SkeptiCalCon 2019

A warm welcome on a warm day. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Sunday June 9, 2019, I attended the 10th SkeptiCalCon, a 1-day conference on science and skepticism. The event was sponsored by the Bay Area Skeptics (BAS) and the Sacramento Area Skeptics (SAS).

BAS and SAS remain focused on what (Carl) Sagan called “extraordinary claims” (which require “extraordinary evidence,” as his adage reminds us) but we also seek to improve the general public understanding of science and critical thinking. Scientific skepticism is independent of other movements which sometime also claim the term “skeptic.” Scientific skepticism can be embraced by all, whether religious or non-religious, trained in science or new to the scientific method, or anyone interested in better understanding truth and reality.

From the SkeptiCalCon website. Source: http://www.skepticalcon.com/about-skeptical

The event was held in the Hyatt Regency hotel next to San Francisco International Airport. It was an unusually hot day and temperatures got pretty toasty in the Garden Pavilion. But it was a great conference.

The conference was held in the Garden Pavilion at the Hyatt Regency near SFO airport, just South of San Francisco. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Here is a summary of all the talks and activities. You can also read about it on Twitter using the hashtags #SkeptiCalCon or #SkeptiCal2019.

Welcome and exhibitors

Speakers were introduced by Lauren Camp, Eugenie Scott, and Jay Diamond, who not only had organized the conference, but also made sure that the speakers and breaks stayed on time.

During the breaks, there was ample time to meet with some of the exhibitors in the back of the pavilion, such as the Bay Area Skeptics, Tri-Valley STEM Center, The Journal of Irreproducible Results, and the Sunday Assembly Silicon Valley.

Lauren Camp welcomes all participants and speakers. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

The Beacon of Science in a Fact-Free Fog (Peter Gleick)

The conference is kicked off by Peter Gleick, climate/water scientist, who states that good policy without good science is unlikely, but good policy based on bad science is even more unlikely. There is a long history of abuse or misuse of science. People make non-scientific arguments based on ignorance, error, misinterpretation, ideology, consensus, ideology, cherry picking, etc.

Peter gave the example of global warming data. If you look at the average temperature over a time period of e.g. 100 years or longer, you see a clear trend upward. But it is very easy to pick a short time period in which the trend appears to go downward. Selective data picking can serve anyone’s agenda.

From every aspect of science (biology, meteorology, ice thickness etc) we see evidence of climate change. Climate change is real.

Science policy misconduct unfortunately includes distorted science education in schools, eliminating advisory boards, and bullying of scientists. Scientists who try to convince people that climate change is real, or that vaccines do not cause autism have to deal with social media challenges, include sealioning (feigning ignorance to exhaust the scientist), gish-galloping (overwhelming an opponent with rapid series of half-truths), and false balance (e.g. a debate on television between an educated scientist and a random opponent with a minority opinion).

Peter made a strong point that scientists must speak out against pseudo-skepticism and abuse of science. Funding must be transparent. Policies must ensure the independence of science research. We must understand logical fallacies, and address the flaws of social media. We must continue to push for the use of science in policy making and against the assault on science.

Twitter threads covering Peter Gleick’s talk by Heather Archuletta and me.

Peter Gleick shows how cherry picking data can serve anyone’s agenda. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Feet to the Fire: Investigating Paranormal Claims (Jim Underdown)

James (Jim) Underdown from The Center For Inquiry talked about his work at the Center For Inquiry, which currently offers a $250,000 reward for anyone who can prove they have paranormal activity. The prize has been increased over the years, because there has not yet been anyone who won the award.

Testing of the contestants is done under mutually agreed circumstances, with e.g. screens and blinded windows to prevent cheating. Over the years, nobody has been caught cheating, but all contestants have failed the test. Many drop out at the last moment when they realize they cannot cheat.

Jim’s talk was at times funny, about people who burned their feet trying to walk over hot metal plates, and a guy who claimed to predict a coin toss with 53% probability. Worst. Superpower. Ever.

He talked about a woman who claimed to feel if people are missing vital organs, such as a kidney. There was Sparky the Wonder Dog, who could guess which number his human was holding up. Another person claimed to be able to tell the value of a playing card a person was holding up in another room. Instead of the 47/52 cards he thought he could correctly tell, he had a score of 0.

But there were sad stories as well. Many people who claim to have paranormal gifts actually suffer from mental illness.

Jim closed his talk by showing a video in which their team, together National Geographic was trying to convince a group of flat-earthers that the earth is actually a sphere. They conducted several experiments at the Salton Sea, but the flat-earthers were not convinced.

Twitter threads covering Jim Underdown’s talk by Heather Archuletta and me.

Jim Underdown giving his presentation. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Science Communication & Conspiracy Theorists (Mick West)

Mick West of Metabunk and Contrail Science describes himself as a debunker. He started off his talk by saying that a lot of his explanations rely on science and mathematics, but that most people have very limited understanding of those, and think everything is a conspiracy.

He is a very big fan of explaining specific results of science, not just by theory but also by showing. In his experience, you can sometimes convince people who believe in conspiracy theories that there might be a scientific explanation to certain phenomena.

