Science needs more whistleblowers and more questioning
In this newsletter:
1) International science scandal erupts over claims of fraud involving 22 papers
The Australian, 8 May 2021
2) Does ocean acidification alter fish behavior? Fraud allegations create a sea of doubt
3) Editorial: A fishy tale of climate research
The Australian, 8 May 2021
GWPF Science, 7 May 2021
GWPF Observatory, 7 May 2021
The Australian, 8 May 2021
An international scandal has erupted over claims of scientific fraud involving 22 papers linked to James Cook University’s prestigious Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
The article, which was supported by the international Science Fund for Investigative Reporting, is the culmination of years of research and contested claims over how fish behaviour is changed by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans.
A team of researchers claim to have evidence of manipulation in publicly available raw data files for two papers, one published in Science, the other in Nature Climate Change, combined with remarkably large and “statistically impossible” effects from CO2 reported in many of the other papers.
The two scientists at the heart of the claims against them are Philip Munday from JCU and US biologist Danielle Dixson, who obtained her PhD under Professor Munday’s supervision.
The charge against their work is being marshalled by fish physiologist Timothy Clark of Deakin University in Geelong and Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
According to Science, Professor Munday no longer works at JCU for reasons unrelated to the scandal and has called the allegations “abhorrent” and “slanderous”.
Professor Clark said he had initially considered the Munday findings to be “some of the most phenomenal findings in the whole discipline of biology”. But when he tried to replicate them he could not get the same results. There has been intense debate over whether the comparable tests had been adequately conducted.
Dr Munday had noted that 85 papers, with more than 180 co-authors from more than 90 institutions, have by now reported effects from elevated CO2. But of those 85 papers, 43 were co-authored by Dr Munday and studies that did report an effect were not blinded, so researchers knew which fish had been exposed to higher levels of CO2, opening the way for unconscious bias.
The Science article says that the reported effects of CO2 on fish behaviour and ecology have seemed to fade as the years passed.
Analysis of research shows the field is experiencing a strong “decline effect”, a phenomenon where, after dramatic initial findings, reported effects become smaller and smaller, the magazine said.
JCU has been at the centre of scandal over the treatment of former marine scientist Peter Ridd, who has repeatedly called for a rigorous process of quality assurance on research produced by Australia’s peak coral reef organisations.
Dr Ridd said the research council had a fiduciary duty to investigate because it was responsible for a $1bn a year in research funding.
“Most of the time you cannot demonstrate it is fraud, all you can do is say we tried to do the experiment again and eight out of eight times it didn’t work, but that is not proof,” he told The Weekend Australian. Dr Ridd said he believed that scientists questioning the fish behaviour work had got close to demonstrating fraud “but I think it doesn’t quite get there”.
“It could just be really, really sloppy work,” he said.
The ARC said allegations of wrongdoing were referred to the appropriate university for investigation. JCU did not respond to queries.
Science Magazine, 6 May 2021
A group of researchers have asked the Australian Research Council (ARC), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate possible fraud in 22 papers.
When Philip Munday discussed his research on ocean acidification with more than 70 colleagues and students in a December 2020 Zoom meeting, he wasn’t just giving a confident overview of a decade’s worth of science. Munday, a marine ecologist at James Cook University (JCU), Townsville, was speaking to defend his scientific legacy.
Munday has co-authored more than 250 papers and drawn scores of aspiring scientists to Townsville, a mecca of marine biology on Australia’s northeastern coast. He is best known for pioneering work on the effects of the oceans’ changing chemistry on fish, part of it carried out with Danielle Dixson, a U.S. biologist who obtained her Ph.D. under Munday’s supervision in 2012 and has since become a successful lab head at the University of Delaware (UD), Lewes.
In 2009, Munday and Dixson began to publish evidence that ocean acidification—a knock-on effect of the rising carbon dioxide (CO2) level in Earth’s atmosphere—has a range of striking effects on fish behavior, such as making them bolder and steering them toward chemicals produced by their predators. As one journalist covering the research put it, “Ocean acidification can mess with a fish’s mind.” The findings, included in a 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could ultimately have “profound consequences for marine diversity” and fisheries, Munday and Dixson warned.
