Most of the time when an author submits falsified and
fabricated manuscripts to scientific journals they are considered to have
committed research misconduct. However, sometimes when this happens the authors
seem to be regarded as heroic crusading journalists acting to save us all from
the dishonesty of unscrupulous scientific publishers. So I have to raise the
question, how do we tell the difference? Or is there a difference? In October
of 2013 John Bohannon published his now widely read and discussed sting of open
access journals. My colleague Zubin Master wrote about this in a previous Bioethics Today.
In that previous sting Dr. Bohannon submitted a faked and flawed
manuscript under assumed names to open access journals and found many
apparently accepted the paper without review. Bohannon’s study was likely
flawed by selection bias being submitted to journals which were considered to
be operating in a predatory manner. Nevertheless he documented this ethically
and scientifically flawed behavior on the part of these supposed peer reviewed
scientific journals. His findings were widely read and by and large his sting
operation was acclaimed for having done so. Largely lost in this acclaim was
the fact that when he submitted these manuscripts under assumed names he was
engaging falsification and fabrication. I grant you he was operating as a
journalist rather than a scientist so it is debatable whether the concept of
scientific misconduct is even applicable. However, he was acting on behalf of
the highly regarded journal Science Magazine published by the respected
American Association for the Advancement of Science and John Bohannon is a
scientist. It does not seem unreasonable that they should aspire to operate
under practices contextual to those expected of scientists.
I raise this point now because John Bohannon has again
engaged in a sting operation. In this operation the goal was to see if he could get flawed science not only
accepted into scientific journals but could he also have it distributed by the
press thereby having it read by millions. So, to make a long story short, he
created a fake research institute (Institute of Diet and Health) for which he
created a fake website. He engaged in these activities under the name Johannes
Bohannon. He had two collaborators, Peter Onmeken and Diane Lobl who were
preparing a television documentary on junk-science in the diet industry. They
were ready as he wrote to “recruit research subjects, a German doctor to run
the study, and a statistician friend to massage the data.” So they recruited
subjects without ethical review and approval by an Institutional Review Board
or Research Ethics Committee. They recruited these unwitting subjects by
deception, exposed them to at least some discomfort and risk as there were
blood sample taken. They completed their study with the “real” result of
increased weight loss in subjects who ate bitter chocolate. At least it was a
real study with inadequate number of subjects, massaged statistics and apparent
failure to do any sort of correction for the large number of comparisons they
They wanted to get it published quickly so they submitted the fake manuscript to twenty fake journals and
it was indeed accepted quickly and after payment it was published in two weeks.
Dr. Bohannon then submitted a fake press release from the fake institute to the
press indicating that chocolate enhanced weight loss. The rest is history,
albeit recent. The mainstream press was more than happy to report the happy
result that consumption of chocolate led to weight loss.
I admit that my feelings about this whole affair are
ambiguous. It is probably good that the lack of rigor in the press about
science is exposed. But John Bohannon has also proven, twice now, that he can
run a pretty rigorous scientific fraud. However, I am quite uncomfortable about
his willingness to engage in falsification, fabrication, deception and
exploiting unwitting volunteers. I am left with the question I started with.
When is research misconduct, research misconduct?
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