For example, rainbows can be commonly seen in the sky, and sometimes around the sun. There are many explanations online about how rainbows are formed. However, the way rainbows work is actually very complicated, and it is hard to explain it properly. Lots of diagrams online do not do it justice. There is Snell’s law, Fermat’s principle, the Huygens-Fresnel principle. It gets more and more complicated.

Mick stated that explaining why rainbows happen is like going down a rabbit hole. Don’t go too deep and get lost. Focus on what or when is happening, not the why.

Mick has made and posted several videos online in which he explains that rainbows around the sun or in clouds have been described decades ago. They are not caused by chemicals, as some people believe. Many sky phenomena such as “chembows” and “contrails” can be well explained using science. His video in which he shows the occurrence of strange cloud formations in decades old books, has been very successful. He also made a video explaining how the Twin Towers collapsed using a wobbly cabinet.

Book written by Mick West: “Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories using Facts, Logic, & Respect”.

Twitter threads by Heather Archuletta and me.

Mick West explains how to explain science to conspiracy theorists. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Is There a Universal Biology? (Lynn Rothschild)

I was very excited to hear Lynn Rothschild‘s talk. Lynn is an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist and senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Lynn started her talk by asking the audience: Since the dawn of humans we have wondered if we are alone – is there other life in the universe? How do you search for life beyond planet Earth?

And, how do you look for alien life if you do not know how it looks like? We only know life forms as found on Earth. To know how an alien lifeform might look like, or what it could be made of, we first need to define “life”.

We can try to define life using operational descriptions – should it contain carbon? Lynn makes the argument that carbon is a very likely component of life forms outside of our Earth – if they exist.

Carbon is capable of forming compounds, from CH4 to DNA. Atomic carbon has been detected in interstellar space. Therefore, until proven otherwise, we assume life is carbon based. Even outside of our planet. Astrochemistry and prebiotic chemistry all point towards an organic, carbon-containing life forms as universal.

Lynn also explained that it is assumed that water is essential for life because it is a very good solvent and liquid at higher temps than the alternatives.

To see at what extremes life is possible, we can also look at the extremes of planet Earth – extremes in temperatures, salinity, pH, etc.

But how do the aliens really look like?

Things like wings, spikes, etc. have come up several different times during evolution on our planet. Eg. the thorns on a rose, or the spikes of a porcupine. Maybe similar features can form anywhere. This is called “convergence”. We can perhaps extrapolate that and assume that a complex, yet essential process for life such as photosynthesis, could perhaps evolve in other places as well.

Multicellular taxa are just a tiny part of the tree of life. Most life on earth is unicellular. There are certain advantages to being multicellular (you are bigger and harder to eat, you can move, you can afford to lose a cell or two).

Even though we can make the building blocks of a cell, or convince yeast cells to become multicellular over 60 generations, we cannot make something “alive”, Lynn continued. That is a huge step, much bigger than the evolution from a microbe into a mammal. We cannot make or explain life – but maybe one day we will.

Lynn ended her talk by asking if aliens will look like us. She showed a picture to leave that to our imagination.

Twitter threads by Heather Archuletta and me.

Lynn Rothschild suggests how aliens could look like. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Flat Earth Rising? (Glenn Branch)

Glenn Branch is the Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education. His talk is about the history of “flat-eathery”, which has been on the rise recently.

Even though the world seems flat from most humans’ perspectives, scientists have known for a very long time that the earth is not flat. By 350 BC Aristotle already proclaimed confidently that the earth is a sphere. The flat earth movement that exists now might have started in the mid 1840, but there have been many other occasions where people believed the earth was flat.

The start of the flat-earthery about 150 years ago might have originated from an 1819 pamphlet written by an anonymous writer. It claims the sun is a “movable body” and the earth is flat. It also contains a map with the North Pole in the middle, the South Pole at the top, and an unknown pole at the bottom – in an unknown direction. The map appears … impossible.

Glenn described his hunt for the author of the 1819 pamphlet. Based on certain phrases (“movable body”), he has a strong suspicion it was a man named Foshbury (sp?).

Charles K. Johnson was the president of the International Flat Earth Research Society. When he died in 2001, he got an obituary in the New York Times – something that most scientists will never get. His death did not stop people from actively believing the earth is flat. YouTube actually played a large role in giving a platform for all kinds of conspiracy theorists.

The percentage of people who believe the earth is flat varies between 1 and 2% – although it is not clear if people are just giving troll-like answers in questionnaires. Glenn concluded his talk by saying that he and the NCSE will continue to fight these theories, with the help of people like here at the conference.

Here are the Twitter threads covering Glenn Branch’s talk by Heather Archuletta, Eugenie Scott, and me.

Glenn Branch explained that for most people, their perspective of the world is flat. Or foggy. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Misconduct in Scientific Papers: Plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification (Elisabeth Bik)

The last talk of the symposium was by me. I started off by saying how science builds upon science, and how publications are the building block that other scientists build their work on. Most scientists are honest, but errors in work, bias, or missing details in protocols can lead to poor reproducibility. On the other end of the spectrum are papers that contain misconduct.

I showed some of my work on detecting plagiarism in papers. All done by hand copy/pasting into Google Scholar, because I cannot afford the expensive software tools. I found 80 papers containing large amounts of not-original text, 35 of which are now retracted.