But their work has come under attack. In January 2020, a group of seven young scientists, led by fish physiologist Timothy Clark of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, published a Nature paper reporting that in a massive, 3-year study, they didn’t see these dramatic effects of acidification on fish behavior at all.
The paper has proved so polarizing in the field, “It’s like Republicans and Democrats,” says co-author Dominique Roche of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Some scientists hailed it as a stellar example of research replication that cast doubt on extraordinary claims that should have received closer scrutiny from the start. “It is by far the best environmental science paper I have read for a long time,” declared ecotoxicologist John Sumpter of Brunel University London.
Others have criticized the paper as needlessly aggressive. Although Clark and his colleagues didn’t use science’s F-word, fabrication, they did say “methodological or analytical weaknesses” might have led to irreproducible results. And many in the research community knew the seven authors take a strong interest in sloppy science and fraud—they had blown the whistle on a 2016 Science paper by another former Ph.D. student of Munday’s that was subsequently deemed fraudulent and retracted—and felt the Nature paper hinted at malfeasance. The seven were an “odd little bro-pocket” whose “whole point is to harm other scientists,” marine ecologist John Bruno of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—who hasn’t collaborated with Dixson and Munday—tweeted in October 2020. “The cruelty is the driving force of the work.”
What few researchers know is that in August 2020, Clark and three others in the group took another, far bigger step: They asked three funders that together spent millions on Dixson’s and Munday’s work—the Australian Research Council (ARC), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)—to investigate possible fraud in 22 papers.
The request, which they shared with a Science reporter, rests on what they say is evidence of manipulation in publicly available raw data files for two papers, one published in Science, the other in Nature Climate Change, combined with remarkably large and “statistically impossible” effects from CO2 reported in many of the other papers. They also provided testimony from former members of the Dixson and Munday labs, some of whom monitored Dixson’s activities and concluded she made up data.
3) Editorial: A fishy tale of climate research
The Australian, 8 May 2021
Allegations of possible scientific fraud involving James Cook University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies strengthen the argument for better quality assurance when it comes to research involving the Great Barrier Reef.
A bitter international dispute has been raging over whether fish lose their mind when faced with higher levels of carbon dioxide in seawater, one consequence of climate change. The issue is bigger than the stability of the piscatorial mind, however. It is whether tertiary institutions and the bodies that dole out billions of dollars in research grants are up to the task of overseeing the quality of what they are supporting and paying for.
Many scientists argue that quality assurance is provided through the process of peer review and that is all that is required. And it can be said that much of the debate about the research currently in dispute has been played out in the scientific literature and will be concluded in the academic spirit. So far, however, there have been red faces and bruised egos all around but not a lot of action. The Australian Research Council says it has left JCU to investigate and will closely monitor the investigation and act on its findings.
Things hit a new gear with the publication on Friday of an article in Science magazine that brings details of years of infighting out into the open. Most worrying are comments by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reviewer Hans-Otto Portner, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, that “if such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility”.
The controversy puts a fresh focus on the predicament faced by former JCU professor Peter Ridd, who has been entangled in protracted and expensive legal battles because of his public stand on the quality of reef science. Dr Ridd was sacked by JCU in 2018 for breaching university guidelines designed to enforce a collegiate atmosphere for academic staff. Raising concerns about possible shortcomings in the quality of research on the Great Barrier Reef was considered a step too far. But Dr Ridd’s concerns were fuelled by research showing that scientific findings could not be replicated across a broad range of disciplines, notably in medicine.
Dr Ridd won his case against JCU for unfair dismissal but lost on appeal. He will be back in the High Court next month. Dr Ridd has put up $300,000 of his own money and raised a further $1.5m from concerned supporters around the world. His lawyers will argue in the High Court that the Appeal Court made an error in law in saying the university code of conduct overrode the right to academic freedom. Dissenting Appeal Court justice Darryl Cameron Rangiah identified that criticism, by its nature, was likely to offend. He said it was “difficult to see, for example, how an academic could make a genuine allegation that a colleague has engaged in academic fraud without being uncollegial, disrespectful and discourteous and adversely affecting JCU’s good reputation”.
The latest upset involving disoriented fish shows that vigorous scientific debate is a good thing and that there are scientists around the world prepared to stand up and call out what they believe to be wayward practice. It is also a good sign that Science magazine has been prepared to step into the ring and publish arguments that favour a rigorous process to consider the claims that have been made.
