Nikesh Gosalia and Elisabeth Bik continue their conversation on scientific misconduct, starting with the role played by research institutions in combating research misconduct. Elisabeth talks about the organized crime of research fraud: paper mills, which are companies that produce fake research papers and sell their authorship position to researchers. She also discusses the downsides of being a scientific integrity volunteer, such as legal threats, personal attacks, and even death threats, and how she deals with these issues. Elisabeth shares her thoughts on the double-edged sword of social media: it can be a powerful tool to expose scientific misconduct, but it is also a potent medium for spreading misinformation, and she mentions her concerns about the lack of moderation on some platforms, such as Twitter. In line with this, she discusses her strategy for vetting the trustworthiness of sources. Finally, Elisabeth talks about what motivates her to keep going in her battle against scientific fraud and shares her advice for listeners interested in becoming science misconduct volunteers.
Dr Elisabeth Bik is a science integrity consultant and microbiologist. With a PhD in microbiology, she has worked in academic publishing as a science editor and director of science. Featured across multiple mainstream media outlets, Elisabeth received the 2021 John Maddox Prize for her work on exposing threats to research integrity. She can be reached on Twitter.
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It takes a lot of courage to do what you do, Elisabeth. Obviously, the work that I do is not making people happy. I have been attacked by what seemed to be armies of trolls. I try not to accuse people of misconduct. I just try to raise concerns. It's frustrating that I have suspicions about the quality of papers, whether they're errors or misconduct, and that these cases are not acted upon. If we see these cases not having any consequences, that's frustrating for the honest people. I also am very aware that my work on science misconduct could be interpreted as all science is fraudulent, and I do not want that to be the message of my work. For me, science is about finding the truth. Science is about being honest. For me, science misconduct, therefore, is against everything that science should be. Because if you do misconduct, you're not telling the truth. Thank you for joining us, again. This is a continuation of the previous episode. As always, here's your host, Nikesh Gosalia. We've mainly spoken a lot about a publisher's role, a researcher's role in this, Elisabeth, but do you think there are other stakeholders that can also contribute to this? There are, for example, funders, there are research institutes, there could potentially be vendors, do you think they have a role as well? If so, what could potentially be their role? It takes a village, it takes all the stakeholders, and I'm not a big fan of that word, but I'll use it here. It takes all these institutions, all these publishers, all these authors and funders to play a role in combating misconduct because I've seen too many cases where maybe I write to a journal with a big concern, the journal then writes to the authors or maybe to the institution, and then nobody answers. Like there's no outcome. The institution might send something vague, like we'll investigate, and then nothing comes out of it year after year after year. Then, the whole process of science should be self-correcting comes to a halt because nothing happens for all those years. The journal doesn't really dare to take a decision by themselves. They're waiting for the institution, the institution is waiting for the authors to respond, the authors have moved somewhere else, and all these cases lead to basically nothing happening. And so, I'm posting all these cases of suspected image problems on PubPeer just to warn readers like there's a problem with this paper, I reported it, but nothing is happening and at least proceed with caution, because this is what I found. We, unfortunately, have seen that too many of these cases are just not responded to for whatever reasons. Yes, it takes all these people. I've written to the Office of Research Integrity with several concerns, and they haven't even answered me. I don't know if they're understaffed, or they don't trust my data or whatever. But for whatever reason, they didn't even send me an email back saying thank you for your email, we got it, we're on it. No, nothing, like not even a reply. And so, it's frustrating that I have suspicions about the quality of papers, whether they're errors or misconduct, and that these cases are not acted upon. We just need everybody to be involved to do more of their best because if we see these cases not having any consequences, that's frustrating for the honest people. If we see that people can do misconduct and not be punished in whatever way, then the good people will leave science, and we only end up with the bad apples who contaminate the rest of the fruit baskets. We need to have consequences for people who are doing the wrong things. I also know, Elisabeth, that a few publishers, even organizations like STM, are trying to tackle the whole issue, at least around paper mills. They've formed a coalition and trying to, but in your opinion, again, are there any specific publishers, academic societies, it could be even research institutes. Do you see anyone specifically kind of doing more active work in this area of solving fraud? I've seen at every publisher, I've met wonderful people who are very concerned about fraud and paper mills, we haven't really talked about that, but that is sort of the organized crime of science misconduct, like the institutions or companies that make fake papers and sell the authorship positions to authors, particularly in countries with very strict requirements for authorships. Those will be China, Russia, Iran, I think Egypt. We've seen these massive amounts of papers that all look very similar to each other, and presumably, are fake. Obviously, publishers were accepting this. They were naive to seeing that. I was part of a