In addition, I described my study of over 20,000 biomedical papers and found about 4% of those to contain image duplications representing different experiments. This work got published in mBio, with coauthors Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall.

My talk also contained an audience participation part in which I showed an unmarked slide that contained several overlapping images. Several members in the audience raised their hands after spotting some of these overlaps.

Besides plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication, science integrity is threatened by predatory publishers and conferences that are more than willing to accept any paper without much – or any – peer review. Here, I also talked about SciGen, the random paper generator, and how that helped me write a paper with 2 cats (still unpublished!).

I ended my talk with briefly discussing how some researchers managed to perform peer review on their own papers using false email addresses, and other authors who use fake affiliations to give credibility to extraordinary – or sometimes dangerous – ideas.

Here are some tweets about my talk by Eugenie Scott.

Eugenie Scott took this photo during my talk. Source: https://twitter.com/EugenieCScott/status/1137871103513071616

Skepardy! with Bill Patterson

The conference ended with a fun game of Skepardy! – Jeopardy! for skeptics, presented by Bill Patterson. The questions were all about strange cults, conspiracy theorists, and paranormal celebrities.

Skepardy! with Bill Patterson. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

False affiliations and fake authors

In this blog post I will talk about scientific papers that use false affiliations or fake authors.

What is an affiliation?

In scientific papers, the “affiliation” is the institute that each author belongs to. It is usually listed below the author names, as the “department, university” of the institute each authors worked at during the time that the study was conducted.

Title and affiliations of a paper I wrote with coauthors Casadevall and Fang. Taken from: https://mbio.asm.org/content/7/3/e00809-16.abstract

In today’s world where science becomes more and more collaborative and multi-disciplinary, papers usually have multiple affiliations, just like the one listed above. And an individual author can be associated with multiple institutions as well, so the affiliation section can become very long.

A paper with a lot of authors and affiliations. So many affiliations that they did not all fit on the first page. Taken from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19373242

Affiliations give credibility to a paper. Just like the impact factor of a journal will set certain expectations (even if we might agree that is not OK!), the institute sets the tone as well. We might not all agree with this, and there are many proposals to not consider country, university, or journal as a measure for the quality of a paper. However, whether we like it or not, a study conducted at an Ivy League university is going to be more respected than a study where all authors are affiliated with a university nobody have ever heard of.

It is not surprising therefore, that researchers from less-known institutions like to collaborate with researchers at well-known universities.

An affiliation means institutional responsibility

The affiliations on a paper are more than just an institutional name or a country where the research was conducted. It also implies that the author worked at an institute that oversees the research integrity of the paper. For example, university A will probably be proud of, but can also be criticized for a study affiliated with university A. And a study affiliated at university B describing mouse or patient experiments is assumed to have been approved by animal care committees and/or institutional review boards at university B. A study performed at university C is also assumed to have been funded by institutional or federal funds granted to the researchers at university C.

In addition, a person who finds research misconduct in one of these papers might write a letter to the Research Integrity Officer at university A or B or C.

So the affiliation of a paper also defines which institution oversees the research integrity of that paper. The authors of a paper are ultimately responsible for the execution of the study, but the university at which the research has been conducted has some responsibility as well.

Research institutions take this responsibility for research conducted at their facilities very seriously, and have boards and committees to ensure that their research follows the rules. Of course, rules and regulations vary per country. Here are some examples of departments or boards that most universities or research institutions within the US or Europe will have (names and abbreviations might vary).

So, with great affiliation there must also come great responsibility (to misquote Spiderman – and many others)!

Incorrect affiliations as scientific misconduct

Publishing under the wrong affiliation – although not specifically included in the ORI definition – could be considered a form of scientific misconduct. Purposefully listing the wrong affiliation is misleading because it might put the responsibility of funding, animal care, or patient research ethics at the wrong institution.

Just to be clear, I am not talking here about whether one can publish research conducted at university A after one moved to university B. That is a very common and acceptable scenario. Usually a researcher will list their affiliation as the place they worked when they actually did the research (sometimes accompanied by a place of current work). It is also OK for researchers to have multiple affiliations (albeit very annoying to fill out when you submit a manuscript, hahahah). And sometimes these affiliations are short or too complex, and it is just easier to leave an institute off. As long as the main institute where the experiments were conducted or where the patients were recruited are correctly included, and as long as any conflict of interest is correctly listed, it is fine if other affiliations are not perfectly listed.

Here, I am talking about an author who lists institute A as an affiliation on their paper, while in reality the author has never worked there. If institute A is very prestigious, that might greatly enhance the perceived value and quality of a paper. So an author might bump up the value of their paper by pretending to work at an institute.

Listing a false affiliation is surprisingly easy to do. Journals do not usually check affiliations. They do not write a letter to university A to see if the author really worked there. If the author lists their personal email address as the corresponding author information, who would ever know?

A recent paper by Vivienne C. Bachelet et al. report about such a scam. In her paper, “Author misrepresentation of institutional affiliations: protocol for an exploratory case study“, Bachelet and coauthors describes authors who report to be affiliated with universities in Chile, while in reality they have never worked there. The paper describes a plan to check all papers published in 2016 included in Scopus that report a Chilean university as an affiliation. Bachelet will use ORCID and institutional database as the source of truth, even though both of these might have errors as well. We look forward to hear about their results!