The truth is out there and for credibility JCU and the ARC should take it seriously. Further thought also should be given to establishing the sort of quality assurance body recommended by Dr Ridd that has landed him in so much hot water for the good of science. Ultimately, it would save a lot of time and money and provide a greater level of confidence that limited research funds provided by taxpayers and donors were being well spent.
Full editorial & comments
4) Peter Ridd: New fraud allegations deepen global science scandal
GWPF Science, 7 May 2021
Dr Peter Ridd, Australia
An extraordinary expose by Science magazine reveals a deepening research scandal
James Cook University (JCU), based next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been at the forefront of claims that extra CO2 is dangerous to coral reef fish. CO2 supposedly changes fish behaviour including making them
* lose their ability to smell predators and become attracted towards the scent of predators,
* become hyper-active,
* loose their tendency to automatically swim either left or right, and
* have impaired vision.
But a group of determined and principled scientists – I call them the Magnificent 7 – have doggedly questioned, and investigated, these claims. The remarkable article appearing in Science magazine on 6 May 2021 documents the many twist and turns in this story. Are the remarkable results on fish behaviour fraudulent? Is there a cover up of fraud by universities and funding agencies? And why do senior scientists attack the Magnificent 7 just for wanting to check previous work?
The Magnificent 7 is led by Tim Clark and Fredrik Jutfelt along with five other international scientists. They are risking their careers blowing the whistle on a very powerful organisation in the marine biology community – JCU’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Despite Clark and Jutfelt’s work showing that CO2 does not seem to have much affect on fish behaviour, they still worry about other aspects of climate change. They are not climate “deniers” or hard-core sceptics. But they believe in scientific integrity, and that is a rare thing these days.
Almost a decade ago, Tim Clark was fascinated by the remarkable data of the effect of CO2 on fish behaviour coming from JCU. He wanted to study the physiological reasons for this effect. But once he started his experiments, he was unable to replicate the original JCU work. With his co-workers he started a systematic replication study.
While this was occurring, one of the JCU fish-behaviour scientists, Oona Lonnstedt, had returned home to Sweden where she undertook more fish behaviour work on micro-plastics. She “discovered” that microplastics also affected fish behaviour making them more susceptible to being eaten by predators. But in 2017 the Magnificent 7 were able to prove, after a long battle with Uppsala University, that Lonnstedt’s work was fraudulent – she had made up the data.
The question was then asked – what about Lonnstedt’s work while she was at JCU, where she had worked on the influence of climate change on reef fish. And had she learnt fraud by herself or was there something more sinister?
In early 2020, the Magnificent 7 published their replication study. All the major results from JCU fish behaviour studies were unable to be replicated. They were 100% wrong. Much of the work was done by the group leader Prof Philip Munday and Danielle Dixson, who had since moved to U. Delaware.
The article in Science focuses on other work from Munday and Dixson – 22 papers. Clark and Jutfelt have called for an inquiry by funding bodies and universities, but it seems that nothing has happened. The Science article contains allegations of fraud that will have to be properly answered. Some of it is very concerning.
But it is not just the Magnificent 7 who are questioning whether fraud was committed. Other scientists from Holland, Spain and the UK have pointed out inconsistencies and suspicious data. There is also now testimony from co-workers of Munday and Dixson, “some of whom monitored Dixson’s activities [in the lab] and concluded she made up data” according to Science.
Predictably, the scientific “establishment” has attacked the whistleblowers and much of the Science article is devoted to this. Perhaps the most scandalous attack came from Hans-Otto Portner from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany who does not seem to believe hard questions should be asked. Portner, a co-chair of one of the IPCC’s working groups, stated that “building a career on judging what other people did is not right.” Even worse, he apparently wanted to keep the scandal quiet and objected to the Magnificent 7’s work stating “if such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility.”
Presumably it is better to bury possible fraud than damage the reputation of their comfortable little science community.
The truth is a secondary concern.
Equally worrying is that none of the universities or science funding bodies seem to have bothered to do a proper investigation.
