Meet the scientist with an eye for problematic research papers

By on August 10, 2022 0

Microbiologist-turned-integrity expert Dr. Elisabeth Bik makes a point of keeping tabs on the scientific community, watching for plagiarism, research misconduct, and lack of proper evidence.

At the onset of Covid-19, it quickly became clear that this was a science communication crisis as well as a public health crisis.

Misinformation was – and still is – everywhere and scientists have had to scramble to disprove some information released into the public domain. And it was far from a new problem.

From the climate emergency to the danger of harmful chemicals, scientists had to hone their communication skills for years in order to get people to see the truth of the science they were presenting.

But there’s another layer to this, which is that science has to be trustworthy to begin with. This is where Dutch scientific integrity expert Dr. Elisabeth Bik comes in.

Bik is known for her work detecting manipulation of photos in scientific publications and identifying more than 4,000 potential cases of improper research conduct.

In 2021, she received the John Maddox Award for outstanding work exposing widespread threats to research integrity in scientific articles.

“I started this work in 2013 when I read about scientific misconduct and plagiarism,” she told SiliconRepublic.com.

“Just for fun, I put a sentence from a review article I had written myself in Google Scholar, in quotation marks. Luckily, other authors had stolen my sentence and used it in another article. This made me quite angry and I decided to scan more papers for plagiarism.

“I scan the literature for duplicate or possibly photoshopped images in biomedical articles”
– ELIZABETH BIK

Bik’s scientific career began in microbiology, which may have laid the foundation for what she described as an “uncanny talent for recognizing western blots.” A western blot is a laboratory method used to detect specific protein molecules among a mixture of proteins.

“While working on a doctoral thesis containing plagiarized text, I noticed a western blot with a particular stain that had also been used in other figures but representing different experiences.”

Bik started scanning biomedical papers for image duplications, within or between papers, in 2014.

“Since I still had a day job at that time, I was only looking for weekends and evenings. In 2019, I decided to do this job full time. Most of my work involves duplicate images and papers made by paper mills, but I occasionally encounter other issues, such as implausible table data, lack of ethical approval, or conflicts of interest.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bik was the subject of international attention when she questioned the methodology of an article who claimed that hydroxychloroquine was effective in treating the virus.

In 2020, Bik and several other forensic detectives also identified more than 400 scientific papers with potentially fabricated imagesthat they think comes from a single source.

More recently, he was asked to participate in a survey on potential fabrication in dozens of articles on Alzheimer’s disease.

“I occasionally work as a consultant for institutions and scientific publishers to investigate allegations of research misconduct or to help develop policies and guidelines, but most of the work I do is not unpaid,” she explained.

“I scan the literature for duplicate or possibly photoshopped images in biomedical articles, and report my findings to journals and online, at PubPeer.com.”

Bik said most of her discoveries came from advice she received via Twitter or email. It also digitizes articles from authors who have already written articles with potential problems. “I mostly scan with the naked eye, but increasingly use software to help me find overlapping or overlapping figures.”

Threats to Scientific Integrity

The need to trust science has arguably become more important than ever in recent years and bad actors such as paper mills make fake science is an undeniable problem.

“These are companies that sell fully manufactured papers to authors who need them for their careers. They are an endemic problem in countries like Russia or China, where there are strict requirements and financial incentives for scientists or doctors to publish papers,” Bik said.

“Along with several other scientific ‘sleuths’, we have already identified thousands of these papers, all of which have passed peer review and been published.”

Apart from these paper mills, Bik identified two other problems within the scientific community itself, the first being the pressure to publish.

“The more a scientist publishes, the brighter his career will be and the more grants he will receive. There is so much emphasis on quantity and publishing positive results that it can be tempting to invent results to get more and better publications,” she said.

Another challenge to scientific integrity is “the inertia of scientific publishers and academic institutions” to address concerns raised about data in scientific articles.

“It often takes years for articles to be corrected or withdrawn, or for an institution to complete its investigations. And often, institutions will come to the conclusion that no wrongdoing was found, even if some images are clearly retouched,” she said.

“These types of investigations are often not without conflicts of interest, with journals reluctant to retract a paper they had previously published, and institutions reluctant to admit that one of their star researchers has done fraudulent work. .”

Fight misinformation

Bik also addressed the rise of misinformation that has become more prevalent during Covid-19 as well as a rise in distrust of science.

“Some of this is understandable, because science is not able to give quick answers to new problems, like the Covid-19 virus. On the contrary, as others have already pointed out, science is a process, and it sometimes reports conflicting results,” she said.

“The general public might find it difficult to understand these seemingly contradictory reports and I understand that some people have lost their trust. Unfortunately, with social media and TV talk shows, minority opinions and conspiracy theories can quickly grow and be seen as a reasonable alternative to scientific findings.

And while some may argue that the scientific community as a whole needs to change communication approaches, Bik said it’s important to recognize the challenges and hostility that scientists can face.

“Many scientists and health professionals were very communicative and provided the general public with quality and accessible information,” she said.

“But unfortunately they were met online hostility and personal threats, especially women and people of color. This made other scientists more reluctant to communicate. So I don’t think the scientists are necessarily at fault here, but the heightened rudeness and short fuses of the public.

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