Halloween wouldn’t be complete without a ghost story, and while we’ve covered ghost writers in the past, a bizarre paper retraction takes things to a new level.
Bruce Spiegelman, from Harvard’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute had presented his lab’s findings on two novel proteins involved in diabetes and obesity in mice at a variety of scientific meetings. Much to his surprise, those same results were published in a paper in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications (BBRC). Even stranger, the paper’s authors don’t seem to exist.
Declan Butler covers the details of what happened in a Nature News article, and Adam Marcus wrote it up for Retraction Watch as well. The listed authors appear to be made-up names–conglomerations of names of researchers in the field. BBRC is billed as a “rapid communications journal,” so likely a peer review system that emphasizes speed contributed to this paper getting through undetected.
Understanding the motivation for doing something like this is baffling, for taking the time to write up a paper, creating figures based presumably on what was presented at the meetings, etc. Who has the time, and more importantly, why?
Spiegelman notes that he had already filed patent applications before the data was presented publicly, so it’s hard to see any financial motivation; and with the authors being fictitious, there’s clearly no attempt by the fraudsters to gain academic credit for themselves.
Perhaps this is the work of some crazed advocate, trying to make a seemingly obscure point about peer review (a protest against double-blinding in favor of single blinding?); a pro-ORCID statement (though as pointed out, ORCID would not have helped here as fake ORCID accounts could have been created); maybe an attempt to drive usage of preprint services (though here, there’s no question in the community who the data belongs to). Suggestions are welcome in the comments below.
Spiegelman is left to speculate that this is a malicious personal attack against him and his laboratory, and perhaps he’s right. Priority, being the first to discover something new, remains a cornerstone of academic career credit. Even after detection and retraction, the fraudulent paper may harm Spiegelman and his students from publishing the true version of their results in the journal of their choice. The cat is, in some ways, out of the bag. One hopes that journal editors will be sympathetic in this case, and not penalize Spiegelman’s group for something that was not their own doing.
It remains worrisome though–over the years, researchers have become more and more hesitant to discuss unpublished data at public meetings. The presence of bloggers and Twitter users have turned meetings into a broadcast medium, where anything said is instantly spread worldwide. This has been great for the rapid dissemination of knowledge, but at the same time, it has made meetings more dull, full of presentations of results you’ve already seen. Incidents like this certainly aren’t going to help.
At the very least, as we all work to streamline our peer review processes to better meet author needs for rapid publication, this ghost story should serve as a warning that some corners should not be cut. Verification of author identity may be a step worth adding, but even so, it’s hard to fault the journal here. The very nature of scholarly publishing is based on good faith. Journals assume authors are who they say they are and that deliberate attempts to defraud are rare.
I don’t think we’ve reached a point where we need to revamp our approach, to start with a notion of guilty until proven innocent, and really, the thought of doing so is repulsive. But as competition for dwindling research dollars and jobs intensifies and anonymous online communication continues to erode personal responsibility, that may become an archaic notion. This very strange and ultimately pointless act is an isolated incident, but is perhaps indicative of a larger shift in society. Still, I’d like to keep some faith in the purity of academia, and share Rachel Toor’s hope that we can do better:
Something in me wants people with advanced educations to be better than the lugheads who write the barely intelligible nasty anonymous comments on other sites. I dream, with an innocence I cling to, that academics can be better than the teens who bully each other into depression and suicide. I want our students to see us as examples—not only of how to write and how to argue, but of how to behave.