I need a “Bullshit-O-Meter”, which would determine the purity of bovine excrement that at times heads my way. In a previous post, “Why doesn’t the sun go around the earth?”, I put forth my views on the case brought by Fazlul Sarkar that aims to lift the anonymity of PubPeer. This led to an e-mail from Weishi Meng, which starts (note I have redacted the co-addressee).
“Dear Drs. XXX and Fernig,
A disturbing trend is developing in what is now named “post publication peer review”, a slippery field where scientific journals are losing their grip. If nothing gets done, the hatred-driven blogs Retraction Watch and PubPeer will end up dictating policy on research ethics while putting in place a veritable McCarthyian system to target scientific researchers. And that would be a tragedy. Neither Retraction Watch nor PubPeer publish investigations subject to scientific peer review. These blogs have turned into lose cannons on the internet.
My latest post entitled “Aberrant Post Publication Peer Review at Retraction Watch and Pubpeer” addresses this problem and is now available at
The link leads to the site “scienceretractions”, which takes a view diametrically opposite to mine on how science works. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Mine is simple: the post at “scienceretractions”, is pure, 100%, unadulterated bovine excrement.
1) Fazlul Sarkar has placed in the public domain scientific papers with images that are being discussed in labs and in online forums – PubPeer being just one. Others include the comments at a Retraction Watch post and a post by Derek Lowe (who appears to be a Monty Python fan!) entitled “Scam, Scam, Scam, Scam, Scammity Scam, Wonderful Scam”
The “loose cannons” seem to be targeted very precisely at published data. I think a naval captain would be most impressed by such aim. “McCarthyian” refers to the suppression of discussion, not discussion itself. The “Bullshit-O-Meter” would at this juncture go up a notch.
2) We are assured that “Fazlul Sarkar is a professor with a prodigious scientific output of more than 500 peer reviewed publications, tens of millions of dollars in NIH funding, and drugs in clinical trial”.
Agreed. Who will pay if the data underpinning the clinical trials are not what they seem? The patients. We have precedent, for example Anil Potti at Duke.
(last of a long line of posts at Retraction watch here. With such stakes, a modicum of scrutiny and discussion is certainly worthwhile.
3) Just a little further on, the course of action of us anonymous cowards (a question I will come to below) should have taken
“The rules of fair play, transparency and scientific standards (how about decency?) indicate that if they really felt there was something wrong with Dr. Sarkar’s results, they should have submitted their conclusions to the same peer review journals where Dr. Sarkar reported his work”
Why does PubPeer exist and why did the now defunct “Abnormal Science” and “Science Fraud” come into existence? Because this obvious route has not worked in my view, something I have blogged about at length. Frank discussion of data is fair play and, importantly is science. Blind faith is religion.
4) The purity of the bovine excreta is manifested by ad hominems on the founders of Retraction Watch. OK, like me, they are established and surely have broad shoulders and a strong sense of irony. However, to then take it out on their intern is in my view cowardly in the extreme; cowardice can be an important measure of the purity of bovine excrement.
5) Bullying is an emerging theme of this bovine excrement and is the root of the suit filed by Fazlul Sarkar. It is precisely because Fazlul Sarkar has millions of dollars of grants, power and prestige that anonymity is important: those who spotted the coincidences in the images in his papers feared for their future.
This is why anonymity is so critical: we cannot have an open discussion, because many are too afraid to voice their opinion. Only the powerful and secure take issue with papers at Pubmed Commons, yet more papers are read by the less powerful and secure. There can be no difference in intellectual capacity between the two groups: both are humans. It is natural that the less powerful and secure generate the most questions about papers, since critical thinking is an essential part of the training of all young scientists and collectively, they read more papers.
6) The argument that scurrilous opinion will harm a career takes us to 100% neat bovine excrement, no added water. There is a right of reply on Pubpeer. A considerable number of authors engage in discussions of their work, often to the satisfaction of all. Sometimes there remain issues, and, one hopes, lessons learned regarding keeping original data. Bottom line: a scientist who engages in discussion has an enhanced reputation, one who heads for the legal firm down the road will likely suffer from the Streisand effect.
There should only be one outcome of a challenge, be it anonymous or not, to a publication (or several): a riposte on the quality of the data and their interpretation. Hiding behind ad hominems and notions of “stature” or “importance” cuts no ice, but it is likely to get the “Bullshit-O-Meter” redlining and may even break this delicate instrument.
I could go on, but even bovine excrement is subject to the law of conservation of matter and energy. A “Bullshit-O-Meter” can only have a dynamic range of 0% to 100% and since at this point it would already be redlining, it would not do to break it.
Finally, pre-publication peer reviewing and editing are far from perfect and by definition, nothing is ever proved in science, we can only provide some level of approximation. So discussion is essential. There are plenty of examples of “things that slipped the net”, the latest being this one in the fourth paragraph of the discussion in a paper published in a Wiley journal that is doing the rounds today:
“Although association preferences documented in our study theoretically could be a consequence of either mating or shoaling preferences in the different female groups investigated (should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?)“. Though Wily seem to have taken the paper down and are perhaps engaged in some “Post Publication paper revision”.