Evidence of bias, opacity and lack of reciprocity by Retraction Watch

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DOI: 10.17646/KOME.2016.27
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Abstract
Retraction Watch (http://retractionwatch.com/) is a highly popular blog that claims to examine retractions, but is much more than this: it is a central hub that shames science and scientists under the guise of holding them to extremely high research or publishing standards. It primarily examines topics, scientists, editors and publishers in a highly critical light, seeking to accumulate evidence of science’s overall failures and misconduct. Retraction Watch also covers other publishing-related topics of general interest but that fall out of its specific and stated scope of retractions. Even pure errors are often shed in a negative light by applying an only-perfection-is-tolerable approach. Being profiled at Retraction Watch, which involves an examination of the flaws or cracks in accountability, transparency, honesty and values in scientists, editors and publishers to build upon their blog stories, may result in psychological and professional damage to those who are profiled. The founders, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, who are self-proclaimed and highly acclaimed editors and science/medical writers and/or journalists, seem to believe that they need not be held as accountable as the entities they publicly profile, even if these are their critics. As a result, a strongly biased, yet powerful, blog has now emerged that specializes in profiling and public shaming of science and scientists. Lack of accountability, transparency, honesty, scientific values, opacity and reciprocity – phenomena that are also beginning to be detected with this popular blog – are some of the reasons that underlie the loss in trust and respect in science and publishing, and these are topics worthy of scrutiny and a fair, frank and open discussion. Such a conversation should take place when the Retraction Watch moderators do not pose any conflicts of interest, or bias. If Retraction Watch purports to be aiding in the assistance of science and higher education through an understanding of retractions, but is unable to focus exclusively on retractions, and fails be independently moderated, or held accountable by scientists or other members of the public, also shows characteristics of opacity, and fails to hold itself to the same values as it holds its journalistic targets, then one must question the academic and educational merit of this blog. This letter to the editor serves to question the core modus operandi of the Oransky and Marcus blog, Retraction Watch, namely public shaming.
Letter to the Editor
Address for Correspondence: Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva, email: jaimetex[at]yahoo.com
Article received on the 14th November, 2016. Article accepted on the 1st December, 2016.
Conflict of Interest: The author is not associated with any academic institute, blog or web-site. The author was
profiled multiple times, often with issues unrelated to retractions, by Retraction Watch.
Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva
P. O. Box 7, Miki-cho post office, Ikenobe 3011-2, Kagawa-ken, 761-0799, Japan
Dear KOME Editors,
Retraction Watch (http://retractionwatch.com) is a highly popular blog that claims to examine
retractions, but is much more than this: it is a central hub that shames science and scientists
under the guise of holding them to extremely high research or publishing standards. It primarily
examines topics, scientists, editors and publishers in a highly critical light, seeking to
accumulate evidence of sciences overall failures and misconduct. Retraction Watch also
covers other publishing-related topics of general interest but that fall out of its specific and
stated scope of retractions. Even pure errors are often shed in a negative light by applying an
only-perfection-is-tolerable approach. Being profiled at Retraction Watch, which involves an
examination of the flaws or cracks in accountability, transparency, honesty and values in
scientists, editors and publishers to build upon their blog stories, may result in psychological
and professional damage to those who are profiled. The founders, Ivan Oransky and Adam
Marcus, who are self-proclaimed and highly acclaimed editors and science/medical writers
and/or journalists, seem to believe that they need not be held as accountable as the entities they
publicly profile, even if these are their critics. As a result, a strongly biased, yet powerful, blog
has now emerged that specializes in profiling and public shaming of science and scientists.
Lack of accountability, transparency, honesty, scientific values, opacity and reciprocity
phenomena that are also beginning to be detected with this popular blog are some of the
reasons that underlie the loss in trust and respect in science and publishing, and these are topics
worthy of scrutiny and a fair, frank and open discussion. Such a conversation should take place
when the Retraction Watch moderators do not pose any conflicts of interest, or bias. If
Retraction Watch purports to be aiding in the assistance of science and higher education
through an understanding of retractions, but is unable to focus exclusively on retractions, and
fails be independently moderated, or held accountable by scientists or other members of the
public, also shows characteristics of opacity, and fails to hold itself to the same values as it
holds its journalistic targets, then one must question the academic and educational merit of this
KOME − An International Journal of Pure
Communication Inquiry
Volume 4 Issue 2, p. 82-85.