Examples of false affiliations

In my work looking for papers with concerns about science integrity, I came across a couple of examples of false affiliations.

Many of these papers about space dentistry have been written under the affiliation of the Kepler Space Institute, although the KSI denies the author has ever worked there. This is of concern, because the author reported about experiments performed on human subjects. If the affiliation is not correct, it remains unclear who approved the research proposals – and if that could have been the author himself.

The papers written by an astrophysicist in which he decapitated birds or wanted to infect pregnant women with male and female viruses (see a previous blog post) falsely used an Iranian institute affiliation. A representative from that institute stated on Twitter that the author had been previously fired, but has been abusing his affiliation since then. The RIAAM does NOT support any of this author’s views.

Self-affiliations

Another related problem is the use of a very small or even fake institution as the affiliation on a scientific paper that involves human or animal research.

There is nothing wrong with using the name of your own company or organization, even though the institution might just consist of a single person.

But small-institution-affiliations can get problematic when an author reports patient- or animal-related research, and states that the institutional review board of their institute approved of the research. If the institute only consists of the author or a small number of persons, it is not possible to do an independent assessment of research. Situations like these could be resolved by contacting a commercial IRB, which could offer a much more objective evaluation of a research proposal.

The ‘sexpert’ case I reported about yesterday would be a good example of a self-affiliated paper using human subjects. In this particular paper, he claims to have gone over medical charts of patients who have been treated by drunk physicians. One could only do that with access to detailed and personal patient data, something that would not be possible without IRB approval, since he was not the treating physician. This paper states that “An institutional approval was granted by ethics board of our institution”. Unfortunately, this institution appears to be running from a condo in Staten Island, NY – presumably the author’s home address. Assuming this research was indeed performed as stated, that would mean he granted himself permission to access patient information – something that appears to be unethical.

Scientific paper with human subjects where the affiliation appears to be a 1-person institute.

Unaware authors

In a recent paper in Trends in Chemistry, “Plagiarizing Names?“, Mario Biagioli, professor at UC Davis, writes about unaware and fake authors, two relatively unknown and maybe novel forms of unethical scientific publishing.

Let’s start with the “unaware authors”. This is a form of affiliation-related misconduct in which a real, existing author is falsely included on a paper, without telling him or her. For example an author at a well-known institution might be added to a paper to make it look better. If fake email addresses are used, a journal might unknowingly direct all correspondence back to the cheating author.

To be clear, these false author names are the opposite of “ghost authors“, who are usually defined as professionals writing papers for e.g. biotech companies, but who are not listed as an author. They are also different from “honorary authors“, often senior department heads or professors, who are included even though they contributed little to the paper. Such honorary or “gift” authors usually are informed – and appreciate – that they were listed as an author.

By “unaware authors” I am talking about persons whose name was added as an author on a paper, but who do not know about this. Retraction Watch reported on several of these cases (here, here, and here). Sometimes the email of the unaware author had been faked.

Fake authors

Finally, there is the issue of fake, non-existing authors whose names might be added to papers. In his Trends in Chemistry paper, Biagioli writes about the remarkable case of Javier Grande, who appears as a co-author on several with Jesús Lemus. Grande is usually listed as affiliated with well known Spanish institutions. However, Grande does not exist. He was invented by Lemus.

In another example, Retraction Watch reported on an author who published papers about HPV vaccines using a made-up person, Lars Andersson, who worked at the famous Swedish Karolinska Institutet.

In a recent Retraction Watch post UC Davis professor Biagioli explains that solo authors might sometimes want to add fake names to their papers to make it sound like they were not the only one with the idea. Instead of trying to publish their unconventional opinion by themselves, adding one or more co-authors might make their papers look more plausible or collaborative. In addition, fake authors with fake affiliations at well-known institutions, such as the imaginary Javier Grande and Lars Andersson, might also have been added to give more credibility to the paper.

How to prevent false affiliations or fake authors

How can journals better screen for these fake affiliations or authors? I propose here to look at the email address of the corresponding author. If a person claims to work at University X, but lists their personal email address instead of their UniversityX.edu email address, this could be a potential red flag.

I use the word “potential” because listing a gmail or hotmail address does not have to mean anything. There are lots of good reasons to use a personal address during paper submission, e.g. for people who have left or will soon leave their institutions.

But it could be a red flag, in particular with papers that have unconventional viewpoints or do human-subjects involved research. In such cases, journals might have to require a confirmation by the university’s administration to check if that person indeed works or worked at that institution.

Do you have more examples of confirmed fake affiliations or authors? You can leave a comment below.

The Sexpert papers

This blog post is not intended to be an allegation of misconduct. I am just wondering about unclear affiliations, findings, and ethics approval. Be aware that this post contains links to articles about sexual activities and suicide. These links are intended for mature audiences only and might contain sensitive material that is NSFW.

A Gizmodo article by Jennings Brown, published in March 2019, describes the curious case of The Fake Sex Doctor Who Conned the Media Into Publicizing His Bizarre Research on Suicide, Butt-Fisting, and Bestiality.

Source: Illustration: GMG Art / Gizmodo.

