I learned of the issues surrounding Piero Anversa, who has had a paper in Circulation retracted and an Expression of Concern from The Lancet, on Twitter earlier this week.  However, the blog post which I read made me quite uncomfortable, and left me wondering whether we have lost the concept of “Innocent until proven guilty” from science?

Allow me to explain.  The retraction and expression of concern are deeply worrying, and call into question some of the research methods used (by the entire group of scientists, by the way, not just Piero Anversa).  However, the blog post I read goes much further than that, with accusations of fear and threats, of ridicule and of careers ended for asking questions.  These accusations come from an anonymous author, yet we have Piero Anversa’s name and image right there in the post for all to see.

I’m not saying that the post is incorrect, I’m just uncomfortable that we can publish these accusations (and at the moment, that’s all they are) from an anonymous account yet a scientist’s full name and picture are included.  Is that right? (for the sarcastic amongst you, yes I am aware of the internet and what happens on it ;-))

I am not affiliated with Piero Anversa, I have never met him or communicated with him in any way.  I’m not here to defend him.  But I guess that’s my point – noone is here to defend him, whilst unfounded accusations about him are read by thousands.

Some comments on the issues brought up by the post

If we can just set aside the “unfounded accusations” issue for now, the blog post brings up several important issues:

  • I have certainly been involved with projects and scientists where the theory dictates the data, i.e. the theory is stated first and the data are made to fit the theory (Don’t try and figure out who, noone I currently work with does this).  So I am not surprised by this accusation and I would not be surprised if it is true.  It’s bad science.  I have no idea how common it is.  However, my approach has always been to quietly remove myself from the project, and I suggest anyone who is involved in such work, at whatever level you are, do the same.  I realise this may seem like career suicide, but being associated with a compromised paper is also career suicide.  Just get out.
  • The post also mentions “Machiavellian Principles”, and actually I think is is scarily accurate.  I’d say Machiavellian politics are the dominant form within academic scientific research, with a “divide and rule” approach to the competition, and anonymous peer review forming a perfect weapon to “destroy” the opposition.  We should remove this weapon.  However, I see these most often between groups, not within a group.
  • I have never seen the kind of behaviour that the blog post mentions; the naked threats, the fear, the reward of simple obedience.  Maybe I have just been lucky?   Does this actually happen?

Summary

We need to be very wary of making unproven accusations from an anonymous account about named scientists.  This seems very unfair and actually very unscientific.

For me, the most important issue the blog post raises is the point that some scientists put the theory before the data, and make the data fit the theory.  This is clearly wrong and needs to stop.  Whether Piero Anversa is guilty of this, we do not yet know – however, I’d say that some scientists are guilty of it, and that’s what we need to address.