team of volunteers who noticed that all these papers were very similar or had things in common and they all looked fake. If you look carefully, there were weird errors in them. And so, now scientific publishers are more aware of these. They obviously want to prevent these cases for being submitted or published in the first place. They are taking rolls to find these papers, but of course, the paper mills are getting more clever as well, so it's a rat race, I guess who wins. But yeah, there are serious efforts at most scientific publishers to tackle that. But there's a lot of individual cases, I feel I am very concerned about that, scientific publishers across the board, I cannot name any specific one, have done really poorly in responding to my request for an investigation or retraction of the paper. In general, I see an improvement. They are doing more than they did, let's say, 5, 6, 7 years ago, but it's still very slowly. They need to respond much faster. It takes a lot of courage to do what you do, Elisabeth. Is there potentially, for lack of a better word, a dark side to the work you do? You might have faced multiple instances of retaliation, including false impersonations to even, say, a legal recourse. Can you maybe talk a little bit about those experiences and how they've impacted you? Probably not in just the professional sense, but maybe as a person as well and how you have emerged out of it, because I mean, this could be really motivating for a lot of us, including me. I mean, obviously, the work that I do is not making people happy. I completely understand that an author whose work has been criticized, is not going to embrace that criticism and be very happy with me as a person. But I've seen some cases where the scientists, whose work I criticize, have immediately attacked me back. Instead of answering questions like, did you have an IRB approval for this study? Or can you elaborate a little bit more on the composition of your control group? Or can you look at this particular figure that looks like it might have a problem? Instead of answering that and taking away my concerns, they have attacked me as a person, like they have attacked the places I've worked, the number of papers I have published, so lots of things, the way I look to my current profession, calling me a failed scientist or a person of medium intelligence and trying to denigrate me. I can see why they do that. They want to basically divert the attention from the real criticism towards me. That has not been easy always. I am very active on Twitter, and I have been attacked by what seemed to be armies of trolls, coordinated attacks, where I've been receiving death threats or just remarks on the way I look or where I live. Like I've been doxxed where I live. It's not pleasant. I have had several sleepless nights, and I cried, and yeah, it does take a toll on you. I think because these attacks gradually are becoming worse, I've sort of dealt with them. For my personal mental health, I sometimes lock down my Twitter, because I do not want to see all these nasty comments. I just will set it to Private. And so, these people who do not follow me cannot really attack me at that point. Then, usually, after a couple of days, they go away, and then I open my Twitter again. But, yeah, it's not been fun. I haven't received any personal harm type of things where I'm really worried about my safety myself. It's mainly online, some nasty emails. The doxxing of my home address was scary, even though I think if you dig deep, you can find where I live. But to see it online, somebody tweeting that to their million followers, that is just very scary. Yeah, I was worried about that. But luckily, as of now, it's fairly quiet until the next attack happens. I've been threatened with legal threats. So far, I've been out of legal trouble, I haven't been sued. But I've been threatened to be sued several times. I think that's just a way of trying to intimidate me, trying to silence me. This is why I'm happy that I am not employed. I don't have a boss telling me what I should do. They cannot write to my boss saying that I'm doing bad things online or so. I don't really have a career that they can damage, I guess, because I work for myself, so they cannot really damage that, I hope. I have received a lot of support from the scientific community. Whenever there were some legal threats of lawsuits, a lot of people have signed petitions, saying they support my work. I'm trying to always remain polite, not resort to insulting or harassing people. I hope that's my strength. I try not to accuse people of misconduct. I just try to raise concerns. I hope that keeps me on the right side of being sued. This is very motivational, Elisabeth, and the kind of work you do and to take on all of that, especially in terms of like you mentioned a few examples, but still continue to do the kind of work is extremely motivating. While I wanted to do this towards the end, but a huge thank you to you for the kind of work you do. We need more of this happening. Hopefully, this is the start of many others feeling motivated and encouraged to call these things out and not fear. Moving on to the role of maybe some of the other mediums. Specifically, role of social media, perhaps to some extent, just the mainstream television as well, in the dissemination of scientific research, I think it's an obvious question. Do you think it plays an important role? Could they be doing something more? I mean, just what are your overall thoughts in terms of role of social media? I am a big fan of social media. I think it can, with all its nastiness, all the trolls and all the bots and whatever, it does play, I feel, an important role in shining light on things that go wrong in society, whether that's science misconduct or sexual harassment or police brutality towards people of color. I feel social media has played an enormous role in showing footage, showing evidence of what happens and no longer can authorities deny that these things happen. I'm a big fan of using it for that purpose. