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The academic sleuth facing death threats and ingratitude

The academic sleuth – facing death threats and ingratitude
Lonni Besançon is an assistant professor at the Division of Media and Information Technology at Linköping University. Credit: Thor Balkhed

Lonni Besançon devotes evenings and weekends to rarely appreciated sanitation work. By examining scientific articles after they are published and exposing shortcomings, he has made himself an enemy of both researchers and publishers. It has gone so far that death threats have become commonplace for him.

"The integrity of science is important. It must be credible. Every new study is based on existing studies—if these are wrong, the research continues in the wrong direction, and eventually, the whole thing becomes useless," says Besançon.

He is an assistant professor at the Department of Science and Technology, where he explores how data can be visualized and used in areas such as health care and the judiciary. But in addition to his own research, he also reviews other researchers' works after they are published.

This is called academic sleuthing. A job that is both thankless and unpaid.

"No one thanks you for finding something bad. Besides, it's not part of my contract. No one is employed to check scientific integrity compliance after publication, but this is something I, and others like me, do outside of working hours," says Besançon.

But what do academic sleuths check? To understand this, we need some background:

The process of getting a scientific article published in a journal can be broken down into a number of steps. Once the study is finished and the data is collected, the researchers write a draft, or manuscript, of an article. That manuscript is then sent to one or more publishers in the hope that it will be accepted by a journal.

For the article to be accepted, it must go through something called a . This is a kind of review that involves other researchers in the field reviewing the article to see that it is of good scientific quality. Hopefully, the article will then be published. It is a process that often takes a long time, in some cases several years.

"Peer review is based on mutual trust. When I read someone else's article, I take it for granted that no one is cheating. In my field, there's less risk as it's a relatively small field, and we all know each other. But in microbiology, for example, where there are hundreds of thousands of scientists who will never meet each other, the risk of cheating increases."

In academia, cheating can mean anything from removing data points to getting the results you want to a lack of ethical reviews and completely fabricated data and results featuring AI-written articles. And the fact that some such articles still slip through the peer review process is a major concern.

Universities, other higher education institutions, and individual researchers pay large sums of money to publishers in order to publish and for the review to be correct. But often the underlying code or data is not checked, only the article itself. And for smaller publishers, it is not even certain that there will be any regular peer review.

"It's completely mad. We've found articles that were submitted, accepted, and published on the same date. This sets off warning bells; something isn't right."

According to Besançon, the widespread cheating is due to a fundamental error in how the academic process is structured. The number of publications often plays a greater role than which journal the researcher has published in when it comes to obtaining a high H-index. This is an index intended to show how productive and skilled a researcher is. It may form the basis for future employment, and above all, .

"Publishing a zero result is almost impossible, although it is equally important for the research community to know that something doesn't work. But if you delete some , it is no longer a zero result, and all of a sudden publishable. So the incentives for cheating are built into the academic process."

When Besançon and his colleagues find something wrong in a scientific article, they write to the publisher and point it out. Most often, they receive no reply at all. Sometimes, the publisher replies that they have received the complaint but then does not take it further. And in rare cases, the scientific article is actually withdrawn. But the academic sleuths are not credited for this. Often it says just that the magazine has withdrawn the article and nothing more.

One of the most recognized and successful academic sleuths is Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist from the Netherlands. She and Besançon have worked together several times, and she is a great role model for him. Elisabeth Bik has reported approximately 8,000 incorrect but less than 20% have been removed by the journals.

The work for which Besançon has received the most attention concerns research fraud at a French research institute. They published false results at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that claimed they had found a cure. But something was not right.

"I'm not an expert in biology or disease. But statistics is something I really know, and there was something very wrong in their articles on several points."

Among other things, he could see that the same ethical review number was used in 248 studies when there should actually be a unique number for each study. The studies were done in many different ways—samples of blood, saliva, feces, and skin were collected from both young and old study participants, including children. This should require several different ethical reviews.

When Besençon and his colleagues presented their findings in the journal Research Integrity and Peer Review, this caused a ferocious debate, especially in France, about research ethics, and he appeared on national television, newspapers, and radio. The news also spread across the English Channel, and The Guardian published a long article.

But that was also when the storm began for Besançon.

"They write about me on Twitter all the time and have also emailed all my colleagues here and tried to get me fired. They smear my name and harass me in different ways. I've also had a couple of calls with death threats."

How does he cope with that?

"If they see me as a target, it means I've done something right," says Besançon.

More information: Fabrice Frank et al, Raising concerns on questionable ethics approvals – a case study of 456 trials from the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection, Research Integrity and Peer Review (2023). DOI: 10.1186/s41073-023-00134-4

Citation: The academic sleuth facing death threats and ingratitude (2024, April 30) retrieved 15 July 2024 from
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