How to detect and report science misconduct – an introduction

Another ThreadReader unroll of a recent Twitter thread that I did.
Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 9.54.30 PM.png

I got several questions from other scientists who all are interested in how to detect science misconduct and how to report. So here is a new thread.

First of all, this is a risky business. Reporting misconduct close to home (e.g. in your own lab or by a close collaborator) might damage not only other people’s careers, but also risk your own job, especially if you are early career.

Second, you need to be able to objectively word your concerns. Yelling “misconduct!” is not going to bring you very far. You have to stick to facts.
“These 2 protein bands look unexpectedly similar” is good.
“These 2 protein bands have been copied and pasted” is subjective.

Third, you have to be patient. If you report a paper/set of papers to a journal or institute, the investigation might take years to complete. Of the 1016 papers, I reported to journals in 2014 and 2015, 54 have been retracted, 181 have been corrected. The rest? … crickets.

Let’s assume that after these 3 disclaimers, you are still interested. There are a couple of extreme scenarios. Maybe you are generally interested in how to spot misconduct and how to respond. Or maybe you suspect misconduct in your lab and are not sure what to do.

If you are generally interested in cases of science misconduct, there are a couple of places you can start:
@Pubpeer is the place where people can comment on a paper – anonymously or signed – positive or negative. Check there regularly for the types of comments people leave.

Also, @PubPeer has a great Chrome plugin that will flag papers (based on DOI) on e.g. Pubmed, so you can see that in your literature searches. It does not seem to work with Google Scholar, unfortunately.

PubPeerShow links to existing PubPeer comments

Here is how the Chrome extension will work with Pubmed searches. It will show which papers have comments in @PubPeer .

Following @Pubpeer for a while will give you a flavor of the types of problems one might find in papers. These can be image duplications, plagiarism, strange fractions (41.2% of 20 people had a college degree, 30% of prostate cancer patients were women), false affiliations, etc.

If you found a paper and you have concerns, you can leave a comment yourself, either under your full name (not recommended when you are just starting) or anonymously (will be moderated, so comments don’t appear immediately).

Make sure to remain objective in your comments. Again, stick to wording such as “unexpected similarities” or “sharp transition between two adjacent bands” instead of “cloned” “fabricated” “manipulated” etc. Assume there is a slight chance that it was an honest mistake

Most of the problems that are found in biomedical papers are potential duplications of photographic images. With my coauthors @ACasadevall1 and @FangFerric, we wrote about those types of problems here (apologies for the weird associated photo):

The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research PublicationsInaccurate data in scientific papers can result from honest error or intentional falsification. This study attempted to determine the percentage of published papers that contain inappropriate image d…

But there are many other potential problems that you might spot in a paper. You can check for plagiarism by taking part of a sentence (5-8 words works well) between quotes, and searching in Google Scholar. See if you get a single result, or re-use of the sentence.

Definitions will of course give many results, so that is not plagiarism. Here is an example of a definition sentence that will give many results in Scholar: “”Probiotics are live organisms that, when administered in adequate amounts”. That is NOT plagiarism.

But multiple hits in Google Scholar with a sentence such as “”Some of these health problems include bone loss, muscle atrophy, cardiac dysrhythmias” could be cause of concern, especially if there are many other sentences in a paper with multiple hits.

Posting on Pubpeer is one thing, but the conventional – albeit much more slow and ineffective – way of reporting papers with concerns is to write to the Editor of the journal in which the paper was published. Or to the institution in case of multiple papers by the same lab.

Most journals have information on their website with their contact information and their Editor in Chief. It is most effective to write to more than one email address (pick a couple of senior editors as well) so that there is more chance that a journal will actually respond.

I always write per email, not paper letters, as to leave a record. Unfortunately, some journals make it very hard to find their contact information. You might have to cyberstalk the editors and search Pubmed publications or faculty pages for their email addresses.

If there are multiple problematic papers, you can also report to the institution / university. There might even be multiple institutions, if a person moves from lab to lab. Search for “Research Compliance” or “Research Integrity” and the university’s name. It might be hidden.

How about if you suspect misconduct close to yourself (e.g. by a co-worker in your lab)? If you trust the PI, you could first raise it with them. If not, you could report it to the Research Integrity office of your university. Write them an anonymous (paper) letter or email.

Unfortunately, it is very risky to write under your own name. Research Integrity officers might promise you anonymity, but might reveal your name to the defendant in a later stage of the investigation. This has happened to me and it sucks.

That is just some general advice that I have about how to spot and report cases of misconduct. Happy to talk more about this in a different thread.

5 thoughts on “How to detect and report science misconduct – an introduction

    • I don’t remember, it has been years ago. There was a rule back then (maybe still now) that you had to have at least one published paper, and I registered under my university’s email address. I changed that a couple of years ago into my private email address.


      • Only a small minority of authors will reply. Which can mean anything from an email address that is not working anymore, to authors who do not have original data or are not sure how to respond. For me, the value of posting on PubPeer is therefore not to get an answer from the authors, but to “flag” the paper for those people who have the PubPeer browser extension installed. Of course, authors who do reply and have a good explanation for what happened, who can provide original photos, or those who realize an error was made and will correct the paper, are the best replies!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Probably PubPeer plugin is the only exposure of the comments. Because they are not indexed by Google. When I searched for my name + PubPeer the first result was this very page. Then a bunch of articles citing my papers which also mentioned PubPeer. My comment on PubPeer did not show up at all. Interestingly before posting on PubPeer I wrote an eLetter to Science. To my surprise they published it. But it is also not indexed by Google. Got nothing when searched for the title of that eLetter.


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