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. If we see video of a police officer beating a person who is unarmed, I feel that that has played a huge role in showing that these things really happen. And so, similarly, I try to use social media to talk about science misconduct, without, I hope, pointing fingers towards who has done it. But I do point to problems in papers. I make it about the papers, not about the persons. I hope I've made people aware of that. I'm also aware that this is a double-edged sword because we've seen in the past two years, three years that science has lost a lot of its credibility, that more and more people are following conspiracy theories and are not listening to scientists anymore, actually accusing scientists of being part of a conspiracy theory that scientists are bringing fake news, and that is really damaging to science, obviously. I'm not sure how that has happened, how people have been so misled by people spreading misinformation, how few people are actually critically listening to these people and how much influence these people have also on social media. There is a double-edged sword to that. I also am very aware that my work on science misconduct could be interpreted as all science is fraudulent and don't believe in science anymore, because all scientists are fraudulent. I do not want that to be the message of my work. I always warn for that at the end of when I give a talk, like we need science to solve all the problems in the world. We need science to be good. We need to be able to trust science. Yes, there are some bad apples in science. But there's also a lot of great science. Most of sciences is great. Science is slow and science sometimes for an outsider can be very confusing to interpret the results. But I'm a firm believer of science. And so, I hope that's the message of the work that we do. I'm not alone. There's a small army of people who want to make science better and in one way or another, try to contribute to that by flagging papers that we believe are not great. Staying on with social media, Elisabeth, do you think – I mean, we know during the whole period of COVID and afterwards as well, there's been a lot of requests for social media platforms and organizations to play their role as well, in terms of just helping to bring out the truth, not really promoting fake information, etcetera. From science point of view, do you think these platforms are doing enough to maybe encourage the right science or do you think it's lost somewhere in all of the other things that they're kind of focusing on? They were but with the new leadership of Twitter, in particular, we've seen that a lot of accounts, who had been removed from the platform because they were spreading misinformation, are back and have more followers than ever. A lot of these people who had, let's say, 200 followers three years ago, now have like hundreds of thousands of followers. Because I think people love to see this misinformation. People are, I think, not always educated enough to distinguish real from fake, and they love these new stars who claim that all scientists are fraudulent, and COVID vaccines are going to kill us all. They don't have the critical capacity to look into the real data, or they just don't believe anything anymore. It's weird to see how Twitter used to be able to handle that in some way or another. You could report these accounts, and they sometimes were suspended. But nowadays, they're all reinstated. The current leader of Twitter himself is a believer in all kinds of misinformation. And so, I'm worried about that. I do feel that Facebook and YouTube, they still have moderation, and misinformation gets removed or flagged at least, but Twitter is not doing that anymore. That is worrisome. I'm daily asking myself, should I remain on Twitter, or should I leave it? I'm not sure what the answer is to that, because I do feel it's my platform. If I leave, if all the scientists leave, then that sets us up for even more information, but it's weird to see if I say vaccines help, vaccines work, which I'd posted a couple of weeks ago, the amount of death threats I received after that is just staggering. I reported all of them, and Twitter just says, no, it's freedom of speech, we're not going to moderate that. I feel the whole moderation team on Twitter has been fired. It's a weird place right now, and I'm not quite sure what will come out of it. As far as your own experience is concerned, Elisabeth, what news sources or websites do you trust when you're looking for, say, unbiased research or information? Where would you typically go when you're looking for say the truth? Which websites maybe you avoid? I would go to PubMed, like do a literature search or go to information by the CDC or another respected university, their medical pages, and if I want to have information about vaccines or so, or the New York Times, like I have particular sources I trust. I know there's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes of, in particular, the New York Times in fact-checking and verification. I don't believe a website that is set up by people who are all anonymous, who just link to other blogposts or who rely on anecdotal information. I don't trust those websites. I feel maybe as a scientist and because of my background, I have a fairly good idea of what to trust and not to trust. I might be wrong sometimes. There have been papers which look convincing to me that then turn out to be fake. It's sometimes very hard to tell even for me, but in general, I feel like if a paper has been published in a respectable journal, most of the times you can trust it. But yeah, there is a caveat that papers could be fake, and you might not even see it. As the most extreme example and recent example, the Surgisphere paper got published in The Lancet, which normally is a very trusted source of information. But this paper turned out to have, at least partially, fabricated data. I mean, a part of it was made up. It's unclear which parts were made up, but this paper got retracted. It was not for me obvious, like I even tweeted this paper because I thought, oh, this paper looks exciting, and it turns out to be