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More institutional failure by universities that refuse to grapple with potential research misconduct by their faculty

Last year we discussed Why We Sleep, a book that contained misrepresented data. Why We Sleep was written by a professor at the University of California. Alexey Guzey discovered many many problems with the book, including a smoking-gun graph, and Yngve Hoiseth contacted the contacted the University of California to report Walker’s violation of their research misconduct policy. The university politely but firmly refused to look into the situation.

It was understandable (from a cynical point of view) but disappointing that the official university body didn’t seem to care about research misconduct by one of its famous professors.

Nick Brown reports on a similar situation, where he found problems with suspicious data in a published article with authors coming from 12 different academic institutions. Brown sent a letter to all these institutions, and this is how 9 of them replied:

Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK: Stated that they would investigate, and gave me an approximate date by which they anticipated that their investigation would be complete.
Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Australia: Stated that they would investigate, but with no estimate of how long this would take.
Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, Monterrey, N.L., Mexico: No reply.
Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India: No reply.
University of L’Aquila, L’Aquila, Italy: No reply.
Army Share Fund Hospital, Athens, Greece: No reply.
Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada: No reply.
University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland: No reply.
Lero Irish Software Research Centre, Limerick, Ireland: No reply.

By “No reply” here, I [Nick] mean that I received nothing. No “Undeliverable” message. No out-of-office message. No quick reply saying “Sorry, COVID-19 happened, we’re busy”. Not “We’ll look into it”. Not “We won’t look into it”. Not even “Get lost, there is clearly no case to answer here”. Nothing, nada, nichts, rien, zip, in reply to what I (and, apparently, the research integrity people at the two institutions that did reply) think is a polite, professional e-mail, with a subject line that I hope suggests that a couple of minutes of the recipient’s time might be a worthwhile investment, in 7 out of 9 cases.

So, yeah, the usual story. You hate to see these places have the same low standards as the University of California.

P.S. I wonder what happened with Nottingham Trent University, as they were the one place listed above that seemed to offer an actual plan.

31 Comments

  1. MarkD says:

    “Brown sent a letter to all these institutions …”

    what about posting such letter – perhaps a much shorter version – (also) to such instituitions’ ‘social’-media channels?
    Too noisy?

    • I’d like to see the letters posted!

      • dl says:

        I believe the letter is at the link I posted below. And per Google, it looks like the article has been retracted and the lead author drummed out of the academy.

      • Nick Brown says:

        Here is the e-mail that I wrote, addressed to (as far as I could make them out; that was another fun thing in itself) the research integrity officers of the institutions.

        First, allow me to apologise if I have addressed this e-mail to any of you in error, and also if my use of the phrase “Research Integrity Officer” in the above salutation is not an accurate summary of your job title. I had some difficulty in establishing, from your institution’s web site, who was the correct person to write to for questions of research integrity in many cases, including Central Queensland University (Professor Ferguson), Jamia Millia Islamia (Professor Ahmad), L’Aquila University (Professor Giacomelli), and Lero (Professor Kennedy). In those cases I attempted to identify somebody who appears to have a senior function in the relevant department. In the case of NIMTS Hospital, I only found a general contact address — I am trying to reach someone who might have responsibility for the ethical conduct of “D. Papadopoulos” in the Pulmonology Department.

        I am writing to bring your attention to these blog posts, which I published on April 21, 2020: https://steamtraen.blogspot.com/2020/04/some-issues-in-recent-gaming-research.html. At least one author of the scientific article that is the principal subject of that blog post (Etindele Sosso et al., 2020; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58462-0, published on 2020-02-06 in Nature Scientific Reports) lists your institution as their affiliation.

        While my phrasing in that public blog post (and a follow-up, which is now linked from the first post) was necessarily conservative, I think it is clear to anyone with even a minimum of relevant scientific training who reads it that there is strong prima facie evidence that the results of the Etindele Sosso et al. (2020) article have been falsified, and perhaps even fabricated entirely. Yet, 15 other scholars, including at least one at your institution (in the absence of errors of interpretation on my part) signed up to be co-authors of this article.