The article describes a person who presents himself as a sexuologist with a PhD (sometimes also an MD) from Harvard, who is the chief of a health institute in New York. Quite the accomplishment for a 28 year old person, who also claims he has won several awards, started college at age 16, and did thesis research at Columbia University.

This MD had been featured many times in media articles with his spectacular research and expertise of unusual sexual activities, serial killers, suicide, necrophiles, and many other taboo topics. However, as Jennings Brown carefully unravels, all of this appears to be fake.

Several sources contacted by Brown confirmed the sexpert never went to graduate or medical school at Harvard, although he worked as a technician in several Harvard-associated labs, each time only staying for a couple of months.

Not hindered by any doctoral degree, the sexpert published several scientific papers between 2017 and 2019, under two different affiliations. One of this is the Medical University of Lublin in Poland (the country he appears to originate from), and the other is the Felnett Health Research Foundation (FHRF). The FHRF does not have a website and only comes up in search results about the sexpert’s papers. He claims to be the chief of sexology there, but the institute’s address are a condo in New York and a modest home in a Polish village.

There are several reasons to believe that the FHRF is a fictious institution only existing in the sexpert’s mind, although sometimes his mother is listed as an employee as well. By all means, it is not a large institute with multiple departments.

This is of concern because the scientific papers written by this person claim that the FHRF “ethics board” granted “institutional approval” to interview people who had suicidal thoughts, people who had performed unusual sexual activities, or to go over hospital charts of patients who had been treated by drunk doctors. One can imagine that interviewing such people could make them more depressed and have some serious risks, so an ethics approval would indeed be something good to have. However, if the FHRF is just a 1 person-show, that would mean that the sexpert gave himself permission – no questions asked. That would not be good.

As of today, 6 of the Harvard doctor’s papers have been flagged on Pubpeer. All of these papers have appeared in peer-reviewed, non-predatory journals. In 5 of these, I am asking here some questions that the peer reviewers should have asked.

Drunk doctors and outcomes (2018)

In this Forensic Science International paper the author analyzed 17 cases of Polish physicians who were disciplined for providing medical treatment under the influence of alcohol. Health reports and charts of patients who were analyzed by these drunk doctors were analyzed, information from the prosecutor’s office was obtained, witness reports were analyzed, etc.

My concerns about this paper are mainly related to unclear statements about where the data and institutional approval were obtained. It is impossible to know which patients were treated by the drunk physician without knowing their identity. How did the author obtain prosecutor’s documents, witness reports, and details about the patients who were treated by these doctors? Information about arrested drunk people is not easy to obtain in most countries for privacy reasons. In addition, in most hospitals, it is not easy – or even illegal – to obtain specific medical records by a non-treating physician. How did the author obtain these records? Just some of the many concerns I had about this paper.

Traumatic rectal injuries (2017)

This paper in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine describes 4 men who were injured during love interactions with animals. As stated in the paper, these “men appeared in the clinic for court-enforced treatment on counts of battering animals“, and they were interviewed and underwent an anal exam by the author. Apart from the fact that it appears very unlikely that a court would order these men to visit a non-licenced person, there are several other concerns.

The paper was initially published under the affiliation of the University of Lublin Medical School, but in corrigendum talks about a “dispute” and “regrets by the author” and the affiliation was changed to the elusive Felnett Foundation. This change makes it very hard to know where and if this study actually took place. The paper remains vague with a “The institutional review committee approved publication of treatment results of patients undergoing consultation in our university clinics” statement.

In my Pubpeer comments I asked some critical questions about where the study actually took place, if patients gave permission to use their medical data for this paper, and a small farm animal that suddenly becomes a medium animal (a donkey, in case you wondered). Some of the stories here are hard to believe and inconsistent.

A paper about sex and animals (2018)

In this Taylor & Francis paper published in the Journal of Deviant Behavior, the author went online in zoophilia forums, and conducted some interviews with participants.

My concerns again are firstly about the unclear ethics approval. This paper just stated “We have received ethics committee institutional approval to conduct this research“, but it not clear if the author just gave himself permission. In addition, I have questions about how the author gained access to these forums, which I assume are hard to find. Did he have to pretend he was a zoophile himself to get in? Did the people he interviewed give permission to use their quotes and answers in a research paper?

Digital Ethnography of Zoophilia (2018)

This 2018 Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy paper, published by Taylor & Francis, the authors collected data rom 954 participants on online forums for people who love animals very much. He also did a survey among 345 persons. This study is one of the few with more than one author; the second author is listed as a psychiatrist at the Polish Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology which appears to be a private clinic run by his dad.

My concerns center again around unclear affiliations, a vague ethics statement (“This study received institutional approval of the ethics committee“), variable numbers, and overlap with several other papers about animal love.

A contemporary paper about sex and animals (2019)

In this 2019 Elsevier paper in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, the author went again undercover in online zoophilia forums and collected data on their “daily lives” and asked them to answer a 40-question survey. Which forums he investigated remains a mystery. Which questions were included in the survey is also not part of the paper.

As with the previous papers, I have asked the authors to comment on the nebulous ethics approval statement “We received all the necessary institutional approvals from the ethics board of our institution“. I also asked him to explain how people can have sex with lizards and birds, and why a paper called “China’s War on Air Pollution China Research Center” is included in the reference list.