fake. But it's very hard to tell sometimes. Detecting fraud, it almost right now seems like a never-ending battle, considering the fact that… Yes. You are in the midst of all of this, Elisabeth, and for me, obviously, it's kind of I know about it, but it's been just so much knowledge that I've got over the last one hour that we've spoken about. Are there times when you feel, Oh God, I mean, where do I start all over again? It's almost like a hopeless endeavor. Then, what motivates you to keep going? I mean, how do you kind of get yourself up again? Well, you're right, like there are days in which I think there's so many papers that I still need to look at and flag, and I get daily requests, like I get more than I can handle. And so, it seems like it's a never-ending battle. But I do feel if we give up on science and being critical of science, that is, in our opinion, of concern, that means giving up on science as a whole. And so, I don't want to do that. But what motivates me is, for me, science is about finding the truth. I usually start my talks by that. Of course, you can have that results in long discussion about what the truth is. I don't want to make it super philosophical or so. But for me, science is about being honest and about reporting what you have seen with all its flaws and uncertainties at times. For me, science misconduct, therefore, is against everything that science should be. Because if you do misconduct, you're not telling the truth, you're hiding it. That makes me angry. That makes me – people who do misconduct, who willingly spread misinformation or fake data, they are not doing science. They should not be calling themselves a scientist. They're not worth being a scientist, in my opinion. That makes me angry, that makes me motivated, and that keeps me going. But yeah, on some days, it just feels that there's a lot of work to be done, and it's just never ending. I notice several other people who do this work, maybe a little bit more behind the scenes. They flag large amounts of papers every day, and we hope that people who can install the PubPeer plugin, you can see which papers we have flagged and so you can be aware which papers might have a potential problem. That's the best we can do. But we do it with passion, and we're not giving up yet. We keep on doing this. Talking more in details with you, Elisabeth, I, of course, realize how essential your work is. You obviously do that with 100% passion and motivation. But say for the listeners, what would you tell anyone who's interested in doing similar work to you? I would say look at websites like Retraction Watch and PubPeer and see what gets published on science misconduct or suspicions of errors or fraud. On PubPeer, we and – again, this is a little army of volunteers and often anonymous persons, we flag as many papers as possible there. If you just go to PubPeer.com, you can see what gets posted there, you get an idea of the types of problems you might encounter in a scientific paper. I post these examples also on Twitter under the #imageforensics, and I think people are now starting to see this themselves. Almost every day, I get an email or a direct message saying, oh, I found one. I was doing a peer review and I found a duplication. I hope I have taught people how to see these. You just need to have some training. On PubPeer, you'll see many more types of problems, and Retraction Watch is when a paper gets flagged for a concern and gets investigated properly, it might get retracted, and then it might end up on the blog, Retraction Watch. You can read about all kinds of reasons why papers get retracted. I think it's both entertaining as well as disturbing but very educational. You can read about peer review of rings and people making up false data or fake data and people citing themselves way more than they should. It's sometimes very entertaining to read about what people do wrong in science. You can learn from that and become – you might start to detect those things yourself. Again, for those of our listeners who would love to hear more from you or even get in touch with you, where can they go to support you and all the work that you're doing? They can follow me on Twitter. I'm Elisabeth Bik with an S. My handle is MicrobiomDigest without the E in the middle. But if you just search for my name, you'll find it. I also have a Patreon account where people can donate small amounts of money per month. Together, that gives me a basic income so that I don't have to worry too much about not having a job and getting paid for this. I don't want to apply for grants because I feel the work that I do is unpredictable. I don't want to have to live up to some artificial goal that I should reach at after a couple of years of funding. I'm trying to stay away from grants, even though people send me grants like, oh, this should be like something you do. Like I don't really have a plan what I do, I just work off of tips. I don't think that's really what people would be willing to fund, but donations on Patreon, so Elisabeth Bik on Patreon. I'd be very happy with any donation as much as you can miss. I know for some people that's just one dollar or one euro a month. I'd be totally thrilled to have you as one of my supporters. That's all we have for today, Elisabeth. Thank you so much for your time. I feel absolutely motivated with the kind of work that you're doing. This was so knowledgeable for me, and I'm sure for all our listeners as well. Well, it was my pleasure, Nikesh, to be here and thank you for having me on. Thank you, listeners for tuning in. If you like this episode, please subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and Google podcasts. Have a great week, everyone. Until next time. All Things SciComm is brought to you by Science Talks, a science media channel that aims to make science accessible to all. We publish articles, videos, podcasts, and magazines. To read a transcript of this episode or watch it on YouTube, visit sciencetalks.org. Also, write to us with your views, questions, and guest recommendations at email@example.com. Science Talks, bringing science to you.