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and Permission:
kome@komejournal.com
Published by the Hungarian Communication
Studies Association
DOI: 10.17646/KOME.2016.27
Letter to the Editor: Evidence of
Bias, Opacity and Lack of
Reciprocity by Retraction Watch
Teixeira da Silva, J.A 83
blog. This letter to the editor serves to question the core modus operandi of the Oransky and
Marcus blog, Retraction Watch, namely public shaming.
Dr. Oransky is the co-founder of Retraction Watch. The Center for Science Integrity (CSI;
http://retractionwatch.com/the-center-for-scientific-integrity) is the stated parent organization
of Retraction Watch, although no background information exists about the CSI on this page.
The CSI is a registered charity, i.e., a non-profit (501(c)) organization. To date, the CSI has
received generous funding from two foundations (MacArthur Foundation;
https://www.macfound.org; Laura and John Arnold Foundation;
http://www.arnoldfoundation.org) and one trust, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley
Charitable Trust (http://www.helmsleytrust.org), which have donated US$830,000. Very basic
information about how this sizeable funding has been or is being used by the CSI and Retraction
Watch was just released on November 29, 2016 (McCook 2016), but requests to Dr. Oransky,
who is the stated President of the CSI, for details about some of the US$ amounts on that 2015
tax return
1
remain unanswered, although we have learned the following from that financial
disclosure: a) CSI is operated from Dr. Oranskys apartment; b) The full name of the CSI is in
fact Center for Science Integrity Inc. but the Inc. part has been left off the name in all public
sites that list or refer to the CSI; c) only just over $33,000 have been used exclusively for the
development of the retraction database in this fiscal year; d) Adam Marcus is the CSI secretary.
Such information is important because scientists and the public expect full openness and
transparency from the Retraction Watch leadership, Oransky and Marcus, especially regarding
a potential US$830,000 conflict of interest. This expectation is not unreasonable considering
that Retraction Watch equally expects the scientific community to be open, honest and
transparent about issues related to retractions. As it currently stands, there is an imbalance in
opacity and transparency regarding the CSI and the financials of this charity. Is, for example,
a goal of the CSI to use any of this funding to instill a culture of fear, ad hominem profiling
and public shaming, which is strongly suggested by a recent blog post (Oransky and Marcus
2016) by these two science watchdogs? Prof. Susan T. Fiske, the former President of the
American Psychological Society, has presented valid arguments and concerns about the culture
of shaming in science (Fiske 2016). What then differentiates Retraction Watch from Fiskes
concerns? The answer may lie in a constructive (positive criticism and a balanced perspective)
versus a destructive (purely negative analysis and anti-science) ideology.
If Oransky and Marcus believe that public shaming is a valid form of argument, then they
too, in a true spirit of accountability and reciprocity, must be publicly shamed when and where
necessary, by scientists or by members of the public, for valid issues related to their blog, and
their public statements and views, including those on Facebook posts, Tweets or other social
media or interviews. In much the same way that scientists are held accountable by their peers
and by their seniors in editorial positions, and also now by Retraction Watch and other science
watchdogs (Teixeira da Silva 2016a), so too must Retraction Watch and its staff not be immune
to criticism or humiliation, nor should they be exempt from fair and critical analysis that seeks
greater transparency and that holds them more accountable. If Retraction Watch (i.e., Oransky,
Marcus and its small fleet of writers) fails in its journalistic standards, if it abuses the publishing
medium to modify information without formal public notice (e.g., Teixeira da Silva 2016b),
uses intimidation or aggression, abuses the trust of their readership or public, or shows double
standards that are incompatible with the standards that they hold scientists, editors and
publishers to, then are these not all issues worthy of being explored, and exposed, when
necessary? A first case has documented title and content manipulation, without appropriate (or
insufficient) error correction (or retraction) by Retraction Watch (Teixeira da Silva 2016b).
1
http://retractionwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2015-990.pdf (last accessed: December 2, 2016)
Teixeira da Silva, J.A 84
The CSI does not indicate anywhere on its web-page when it was created, any history about
its creation, or its physical or postal address. In fact, the CSI does not have an independent
web-page that one would expect for a perceived Center, but is instead listed as a sub-menu
item of the Retraction Watch web-page, even though the CSI is claimed to be Retraction
Watchs parent organization. One would expect, at minimum, that such a prominent, well-
funded and high profile ethical center to have its own web-page with full details about all
aspects of the organization, including postal address, contact phone and fax numbers, etc., i.e.,
complete accountability. Sadly, this does not exist. There is no explanation about how, when
and using what selective criteria the members of the board of directors
2
were appointed to this
board. When I contacted the CSI directors, the only response I received was from Dr. Elizabeth
Wager, the former (2009-2012) COPE (Committee of Publication Ethics) Chair, who claimed
not to know the address, nor could she offer any explanation why there is no web-site for the
CSI, or what criteria were used to select her to the CSI board of directors. The fact that a
director of a board of directors of a self-acclaimed ethical organization is unable to offer any
transparent response to such queries is of great concern. It is in fact these factual omissions that
should raise scientists and the publics concerns about the failure of Retraction Watch, its
senior management and staff, and its board of directors to offer transparent responses about
their charity, its functionality, and its modus operandi.
