Retraction Watch – blog on retractions of scientific articles

I’ve been a fond reader of retraction watch for over a year now. It is quite interesting to read the reports of how science corrects their own mistakes. Sometimes it is just plain old fraud, such as the case of Stapel, but also other Dutch researchers. But sometimes the stories behind the retractions show that there are also ‘legitimate mistakes’ that lead to such a retraction, for example this retraction from Genes and Development in which “it’s quite clear there isn’t even a whiff of misconduct or fraud”. Please check out the Retraction Watch blog or read an interview with one of its founders  which appeared in the de Volkskrant.

On being a scientist – second meeting planned

After our first pilot of our workshop ‘on being a scientist’ it is time for the second installment. The date has been set (feb 19th), and the location remains unchanged. Slight changes to the programme though! Afterall, whats the use of a pilot if you don’t learn from it. The main program remains the same, as you can see below:

  • Introduction
  • A short history of scientific misconduct, the case of the Netherlands
  • From Fishy to fraud – a discussion about the grey area
  • PhD candidates: a special case?
  • Closing remarks

Hope to see you there!

On being a scientist – first pilot was a succes

Last week we had our first pilot of our workshop ‘on being a scientist’. When I first wrote about this I was talking about a LUMC workshop, but we’ve got an upgrade: the workshop is now targeted at PhD candidates from all over the university. This way ll participants can learn from the dfiferences and similarities between areas of research. Exciting stuff!

We started last week with a small group of 12 PhD candidates from all over the university. This pilot included candidates from law, physics, psychology, medicine and the campus The Hague were all present. Also present were TdC as a co-organiser and KS as our guest.

Although the formal evaluation forms have not been processed I guess we can establish that the pilot was succesful and with that I mean that the pilot showed that we are on the right track: of course some of the content needs to be changed, but the general flow of the workshop was great. The same goes for the participants and the location.

Below a short programme

  • Introduction
  • A short history of scientific misconduct, the case of the Netherlands
  • From Fishy to fraud – a discussion about the grey area
  • PhD candidates: a special case?
  • Closing remarks

The guys from the human resource department who are responsible for the general eduction programme of all PhD who start at the Leiden University have decided that this workshop is a great way to get this topic to the attention of young researchers. The first thought is to take this workshop as a compulsory part of the eduction programme. To cater to all the 400 new PhD students the university has, we need more scientist from all over the university who can teach this course. This means we need to work on the reproducibillity of the course. with more generic examples and a clear descrition of the reason why some parts are included etc. But if we succeed, I believe that this workshop is a great way to let PhD candidates talk and think about this subject matter, which hopefully will be of help in their scientific career.

How science goes wrong? we’re improving!


Fraud, shoddy and sloppy science, conflicts of interest… Who said a science career is boring? When I write on these topics I sometimes have the feeling that I am doing science more harm than good; am I doing science a favor by showing its weaknesses and caveats? The answer still remains yes, for I believe that we need problems need to be identified before you can act on them. This is also the theme of this post: What is all being done on these topics in the last couple of days. A point by point list:

  • AllTrials: The AllTrials initiative which I support is going into its next round.Pharmaceutical companies are opening up (LEO, GSK), there are hearings in brussels and the debate in Medical journals (especially the BMJ, as one of the founders of AllTrials) is going on. Great stuff!
  • PubMed commons (a commenting system in PubMed, as a new post publication peer review) got online. It’s still a trial, but boy this is cool. I love its punchline: “A forum for scientific discourse”.
  • We organised a try out of our ‘on being a scientist’ workshop on which i wrote earlier this post. IN this post i say that is if going to be a LUMC workshop, but this changed to a workshop for all starting PhD students from the university Leiden, thus including all faculties. I am truly exciting and it our first run in november works out, this workshop might even become part of the official PhD education program of the university Leiden. The economist published a coverstory on How science goes wrong. It tells how science, peer review, statistical false positives etc work. It is a good read, especially when you are interested in science as a social process. Some remarks can be made: it’s not all that bad because scientist tend to be familiar with how the system works… the system might not be perfect, but it is at the moment the best we can do… luckily there are ways to get better, ways that are also discussed in the article.It is good that the economist and other media shares these concerns, because now this might up to build to critical mass to really change some of the weak points in the system. I thought about using the graph published next to the paper, but once I discovered the animated version of the graph i fell in love. See for yourself below. (PS false positives: another reason why not only to rely on statistical testing!)
  •  – edit: i changed the title of the pot… the first title was a bit pretentious –

Continue reading “How science goes wrong? we’re improving!”