The Science article, by Martin Enserink, is long, thoroughly researched, but well worth the read. It shows how corrupted the scientific establishment, from the funding bodies to the journals, has become. But it also shows that there still are scientists who value the truth over all else – and will jeopardise their careers to find the truth.
It also shows that we need a formalised system for replicating important science results – especially if it is being used for public policy decisions. The present system of peer review, which is now well known to have, roughly, a 50% failure rate, is a pathetic apology for a quality assurance system.
In Australia, I have been advocating for an Office of Science Review that would fund the type of work that the Magnificent 7 took upon themselves – replication, checking, and testing of important scientific work. My interest is the Great Barrier Reef. I believe much of the work claiming damage to the Reef has serious flaws. But most importantly, almost none of it has been subjected to rigorous replication or checking.
It is time that the science organisations stop pretending there are no quality problems. This denial of the quality assurance problems is far worse than any possible fraud that may have been committed by individual scientists.
The major institutions are deceiving the public about the reliability of their work.
We are supposed to trust them but how can we?
Dr Peter Ridd — firstname.lastname@example.org
5) David Whitehouse: Science needs more whistleblowers and more questioning
GWPF Observatory, 7 May 2021
Dr David Whitehouse, GWPF Science Editor
The emerging doubts, reported in the journal Science, surrounding the quality of research into the effects of ocean acidification on fish behaviour reveal fault lines not only in the culture of science but also in the practice of science journalism.
However, over the past year or so a small group of ocean researchers have looked into the data upon which the original papers were based and found what they say are troubling inconsistencies that cast doubt on the findings. In January 2020 an extensive paper published in Nature by the investigators found no evidence of the seemingly dramatic effects claimed, and they raise allegations of misconduct.
As well as questions relating to the science concerned the affair highlights problems in the culture of science and the reporting of science. Does the pressure to publish in prominent journals (in this case Science and Nature Climate Change) mean that the proper protocols of scientific research are neglected?
Perhaps more importantly – what does it say about a journal’s policy of peer review and acceptance? All of the major journals want to publish the best research and actively seek publicity when they do, which is especially true when a journal relies on advertising for revenue. There is a positive feedback loop between scientists and their institution. All seek to benefit from the ensuing publicity and prestige. In this case the question has been raised if journals are too keen on eye-catching research at the expense of quality.
It also exposes the risks of whistleblowing as the scientists who have raised the alarm about the ocean acidification research have themselves come in for criticism, with allegations that airing dirty laundry is better done in private and not publicly. In my view an outdated viewpoint in today’s society where disinformation spreads and sticks.
Perhaps in this respect current science practices are in trouble. On the one hand a single publication in a science journal is never a final statement of the state of science; it’s always provisional and used to be akin to a proper scientist saying:, here is what I have done, now feel free to criticise it. On the other hand are the journals doing enough fact checking and scrutiny as part of their gatekeeping practices? The fact that in this particular case researchers in adjacent lines of research were easily able to spot major flaws suggest not, and I suspect it applies to other fields as well.
Science journalism is also to be examined. How often do journalists just reproduce a press release, failing to seek out any additional viewpoints than that expressed in the release? How often are critical viewpoints sought as opposed to going to a familiar expert who will always say the same thing?
Are science journalists too closely connected with the network of science institutions and too submissive to scientists? Most of them are certainly reluctant to upset some of them, fearing intimidation by campaigners ora twitter pile-on if they stray from what is seen as an acceptable course.
Science is never a straight line. Not everything can be dragooned into the same narrative. If science journalists are more cheerleaders than critical writers, they not only trivialise the complexity of nature but devalue the credibility of science itself.
There are awkward questions to be asked in every field. Which journalist, and which scientist for that matter, believes that everything that’s published in an academic journal, and that everything we’re being told by scientists, is true?
Doing and reporting science is not like trying to write a few words like that found on a greetings card. How many scientists and journalists have a list of questions, a few doubts, an impression of inconsistencies they have put to the back of their mind?
Science is different from other activities. It is ultimately self-correcting, though sometimes on long timescales. What we are seeing today is a bad science experiment, seeing what happens when it is mixed more than ever before with politics, public money, publicity, the desire for influence, and institutional bias.
It’s my view that science journalists should be shaking this tree in a scientifically literate way, not trying to climb it.