Another watchdog, Mr. Jeffrey Beall, an activist librarian with a perceived anti-science (or
anti-open access) ideology, lists on his blog, which is regularly featured and promoted (possibly
to increase inter-site traffic) by Retraction Watch, primarily on its weekly reads, the following
criteria for predatory publishing practices
3
: “Demonstrates a lack of transparency in publishing
operations; Has no policies or practices for digital preservation, meaning that if the journal
ceases operations, all of the content disappears from the internet; provides insufficient
information or hides information…; the publisher hides or does not reveal its location; The
publisher lists insufficient contact information, including contact information that does not
clearly state the headquarters location or misrepresents the headquarters location; the publisher
uses names such as "Network," "Center," "Association," "Institute," and the like when it is only
a solitary, proprietary operation”. One may thus strongly argue that the opacity surrounding
the CSI, its background, constitution, ethical guidelines, scope and modus operandi,
responsibilities of directors, lack of contacts, physical address and independent web-site fits
multiple criteria of the predatory concept that Beall alludes to. Should the honesty and lack
of transparency (i.e., opacity) of the CSI and of those who have created it, not be called into
question?
Finally, none of the Retraction Watch management or staff or CSI directors have any
disclaimer or conflicts of interest (COI) listed under their names. Perceived COIs are essential
aspects of ethics in science publishing. Such omissions accentuate the overall concern about
the ethical basis of this organization. This letter provides evidence that accountability and
transparency are not reciprocal concepts for Retraction Watch and its parent organization, the
CSI. This ethical exceptionalism fortifies why the CSI needs to be very closely analyzed,
scrutinized and monitored.
Higher education would merit from a greater understanding of the issues underlying
problems with the literature. Problematic literature is used by students and faculty alike, and
thus literature that has errors, has not been correctly vetted, or that is not corrected by editors
when errors are known, poses a risk to the core fabric of education. Thus, science welcomes a
positive, open, frank and balanced discussion of these issues, but only by an unbiased team of
moderators. Blogs and web-sites that purportedly claim to be tools and voices for science and
2
http://retractionwatch.com/the-center-for-scientific-integrity/board-of-directors (last accessed: December 2,
2016)
3
https://scholarlyoa.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/criteria-2015.pdf (last accessed: December 2, 2016)
Teixeira da Silva, J.A 85
the education industry, but that lack opacity, such as the CSI / Retraction Watch, may represent
more of a danger, and not less, to academic integrity simply because of their contradictory
stances.
Science is in a crisis, but there are several issues that undermine the notion that Retraction
Watch is being held accountable in a reciprocal manner by the public and by scientists. This
false perception has been created by a massively powerful social media presence and the
incredible charitable funding offered by three US-based philanthropic organizations. The
opacity surrounding the CSI and its workings is a prime example that this perception is not
true. In order for there to be mutual respect and exchange of information between Retraction
Watch (including the CSI and its board of directors) and the public and/or scientists, with the
objective of improving science through open debate and honest and unbiased communication,
so too must there be reciprocal analysis, scrutiny, accountability and transparency. It is time to
watch science watchdogs like Retraction Watch (Teixeira da Silva 2016a).
References
Fiske, S.T. (2016). A call to change science’s culture of shaming.
http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/a-call-to-change-sciences-culture-of-
shaming (last accessed: December 2, 2016)
McCook, A. (2016). It’s Giving Tuesday: Consider supporting Retraction Watch.
http://retractionwatch.com/2016/11/29/giving-tuesday-consider-supporting-retraction-
watch/ and http://retractionwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2015-990.pdf (last
accessed: December 2, 2016)
Oransky I, Marcus A (2016). Too much public shaming is bad, but that’s not the real problem
in science. https://www.statnews.com/2016/11/04/public-shaming-science/ (last
accessed: December 2, 2016)
Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2016a). Science watchdogs. Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary
Studies 5(3): 13-15. CrossRef
Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2016b). The blasé nature of Retraction Watch’s editorial policies and
the risk to sinking journalistic standards. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences
7(6): 11-14. CrossRef
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