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Comment on Piero Anversa controversy

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.

4 Comments

  1. I agree with this post, but:
    “being associated with a compromised paper is also career suicide”
    Is it really? For all authors? I’d like to think so, but I believe many authors of compromised papers obtained permanent positions before the paper got compromised and few got stripped of these positions after…
    (I’m making a general comment here, not specific to this story)

  2. “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).”

    This is very clearly wrong and the criticism is definitely justified. But what about instances where the results are technically not aligned with the theory but the interpretation is well, ‘creative’, to say the least? In certain fields being overly hedgy or skeptical in how you present your findings can potentially lead to career suicide.

  3. Mick, kudos for taking the time to make this thoughtful reply. My following, more brief, related effort was posted twice, at the Retraction Watch site alongside yours, and at Annalee Newitz’s “Inside a Corrupt…” rehash at io9 [http://io9.com/inside-a-corrupt-stem-cell-research-lab-1584802053]; in neither case did it arrive at/survive “moderation” (irony noted). E.g., here is my posted response at Newitz’s io9 posting:

    “This anonymous statement is not valid evidence of scientific misconduct. Noting how very quickly you covered the distance from the content of the statement to ‘he abused’—i.e., from anonymous accusation to certainty of guilt [also echoed in the Newitz title]—please consider. Journalists, online or otherwise, should be very careful to frame accusations in venues where the accused cannot face their accusers, where there are no rules against hearsay, where there are no penalties for perjurious offerings, etc. Whatever the outcome, however true this anonymous statement may be, process is important, and all persons in a democratic society—scientists included—have a reasonable right to expect that the process followed by their accusers be just. While rapid-fire, 225-word postings may be efficient in encouraging traffic and supporting livelihood, they cannot, I propose, make this type of ill-conceived effort just, or right, or honorable. Disclaimer: While a practicing scientist and sometime journalist in areas related to my science, I have no relationship with any party to this story or its reporting.” [signed, earlydiscovery]

    With regard to a central question of your posting, I would offer the following. I’ve been alongside and aware of various ethical malfeasances, large and small, at American academic training venues. These have spanned the range of unwillingness to acknowledge earlier published error in any form, i.e., unwillingness even to state “while earlier we believed… now we know…”, to fiscal improprieties relating to the use of federal and foundation funds intended to support specific scientific efforts. While in or alongside this range, on two occasions I felt compelled to speak up (i.e., to refuse to allow the ethical matter to pass without further consideration or review); in both cases, doing so had career costs that are hard to estimate, but were enormously significant. For instance, insisting that my dissertation state, however politely or succinctly, that earlier-held laboratory views were in error (and why) led to withdrawal of an advisor recommendation, dissertation approval delays, and consequent loss of an eminent postdoctoral fellowship. The personal costs, later near mid-career, of asking an in-house audit to reset the course of grant expenditure decisions was even more damaging. Hence, I wear no rose-colored glasses when I read stories of misuse of academic power.

    Nevertheless, in fairness, one must cling to a notion of “due process” when it comes to accusations, including of the sort that were leveled in the Retraction Watch posting (and in the Newitz and other echo-chamber sites on the web). Your commentary was welcome for its informed and thoughtful content, and I would urge you to keep and eye on such things, and to be as high-decibal as you can afford to be in your responses. Being “tried in the press” has taken on even newer, less constrained meanings in this era of immediate web coverage of all matters, large and small. Accusations in science, while only part of the much larger problem, are a part to which we can knowledgeably respond. e.d.

  4. Dear colleagues!
    Could you help me with finding more information about the cause of Anversa article retraction?
    I am interested in the same scientific area and can’t find precise information: their group falsify study data or they make any mistake during experiment or analysis or some ethics involved or something else? Or such information doesn’t exist at all?

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