My follow-up

I have posted my concerns about these papers on Pubpeer about 2 months ago. The authors, although I tagged him in my posts, has not responded yet. I will also write to the journals in which these papers were published, to take a closer look at these papers and the peer review process. I will update this post as soon as I hear more.

World Conference on Research Integrity

The 6h World Conference on Research Integrity is currently happening in Hong Kong. You can follow all the tweets using the hashtag #WCRI2019. Thanks to many nice people who are live-tweeting from the conference, all of us who could not be there can still follow the conference from a distance.

I really wish I could have been there! There have already been some great stories about predatory publishers, how to better measure a researcher’s qualifications and output, image experts, open science, anonymous tips, scientific writing, false authors, what preprints can do for you, the announcement of MedRxiv, mass retractions and the faked studies of a Japanese doctor, post-publication commenting, frustratingly long times before papers get corrected, Mai Har Sham’s plenary speech about how to improve research culture, and the Hong Kong Manifesto.

Debora Weber-Wulff has posted a nice summary of the first half day of the conference here. Don’t miss her story about a poster from Indonesia printed on batik cloth.

This post will be updated if I find more blog posts and other reports from the conference.

Surfing the water-DNA waves

A post about another “peer reviewed” paper published by World Scientific publishers (not included in any predatory publisher list that I could find). Based on this Twitter thread.

This paper is written by the same first author on the pregnancy/virus model from my previous post, a cardiology doctor from Rome. According to his website he “graduated with honors in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and is now publishing under the affiliation of the Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome. 

The paper was published in the International Journal of Geometric Methods in Modern Physics – which seem to have a consistent problem with the quality of their peer review.

The title of the paper is “A BIonic model for exchanging waves between water and DNA“. The abstract already creates some confusion, by stating: “A DNA can emit two types of waves, including electromagnetic waves and topoisomerase-like ones. Electromagnetic waves carry messages of a DNA and help it to communicate with other DNAs and also pure water.” I am pretty sure that was never included in my molecular biology classes.

The topic of the paper is “the concepts of BIons”.

Nowhere in the paper is explained what this is, except that “Since, by joining small BIons, Big BIons could be constructed.” Like …. like …. water droplets? After reading the introduction I am even more confused on what BIons are. This whole intro reads like a SciGen paper to me. It has words and the grammar is good, but it has no meaning. Maybe this is a SciGen paper?

The introduction explains what BIons are. Capisce?

Part II of the paper is called “Entropy and quantum spectrum of DNA“. It contains this unforgettable figure with the self-explanatory title “A Rindler horizon is appeared around a DNA and some extra bases are emerged in region II.

Then, Figure 2 shows us “A wormhole-like tunnel connects hexagonal and pentagonal molecules.”

I always thought that these were called “hydrogen bonds”, but heck, what do I know.

Part III of the paper is called “A change in Entropy of Pure Water By DNA Water“. It brings us this pearl: “When, DNAs emit electromagnetic waves, their energy are less than energy of DNA, however, if DNAs emit toppoisomerase-like waves, their energy is equal or more than energy of DNA. Electromagnetic waves only could change electronic properties of pure water, however, topoisomerase-like waves could induce properties of DNA in pure water. This is because that topoisomerase-like waves change flat space-time to curved ones and mix water states with DNA ones.

The paper ends with “We have shown that water and DNA can exchange topoisomerase-like waves and have direct effects on each other.

But it hasn’t. It is just theoretical talk and no experiments. Plus nothing here makes sense to me.

Maybe the good doctor could explain this paper to us, prego? I studied molecular biology, not Cardiology or Internal Medicine, so maybe I am missing something.

I have just posted my comments about this paper on Pubpeer here. I really hope the authors can clarify this paper.

An astrophysicist who decapitates birds and wants to infect pregnant women with viruses

Note: this post has been updated on June 4, to include new information that the author was not affiliated with the RIAAM institute at the time of publishing his papers. The RIAAM takes this false affiliation very seriously and distances itself from the author’s views and ideas.

This blog post – again – is based on a Twitter thread (here is the unroll if you like that better). It is about a nuclear physicist who works has previously worked at the Research Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics of Maragha in Iran.

Update June 4: The RIAAM has personally communicated with me that the physicist indeed worked at that institute in the past, but was not employed anymore at the time these papers were published. The institute does not support the views of the authors in any of the papers mentioned in this blogpost. They will contact the journals to have the false affiliation removed from the papers.

The viXra preprint server

This researcher has published a bunch of white papers on the viXra.org (arXiv.org spelled backwards) preprint server, which is a site that will publish anything. Not surprisingly, there is some very low quality stuff there.

This particular author caught my eye with his list of viXra manuscripts, with strange titles such as “Emergence of Cancer by Exchanging Fields of Microgravity Between Earth’s DNA and Dark Dnas in Extra Dimensions” and “Exploring Extra Dimensions by the Help of Dnas of the Egg Cell and the Earth”.

Some of his viXra preprints appear to be not very scientific. Some others are horrendous.

Two horrendous viXra.org preprint papers

Two of the astrophysicist’s papers on viXra appear to describe horrible animal experiments. In the first, “Emergence of a New Type of Life and Alive Creature from Mixing Cells of Plants and Animals“, he cut open a quail (a bird) and put in a mixture of beans and rice in the wound to create a new type of life. Warning: some disturbing photos in the PDF.