Diederik stapel on TEDx Maastricht BrainTrain

I am a frequent reader of the retraction watch blog. Today they’ve put up a video from a TEDx event called, TEDxbraintrain. From their website:

“TEDx BrainTrain is a side event of TEDx Maastricht and is organised in collaboration with Dutch Railways and the SocialCoupé. In the intercity train between Maastricht and Amsterdam Central Station, inspiring talks by interesting speakers will be held in the same way as the main TEDx Maastricht event in the theatre at the Vrijthof”

Interestingly, one of the speakers is Diederick Stapel, a former clinical social psychology researcher with so far 54 retracted publications. The speech is quite similar to his book, which i’ve read out of interest in his part of the story: it sounds nice, but I don’t really understand what the message is. What struck me most is the part where he describes why he “invented research data and blew up his career as a scientist”:

“I became detached from myself (…) I lost my passion and desires… my personal goals became less important than my professional goals, and my professional goals completely overtook me”

This sounds weird to me…is good research practice not a ‘professional goal’? I am lost with this guy…

Edit: on the LUMC PhD-day, a day long PhD fun organised by the VAO, I will give an interactive workshop (together with TdC) on scientific integrity to the PhD students of the LUMC. This workshop is titles “How NOT to become the next Diederick Stapel”. Lesson 1: don’t think that inventing research data to get published is the right way to adhere to your professional goals!

Scientific fraud on TV – improvisation program

onderzoeksfraude de vloerop

I find the several Dutch examples of scientific fraud and misconduct quite intriguing and  I consider this topic to be one of my ‘projects’. I believe that these examples from the past learn us how the exactly the scientific community works. Different books, documentaries and reports have been published on this topic (such as the books from Frank van Kolfschoten, the  weird apology-in-book-format from Diederik Stapel, the nice documentary on Buck, and the comprehensive reports from the KNAW such as the Schuyt report), and since last friday we can add an episode of the Dutch program “de vloer op” a TV program in which Dutch top actors improvise scenes which are only described in one little sentence.

For this scene, two actors are placed in an empty university dining hall, and the junior scientist is about to confront the senior prof with his suspicion of scientific fraud. The result can be seen here (unfortunately the video cannot be embedded on this website)

PS if you like “de vloer op” please consider to support this great program because the government support for HUMAN is not guaranteed. please visit their special website.

LUMC workshop on scientific integrity

Together with my colleague TdC from the department of geriatrics I am working on a workshop for starting PhD students on the topic of scientific integrity under the working title “On being a scientist: a workshop in scientific integrity”

The LUMC code of scientific integrity, the recent KNAW report of cie. Schuyt and the publication of the National Academy of Science “On being a scientist” will form the backbone of the this workshop (see also the video below of the NAS, with the great quote “scientist should be people too!”). We are still developing the actual content, but this workshop will primarily based on several cases that will be discussed, ranging from cases of clear scientific misconduct to cases of conflicting demands of supervisors. How can you spot these problems in advance, solve or preferably prevent them? What additional measure should be put in place to sustain a critical but workable environment?

I am excited that I can be part of the team that develops this workshop. As I said before, I do not believe that this workshop will prevent all possible scientific misconduct, but I do believe that educating PhD students helps to prevent hem from making honest mistaken. Also, I hope that this course will help to create a critical but positive atmosphere in which science will thrive.

This workshop will be part of the PhD training that the LUMC offers free of charge. The first edition of the this workshop will be held on September 18 2013. Please contact me via email for more information.


video “on being a scientist” from the NAS

Is science self-cleansing? An article in the “Academische Boekengids” discussing report cie. Schuyt

Earlier I wrote about the “Adviescommissie onderzoeksgegevens in de wetenschap van de KNAW” and their report “Zorgvuldig en integer omgaan met wetenschappelijke onderzoeksgegevens”. This report induced a discussion in the March 2013 edition of the Academische Boekengids .

Three scientist give their vision: Miedema (dean of Medicine at the UMCU) Vandenbroucke (KNAW professor and professor of epidemiology at the LUMC, member of committee Schuyt) and Paul (professor of secularization studies in Groningen). Important to note is that the contradiction between the authors was known beforehand.

