:

    Yeh I used to be more active over at Retraction Watch, but those guys have taken it too far in my opinion. It has turned into a witch-hunt of sorts, in which a decision on guilt is made almost as soon as a new story is posted. There is now a core bunch of commenters who dominate every story, and go totally and utterly fucken nuts every time a new juicy one comes out. If it happens to involve a big lab, then all the better. A lot of them seem to have an axe to grind and it often gets quite personal.


  3. Drugmonkey Says:

    Ahh…. Perhaps my unfamiliarity with the commenters over there has led to a misperception.


  4. I love the “BAN WESTERN BLOTTES!” enthusiasts.


  5. David Dobbs Says:

    Good and valuable points, DM, and consistent, methinks, with the point I was trying to make. People outside the immediate fracas certainly do have a legitimate interest, as you note; that’s why these cases are so important. And sometimes, of course, it comes out that people not initially named have bene involved. But in general there seems to me a rush to negative judgment, which is particularly unfortunate given how much impact these affairs have on collaborators even without such rushed judgments.

    As you say, others outside are being hurt too, often badly. These are high-cost transgressions.


  6. David Dobbs Says:

    PS: For what it’s worth, I didn’t quite read Levav as assuming all following and chiming in were vultures etc. Though I suppose I can see how one might read it otherwise.


  7. Dave Says:

    I got wound up over that Western thing. Since then, haven’t been involved in the site much. Their article in Lab Times on WB was some of the worst science journalism I have ever seen. I guess they were hoping it would get them more play on NPR………

    Site has gone downhill. Shame because it is a legitimate cause.


  8. Pinko Punko Says:

    Here is the article Dave mentioned- what were your problems with it, Dave?

    Click to access lt_2012_02_41_41.pdf


  9. Virgil Says:

    Agree 100% with DM’s original post. Fraud costs me and you real progress and real money.

    Another unseen cost of this type of misconduct, is the loss of faith of the public in the scientific process. Key example the whole Dipak Das affair… Yes he’s guilty as all get out, but the popular news media headlines about no cardiovascular benefit from red wine (as if the whole field was built on Das’s work and the French Paradox suddenly does not exist any more) took things too far.

    No doubt, in the long run, more cases like this will make it increasingly difficult for congress to vote for NIH budget increases, and easier for administrators to justify more “policing” of grant dollars, in whatever shape or form that takes. One bad guy makes us all look bad, so yeah, of course we’re pissed off when fraud happens !


  10. Dave Says:

    Pinko Punko – to keep it brief, my problems with the article basically centered around the fact that it was (in my opinion) written in a sensationalistic fashion, was completely misleading, factually incorrect and heavily biased. It played right into the hands of the crazies at RW. They took a highly reproducible and reliable technique – one that has been used for decades – and claimed that it was now “a laughing stock” in research labs/papers and cannot be trusted. This is just wrong on so many levels.

    Of course, they didn’t mention at all that every other technique is open to abuse – and probably is abused – just as equally. The only reason WB “fraud” has come up more often is because it is much, much, much easier to catch due to the graphic nature of the data. How are you going to catch qRT-PCR fraud, for example? Moreover, they go on to suggest, based on nothing but their own opinion really, possible “solutions” to the “problem” that are impractical and for the most part unnecessary. The authors have no real experience with the technique, and it shows.

    I think that, ultimately, my fear is that more articles like this will lead to all sorts of hideous reviewer demands, more hasty and needless retractions, and more general hysteria and fuss about, well, not a lot really.


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