In the second viXra preprint, “The Role of Radiated Non-Linear Electromagnetic Waves from Initial Dnas in Formation of the Little Brain, Neural Circuits and Other Decision Centers: Determining Time of Death by Considering Evolutions of Waves of Death“, he connects two chicken embryos with wires, and cuts off the head of about 400 quails. He then proceeds to put some heads back up again. Warning: more disturbing photos if you click on the PDF.

Author cut off the heads of almost 400 birds (and put some back up), to measure if it would affect their heart signals.

The author’s conclusion was: “We observe that if removing of head is done eventually, some extra signals are exchanged between brain and the little brain which leads to the stop of life. While, by removing heads suddenly, these signals couldnt be exchanged and life continues.

I am sure that Marie-Antoinette would disagree. On the other hand, James Salsman @Jsalsman pointed out this story.

In addition to his white papers on viXra, the same author also published 2 papers in World Scientific journals. Note that this publisher is not on Beall’s list, although it bears some characteristics. Their papers are not included in PubMed, SCOPUS, or Web of Science. On the other hand,it publishes the Nobel Lectures, and has co-founded Imperial College Press.

A Mathematical Model for DNA (‘peer reviewed’)

The first “peer-reviewed” paper of note is “A mathematical model for DNA” – published in International Journal of Geometric Methods in Modern Physics.

Peer review appears to have been remarkably fast for this paper – only 6 days. Two of those were in the weekend. Submitted on Thursday, published on Wednesday. That is unusually fast. The paper also has some statements that appear …. different from what I learned in biology class.

The author appears to be confusing women and men. Which of the two had that Y chromosome again? I know this is tough to remember, especially for an astrophysicist, but you would have hoped that a peer reviewer would have noticed this in the couple of days they looked at the paper.

In this paper, the author claims that DNA is some sort of radio transmitter. He also claims that cancer is caused by the loss or acquisition of an atom in the DNA structure, which would alter the DNA’s electromagnetic signals.

And because men and women are sending out opposite signals, their DNA radio transmissions cancel each other out.

Oh – wait. This might actually explain the many older and completely silent couples you often see in restaurants! After 40 years of marriage, there is just no signal left.

The author does not stop here. He continues his bewildering statements by claiming that cancer can be stopped by putting a man with cancer next to a woman with cancer.

It is frightening that this completely flawed paper passed peer review.

Of course, I am not the first person to write about this remarkable paper. Smut Clyde has written about it on his blog Riddled in a post called “Adrift just off the Islets of Langerhans…” in July 2017. Here, Smut wrote: “Sepehri concludes that if a male and female both suffer from cancer, they can prevent the progress of the disease by staying in close proximity — because the EM signatures of their respective XY and XX sex-chromosome pairs will cancel out and rectify each other’s errant frequencies (radiating as they do with opposite signs). I am not making this up.”.

A mathematical model for the Virus Medical Imaging technique (‘peer reviewed’)

For the second paper, the astrophysicist teamed up with someone from Università degli studi Guglielmo Marconi, the Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome. Together these authors wrote: “A mathematical model for the Virus Medical Imaging technique” which was also published in the International Journal of Geometric Methods in Modern Physics.

Submission, editorial processing, and peer review for this World Scientific paper was completed in a whopping 2 days. I am not kidding.

The abstract is enough to give any scientist pause.

Screenshot of the abstract.

The introduction states “In this paper, we will propose a new method which use of the electronic properties of DNAs in viruses and cells.” So I guess it is not about RNA viruses. Then, it argues “radiated waves from DNAs of males and females have opposite signs and cancel the effect of each other in a pair”. The reference listed here, #16, is the author’s own paper that I discussed above, “A mathematical model for DNA”.

The paper continues by stating that there are viruses that cancel out male DNA, and other viruses that cancel out female DNA. I am a microbiologist, but I have never heard of such a thing. Actually, let me put that more clearly: this is complete nonsense.

A screenshot of the text with complete fiction.
A cute little diagram of a female virus and a male virus, a sinus (sine), and a cosinus (cosine). Might have been drawn with MS Paint.

The text then continues with pages full of impressive looking formulas. People on Twitter pointed out that these were not as impressive as they looked.

Some very impressive formulas that do not appear to be relevant.

After all these formulas, the authors suddenly introduce the “Virus Medical Imaging Machine”. Here is how it works. The proposed Machine can detect the gender of a fetus by infecting a pregnant woman with male or female Influenza virus and hooking her up to electrical wires. Wow. What could possibly go wrong? Warning: don’t try this at home, folks. This is just bleeping dangerous.

The authors conclude that “Thus, this mechanism is one of best methods for medical imaging”. Which I have to disagree with.

OK, so we can laugh here, or shrug, but this is dangerous stuff that is being published under the veil of #PeerReview. Suppose that a person thinks this is a scientific method and tries this on a pregnant woman?

The Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome, Italy, and World Scientific Publishers need to take a real close look at these papers. They are not scientific, appear to be not peer-reviewed, and could become a liability if people actually believe this stuff and try to imitate this.

Weekly Digest, June 1, 2019

Here is a weekly digest of science integrity related articles. Also, check out Retraction Watch‘s Weekend Reads!

