On Tuesday, I published "The suicide of Yoshiki Sasai - no more witch-hunts please." Michael Eisen wrote a touching and powerful post "Yoshiki Sasai and the deadly consequences ofscience misconduct witch hunts."
In the past few days, I have received multiple emails arguing that the debate around STAP was normal discussion. On the other hand, PubPeer and Retraction Watch have come under attack as the agitators facilitating the witch hunts. Retraction Watch just responded. And another terrific post on this issue "It isn't the fraud witchhunt, it's the Glamour culture of science."
There is a difference between “peer review” and a “witch hunt”, and I think it is important to clarify this.
To me, it’s a simple line. Discussion of the science on Retraction Watch and PubPeer is not just "okay". It is essential for the progress of science. I am an ardent fan of post-publication peer review and particularly PubPeer. I wholeheartedly support investigations of misconduct and in no way consider them witch hunts. I found it important to connect PubChase and RetractionWatch.
If you cannot tolerate criticism and post-publication scrutiny or criticism of your work, science may not be the right place for you.
What unnerved me over the last few months about the STAP discussions is not the efforts to reproduce or the investigation. I want more rather than less post-publication discussion. What I am calling for is caution in assigning blame, guilt, and allegations of misconduct and fraud in the court of public opinion. Media, blogs, Twitter, and private discussions of the STAP work have been full of heated rhetoric, mostly based on assumptions, and often without realizing the damaging consequences of the vitriol. Out of sensitivity, in light of Dr. Sasai’s death, I will not mention any specific posts or individuals.
I draw the line at discussions of Dr. Sasai that focus on “he was full of himself” or “was not a researcher any more and only thought about fame” or “did not have the time to supervise his lab, so of course this happened” and so on. These assign blame. They say that he could have and should have detected problems and is therefore responsible. If you don’t have internal knowledge of RIKEN CDB and Dr. Sasai, if you are not on the investigating committee – don’t blog these thoughts. You don’t know what happened.
I draw the line at blog posts arguing that Dr. Obokata must have done this intentionally; at blog posts saying that her citation count is low and Dr. Sasai should not have promoted her. At articles focusing on Dr. Obokata’s “lawyering up”. Do you know Dr. Obokata? If not, you don’t know why she did what she did, you don’t know whether it was misconduct or genuine error. Have you been in her shoes? If not, you have no idea why she has an attorney.
My line is very simple – focus on the figures and the methods. Not on the intentions and accusations of misconduct and assigning blame. Leave that to the investigating committees.
And a few post scriptum thoughts.
1. Retraction Watch has been accused of witch hunts mostly because of the comments that appear under their posts. People, it’s the internet! Have you seen comments on YouTube? If we argue against RW because of the comments, we need to shut the internet down.
2. (This is from my e-mail to a professor who argues that Sasai should have never published it and deserves the blame for missing such poor science.)
On a personal note, I should say that I came across blatant fabrication once in my 13 years in science. It was another student in the lab who had incredible imaging results with a paper that would win all top prizes. Then the hard drive was stolen and all of the images were on it without backup. Then the student lost interest in the project.
Of course, the professor, couldn't let it go. He put another student on the project. The student couldn't reproduce anything. He put a postdoc on it. Postdoc couldn't reproduce. It took a year. The original student kept claiming it is reproducible. Every time the person did the imaging, it would be at midnight with no one else nearby. Refused to have anyone watch.
I observed this from the side, incredulous. Finally, I felt so bad for everyone else, I walked into the professor’s office and asked him how certain he was that the data were real. I made an explicit accusation of fraud. I said I did not think there ever were any results. The professor was stunned. Couldn't believe it.
Soon after, the student got on a plane with the PhD in hand and went back to the home country. My professor persisted for a few more months, wasting time of yet another postdoc. Finally gave up. It's been years, and no more talk of this research.
This was a very eye-opening experience. The professor is an amazing scientist. Simply brilliant. Yet, somehow, he just couldn't see the blatant fraud in front of him. It was so obvious. Red flags waving as if it was Soviet Union. But he was as colorblind as it gets.
Luckily, this student pulled back. But had the student persisted and finished the story, I am 100% sure it would have been published. As long as you trust the people in your lab, you just can't detect fraud.
Not being from the Sasai lab, I would hesitate before making any statements of what he should or should not have done/detected.