7 Scientific Scandals Of 2013: From A Retracted GMO Study To A Science Publishing Sting Operation


1) GMO Corn Study Withdrawn: A research team led by University of Caen biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini stoked fears about the safety of GMOs in September 2012 with a paper that purported to show a link between genetically modified corn and tumors in rats. But the team was quickly met with criticism from other scientists about their methods and the heavy-handed restrictions they placed on journalists reporting on the paper -- forbidding the writers to show the paper to independent researchers before it was published.

In late November of this year, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology pulled the paper, saying there was a “legitimate cause for concern” in the fact that the authors used a very small number of test rats, and selected a strain known for its likelihood of developing tumors. Ultimately, the journal said, there was no evidence of fraud by the researchers, but the results, they deemed, were inconclusive.

2) Plant Neurobiology: Innovative Concept, or Crock Of Crud? File this one not under "scandal" but "hotly debated scientific topic." In a recent New Yorker article, Michael Pollan delved into the contentious world of plant neurobiology, a nascent scientific discipline that’s either the domain of outside-the-box thinkers or total kooks, depending on whom you ask. Plants exhibit some amazing feats of chemical communication and behavior that starts to look like some kind of vegetable intelligence, but skeptics abound. The whole thing is definitely worth your read.

3) Troubles At Scientific American: Scientific American’s blog network was the focus of two blowups this year: first, biologist Danielle Lee’s account of being viciously insulted by a (now former) blog editor for another biology website was removed by SciAm (though later restored). This incident then prompted playwright and science writer Monica Byrne to call out (now former) SciAm blogs editor Bora Zivkovic for sexual harassments. More accounts soon followed from other science writers, complaining of similar behavior from Zivkovic. In the wake of the incident, many scientists and science writers began sharing stories about sexual harassment in the workplace on Twitter.

4) Faked Results In HIV Vaccine Study: (Now former) Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s work on an AIDS vaccine was once promising enough to garner $19 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. But now, independent testing shows that Han faked his results by spiking the rabbit blood used in his work with human antibodies, in order to make it look like his vaccine was provoking a defense against the AIDS virus.

According to Retraction Watch, the falsified research was not published in a peer-reviewed study yet, but only delivered in oral presentations.

5) Boycotting Top Journals: U.S. biologist Randy Schekman, one of the three Nobel Laureates in physiology or medicine this year, dropped a bombshell in December: his lab would no longer submit papers to top-tier journals Science, Nature and Cell. Schekman – the editor of the open-access journal eLife – said the trio of prestigious journals favors splashy science and distorts the nature of scientific publishing.

“Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals,” Schekman told the Guardian. “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science - or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong."

Not all scientists are signing on to the boycott. But even Nature’s editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell, acknowledged that prestige can sometimes be a distorting factor in modern science:

“The research community tends toward an over-reliance in assessing research by the journal in which it appears, or the impact factor of that journal,” Campbell said in a statement.

6) Testing The Integrity Of Open-Access Scientific Journals: In October, biologist and science writer John Bohannon revealed in the journal Science that he had been running a 10-month sting operation. Bohannon submitted a deliberately erroneous paper on a supposed cancer wonder drug to more than 300 open-access journals. More than half accepted a paper that even someone “a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot” should have flagged as fatally flawed. It’s a cautionary tale in the midst of an explosion in open-access scientific publishing -- though many other scientists say it's not totally fair to blame open-access on shoddy peer review.

7) Excel Error Undermines Case For Austerity Policies: For most people, slipping up when programming an Excel sheet might mean nothing more harmful than getting chewed out by your boss. But in the case of economists Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff, the discovery of a minor math mistake (as well as some questionable exclusion of certain economic data) in their highly influential 2010 paper on debt-to-GDP ratios ended up undermining their central thesis – that higher debt loads have a negative effect on a country’s economic growth. All thanks to a few spreadsheet cells that were left out of an equation.

And this was no ordinary economics paper – Slate writer Matthew Yglesias called it “literally the most influential article cited in public and policy debates about the importance of debt stabilization” at the time. World governments were looking to this paper when weighing their options in the face of global recession. How different might the world be today if Reinhardt and Rogoff had coded properly at the time?

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