        There would seem to be two possibilities in the case of each author.

        1. They knew, or should have known, that the reported results were essentially impossible. (Even the Abstract contains claims about the percentage of variance explained by the main independent variable that are utterly implausible on their face.)

        2. They did not read the manuscript at all before it was submitted to a Nature group journal, despite the fact that their name is listed as a co-author and included in the “Author contributions” section as having, at least, “contributed to the writing”.

        It seems to me that either of these constitutes a form of academic misconduct. If these researchers knew that the results were impossible, they are culpable in the publication of falsified results. If they are not — that is, their defence is that they did not read and understand the implications of the results, even in the Abstract — then they have made inappropriate claims of authorship (in a journal whose own web site states that it is the 11th most highly cited in the world). Either of these would surely be likely to bring your institution into disrepute.

        For your information, I intend to make this e-mail public 30 days from today, accompanied by a one-sentence summary (without, as far as possible, revealing any details that might be damaging to the interests of anyone involved) of your respective institutions’ responses until that point. I would hope that, despite the difficult circumstances under which we are all working at the moment, it ought to be able to at least give a commitment to thoroughly investigate a matter of this importance within a month. I mention this because in previous cases where I have made reports of this kind, the modal response from institutional research integrity officers has been no response at all.

        Of course, whatever subsequent action you might decide to take in this matter is entirely up to you.

        Kind regards,
        Nicholas J L Brown, PhD
        Linnaeus University

        • Fred says:

          So this was a mass email, inspecific about the potential malpractice by investigators at the recipient’s institution until the third paragraph and requiring the recipient to click on links to get the full details.

          Credit to you for spotting what appears to be fabrication. But I’m not surprised this email was met with crickets.

          • Nick Brown says:

            I would hope that if a research integrity officer were to receive an e-mail with the subject line ” Possible scientific misconduct” they might read to the third paragraph. I presume they don’t get very many such mails in any given week.

            • Adede says:

              I think you underestimate the number of clickbait email subjects that manage to get through institutional spam filters. About once a week, I get something with a subject like “urgent deadline” or similar, only to read in the body a sales pitch for something I don’t need.

            • Andrew says:

              NIck:

              You should’ve used the subject line, “Possible donation to the university.” That would’ve ensured a thorough read!

            • Dan F. says:

              Why do you suppose such a thing as a “research integrity officer” either exists or has any power to investigate a complaint initiated by a party external to the university?

              In many countries academic misconduct would be a legal issue rather than an issue for internal university rules. It might have to be pursued through the courts, not through the university.

              In many countries there simply aren’t resources available to employ full time academic misconduct officers, or even to conceive of so doing.

              Finally, a typical university administrator easily receives hundreds of emails daily. Yours often would not pass the basic filters for getting read.

              • Nick Brown says:

                Dan: The reason I assume that a research integrity officer exists is that the majority of universities *advertise the existence of such a person on their web site, including their e-mail address*. Now maybe it’s some kind of well-known joke that this is just a hoax, in which case it seems that I have naïvely fallen for it, but I think we have to believe that post-truth hasn’t gone that far yet.

                These people’s entries typically say something like “If you have a concern about academic integrity, send an e-mail to this address”. I really don’t see how one can get more specific than that.

                If the institution’s reason for not responding is then “Yeah, LOL, don’t actually bother, nobody here ever reads their e-mails” then I would argue that’s a pretty huge problem in itself.

              • Andrew says:

                Dan:

                I agree with Nick on this one. We should be realistic that these people typically have little motivation to do anything about misconduct, but without being so cynical as to say that this sort of attitude is OK.

                To put it another way, they have these research integrity officers for a reason. If that reason is someone at the institution cares about research integrity, then I think we should support these people by taking the research integrity officers seriously and not letting them off the hook when they don’t do their job. If nobody in the administration cares about research integrity, but they set up the office because of outside pressure, then I think we should support those outsiders by taking the research integrity officers seriously and not letting them off the hook when they don’t do their job.