Rock Paper CSIR-IITR

In an article at Science Chronicle, Prasad Ravindranath, Science Editor at The Hindu, writes about extensive image problems in papers authored by scientists at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (CSIR-IITR), in Lucknow, India. In his post “With 73 problematic papers listed on Pubpeer, Indian Institute of Toxicology Research has a serious problem” Prasad points out that 40 of these Pubpeer-flagged papers have Yogeshwer Shukla’s name on them.

In addition to the Science Chronicle post, Smut Clyde has written a guest post on Leonid Schneider’s blog For Better Science about Yogeshwer Shukla’s oevre, which appears to contain a lot of repetitive features.

In chemistry, misconduct more often reason for retraction than honest errors

Emma Stoye at Chemistry World writes about a recent study by François-Xavier Coudert, who analyzed 331 retracted papers in chemistry or material science journals. Over 40% of the retraction notices listed plagiarism (including self-plagiarism) as the cause. Assuming most of those are actually referring to textual similarities to other papers, this is surprising, because textual similarities are one of the easiest types of problems to screen for, and so could be caught before publishing a manuscript.

The threshold for plagiarism

At RetractionWatch, Adam Marcus reports on a researcher who received an invitation to submit papers to the Punjab University Journal of Mathematics, which stated that “plagiarism must be less than or equal to 19%“.

Peer review? No way, Huawei.

Jeffrey Mervis reports for Science that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has banned Huawei employees from peer review. IEEE publishes about 200 journals, such as IEEE Spectrum, and Computer. Huawei is a large Chinese company that makes cell phones and data networks. It is unclear why IEEE has specifically ruled Huawei employees out as peer reviewers.

Reagent Reproducibility

Angela Abitua and Joanne Kamens from Addgene wrote a blog post at PLOS.org about the advances of reagent repositories, such as for cell lines, plasmids, or plant materials. Ensuring that reagents and materials are well documented and available for others is a big step towards reproducibility of research.

Academics in trouble for undisclosed foreign funding

Several outlets (Endpoint, Science, The Scientist) reported on senior scientists at US universities funded by US money, who were fired or even arrested, because they failed to disclose they also received money from Chinese funds. Neuroscientists Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua were dismissed from Emory University, and four post-docs in their lab were told to leave the US within 30 days. In an article at the South China Morning Post website, the couple disputed that decision, stating that they disclosed their research activities in China yearly to Emory University. The president of Jinan University in China was quick to offer the complete research team jobs, according to this article in University World News.

Source: Science Magazine

India scraps publication requirement to get PhD

At Nature, Gayathri Vaidyanathan writes about new regulations in India, where graduate students no longer need to publish scientific papers to get their Phs. India is one of the few countries where PhD requirements are not regulated on the institutional level but country-wide. The new rule’s purpose is to speed up the PhD process, have candidates find jobs quicker, and to decrease the amount of low-quality publications. Others disagree.

VA doctors studied patient samples without consent

An internal report by the Veterans Administration (VA) found violations of research practices. Yet, as inewsource reports, a study using blood, stool, and liver biopsy samples obtained without patients’ consent was published a couple of weeks ago in Digestive Diseases and Sciences. Samples were obtained for a study by UC San Diego / San Diego VA Hospital researchers Bernd Schnabl and Samuel Ho. Although the VA report came out in November 2018, the paper using the un-consented samples was published on May 18, 2019. The journal is now looking into these concerns.

A genetic test for PTSD – with a potential conflict of interest

Neuroskeptic has some critical words about a paper that suggests that a genetic test should be offered to military recruits to test for their risk of PTSD. The main author did not disclose his patents on this test nor his board position on the company that sells the test.

Antibody company publishes paper with allegations

Authors working at Adimab, an antibody discovery company, have published a paper last week in which they claim that antibodies described by a MIT research group are very similar to those developed by other researchers. STAT reported about this story on May 21, followed by The Scientist, The Wall Street Journal, and others.

6th World Conference on Research Integrity

The 6th World Conference on Research Integrity will take place this coming week (June 2-5) in Hong Kong. The conference theme this year is “New Challenges for Research Integrity”. I wish I could be there! (waiting for an invitation hahaha). Follow the conference on Twitter with #WCRI2019.

Large number of ethics violations in Japanese research center

The Japanese National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center has found 158 violations of research conduct, JapanTimes reports. Patient information was used without proper consent. The institution will retract the papers involved. It was not clear from the article if the 158 number referred to the number of patients or papers involved.

Misconduct among police officers might be contagious

Not really science misconduct, but some lessons to be learned: Nova Next reporter Katherine J. Wu writes about a new study in Nature Human Behavior that describes that misbehavior by police officers might actually make other people on their team misbehave too. Misconduct appeared to spread to their peers, even if officers were reassigned to new teems.

Published in a predatory journal? You might lose grant money #InSouthAfrica

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in South Africa has been withholding subsidies money to researchers who published in predatory journals, according to a report on University World News. DHET currently defines predatory journals as those not included in 6 indices, such as Web of Science and Scopus.

Half of international students in New Zealand pay others to write their essays

An 1NEWS investigation earlier this month revealed that about half of international students at Auckland University do not write their own essays, but rather pay others to write them for them. This practice is called “ghostwriting”.

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