Still a couple more hours for the year 2020 to end. A year in which so much was lost — our freedom to go where we like and meet whom we want, jobs, health, and the lives of too many friends and family members.
I feel that science has lost something as well — credibility with the general public because of the back and forth on some issues regarding COVID-19 prevention and treatment. It is hard to explain to non-scientists how difficult and slow science sometimes is, especially in light of a new virus, a new pandemic. Good science is often slow, but we all wanted fast answers, and this brought a lot of “Yes we found it!” and “Oh, well, never mind” papers that were confusing to understand or explain. In addition, the current US government has not been very science friendly, encouraging false statements to confuse many of us.
Still, there are some hopeful signs. The first coronavirus-vaccines are being distributed and a new US government will hopefully restore some of the faith in science that has been lost in the past years.
Here, I look back on the work in science integrity that I did in the past year. All the work I list here was unpaid, and I thank my loyal Patreon subscribers for their ongoing support that allows me to keep on doing my volunteer work.
This week I worked on a large set of papers from a research group at the Tianjin Life Science Research Center at Tianjin Medical University. The group, headed by Dr. Hua Tang and funded by many National Natural Science Foundation of China grants, has published a total of 113 PubMed-indexed papers.
However, a significant number of these — 45 as of today — have PubPeer posts in which concerns are raised about their figures.
Two flow cytometry panels in a 2018 Frontiers in Immunology paper by authors from Sweden and China appeared to share some data points. The image duplications were very suggestive of post-experiment image alteration. Yet the editors accepted the authors’ excuse that it was an “accidental error”, and published a correction. For this, they will be awarded the fourth “This Image Is Fine” Award.
A 2007 paper published in Science — in which I found image irregularities back in 2015 — has finally been retracted. For five long years, the journal took no action. But after I tweeted about the case, it eventually acted.
When it comes to image integrity, all papers are equal. But some papers appear more equal than others. A 2017 paper published in Elsevier’s journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine that included an image with lots of repetitive elements was not retracted, but instead received only a very mild correction for “an inadvertent mistake for Figure 3,B” (sic). One of the senior authors also happens to be an Associate Editor of the journal, raising questions about whether the investigation could have been carried out in an objective way.
Browsing further back into the journal’s archive I found an interesting supplemental issue from 2016 that consists of 20 papers on psoriasis – all written by the same group of prolific authors.
The papers are not without problems. Lack of IRB approval, lack of patient consent to have their photos published, unclear patient recruitment and trial locations, inclusion of children in experimental drug testing, and to top it off, incorrect statements about conflict of interest. All papers heavily promote the same product line of herbal ointments and gels – and the founder of the company is one of the authors!