              • Nick Brown says:

                Andrew: Cornell’s research integrity office stopped responding to our (polite, professional) e-mails after we pointed out (with receipts) that their own refusal to request Brian Wansink to provide us with his data explicitly violated one of their own policies. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

              • Andrew says:

                Nick:

                Yes, that mirrors my experience with Cornell’s public information office as well as the above-linked story about the University of California. Their strict definitions of research misconduct are violated, and they just look away.

  2. dl says:

    It may be a bit of stretch to call this “similar” to Walker leaving a bar off a bar graph (I know he did other questionable stuff supposedly too) …Brown’s blog post describes the full insanity of these articles:
    https://steamtraen.blogspot.com/2020/04/some-issues-in-recent-gaming-research.html

  3. Nick Brown says:

    For the record, one year further on I have heard nothing more from these institutions.

    The lead author’s university instituted an investigation, to which I provided evidence by video link, but I do not know what happened there either. However, at the time he was apparently enrolled on a PhD programme, whereas now (https://www.cna-aiic.ca/fr/a-propos-de-nous/celles-et-ceux-qui-nous-dirigent/le-conseil-dadministration/faustin-etindele) it seems that he is “the founder and directeur-general of Redavi Institute, a Canadian think-tank that provides reports on public research and recommendations for the promotion of world health and international relations”.

    • Andrew says:

      Cool! Maybe they could team up with RiskEraser.com.

    • MarkD says:

      I’ve looked around a bit the pubs of this guy … lot of copy-paste indeed – text, figs, data.
      Heck, if one wants to cheat, at least fabricate some good synthetic data going backward from wanted ‘findings’.
      And lot of self- and mutual- praising for such MHPE (‘his’ questionnaire). But no data to dbl-check, at least the validation of the instrument.
      Think I’d be a tad skeptical about any ‘reports on public research and recommendations’ from Redavi Institute. Thx for spotting it.

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      Redavi is barely-disguised anagram of “varied” so they must know their statistics.

      • Nick Brown says:

        Jonathan: The “Redavi Institute” has a Twitter account, @redavisi, on which it is called the “Rédavis” Institute. Some of the lead author’s “invisible friend” co-authors also have names with spellings that varied from paper to paper.

        • dl says:

          It hadn’t occurred to me that the coauthors didn’t actually exist. But if so, that might explain why the universities you emailed were not that concerned or just very confused.

          • Nick Brown says:

            The co-authors of the Nature Scientific Reports article all exist (except for one that I’m not sure about). In my previous comment I was referring to a different set of (fake) co-authors from a different set of (fake) papers from the same lead author. It took several blog posts to lay out the full horror of what he had done.

    • Jordan Anaya says:

      It wouldn’t surprise me if universities had a “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” policy. Imagine if the integrity office launched an investigation for every credible claim of misconduct/sloppy science. If word got out that a certain university was proactive about doing something about bad research within its walls then maybe it would be open season for critics to go after researchers at that university. One likely reason more research isn’t criticized is we know nothing will happen—we see how high the walls of the university are and we can’t scale them, so why try? If a university lowered its defenses it may open the floodgates so to speak.

  4. A Yu says:

    This type of smoking gun I encountered elsewhere, and people in authority actually allowed personalities to prosper enough for something worse than a smoking-gun-graph to spread into a bushfire, and maybe a forest fire. Ethics in the academe needs major overhaul.

  5. John Mashey says:

    As Andrew knows, I’ve filed a few academic misconduct complaints, with various degrees of success and failure in getting retractions or other actions.
    I think most US uiniversities that do Federally-funded research tend to have a Research Integrity Officer or similar person, and that role gets written into their misconduct procedures.

    ORI has some history: https://ori.hhs.gov/content/chapter-2-research-misconduct-federal-policies

    At least from my experience, universities vary greatly in their handling of complaints. I think they tend to take more seriously ones with major Federal funding, since they may worry about flak from the funders. After all, universities are supposed to provide some supervision for their cut of the money. For a complex example, see
    https://www.desmog.com/2013/05/20/foia-facts-1-more-misdeeds/

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