Miedema identifies a change in science, especially medical and social science, in which economic and social forces influence science and scientists. These forces have led to a ‘system failure’ of science, leading to shoddy science or in his words ‘post academic science’. Miedema argues that these changes cannot be undone and certain measures need to be taken to correct this system failure. What measures? Miedema points toward Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/QC) making a comparison with so called pharmaceutical research embedded within Good Clinical Practice (GCP). This should be done by governments, universities and funding bodies. Interestingly, he leaves scientist out of this list. And what does Miedema think of the report of the committee? He believes the vision of the report is based on the old idea of science where all scientist are directly held accountable by peer pressure, a vision that according to Miedema is not valid in this day and age.

Vandenbroucke points out an error in the argumentation: Miedema targets post academic science. Vandenbroucke agrees that this is a problem, but not the problem discussed by the committee. Their task was to see how data during and after research should be treated in order to keep science workable without to many hiccups and problems. The committee provides some answers but one of the main themes is that scientist should self-regulate, for they are the only experts in this area. This is in contrast to who Miedema who abhors the idea of self-regulation: science is not science anymore, so how can scientist self-regulate with all these strong forces that are incomprehensible to grasp for a simple scientist. Vandenbroucke counteracts Miedema by explaining that his vision of science (science is the search for truth) is not at odds with the problems that arise with post academic science (science is a complex social construct in which forces other than the truth have a big influence). Even more: these two notions can coexist, a concept first noted by Stephen Jay Gould.

Paul tries to reconcile the two previous writers: he agrees with Miedema that in earlier times the scientist was appreciated for his behavior as a person, whereas this view seems to be outdated in this day and age. But Paul also approaches the problem from the other side: the solution of the problems that come with post academic science calls for strong personalities that can counter unwanted forces that trouble science. Paul mentions the work of the science historian which he – ought enough in this context- announces as an ‘honored scientist’ (Dutch: gelauwerde wetenschapper) who published his ‘handsome study’ (Dutch: fraaie studie).

So what are the suggested solutions? Because the authors disagree on the origins of the problem, their solution also differ. Especially Vandenbroucke and Miedema find themselves on first glance diametrically opposed to one other. Vandenbroucke wants to start a discussion bottom up on what it is to be a good scientist, whereas Miedema wants top down QA and QC. These ideas are not new. For example, Jacobus Lubsen also brought this concept in an article in the NRC of December of 2011. Quality control and forensic statistics should increase the detection rate of wrongdoing and should therefore be instituted. I responded to this article with a small letter to the NRC in which I state that complete control is difficult and expensive and often only identifies shoddy and fraudulent science with hindsight. Additionally it will have a preventive effect on bad science, but will it have such an effect on fraud? After all, other fields that have huge governance structures such as banking and accountancy also have their fraud scandals. Even more, the frequency of sloppy science is hardly affected by these measures. A better way to prevent both sloppy and fraudulent science is, I believe, a better training of young scientist. By introducing young scientist to the key concepts of scientific conduct, creating a critical but non-repressive atmosphere, perhaps even in several research groups to prevent tunnel vision of individuals, will lead to an increased informal control and a decrease in sloppy and shoddy science. The committee also mentions this concept and calls this “increasing peer pressure” and puts scientist at the helm of this operation.

It will not surprise you that I agree with Vandenbroucke for the most part. But I also see merit in the argumentation of Miedema. Perhaps I agree with both to some extent because they address two different concepts: science is the quest for knowledge and based on epistemic virtues. Self-regulation by education of young aspiring scientist in a positive but critical atmosphere will increase the quality of research over time. But science is also a social construct and scientist need, besides guidance by peers, governance and regulations for certain scenarios: the cases Stapel and Poldermans as well as the previously discussed book ‘Bad Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre are examples why this might be true. Besides informal peer review and guidance, an extended system of checks and balances, GCP or not, might help to keep colleagues accountable for their work. Science in itself is a system of checks and balances, but this system might be expanded with some form of regulation and standardization with efficacy and efficiency kept in mind. But most of all, now is the time train the young.

– update on 25/3/2013: an interview with both JvdB and FM was published in the NTVG. Together with the editor-in-chief they discuss performing research, obtaining a PhD and publishing your results. click here for the pdf (NTVG website, in Dutch)