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It's not that Clare Francis is a pseudonym; it's that the pseudonym is Clare Francis

Anonymous whistleblowers can be helpful, but does it matter how they blow the whistle? Here’s what Nature and Elsevier say

Nature magazine recently published an excellent article on the art of whistleblowing in science: “Research ethics: 3 ways to blow the whistle.”

Reporting suspicions of scientific fraud is rarely easy, but some paths are more effective than others. In this article, they analyzed the effectiveness of three techniques commonly used by individuals to report suspicions of scientific fraud, including anonymity.

One individual working under the pseudonym “Clare Francis” uses this method and has flagged hundreds of suspected cases of potential fraud since 2010. The authors report:
Anonymous tipsters are nothing new. But since 2010, someone going by the pseudonym 'Clare Francis' has seriously upped the ante. She or he (or they; many suspect it is a group of people) has sent hundreds of e-mails to life-science journal editors, flagging up suspected cases of plagiarism or instances in which figures appear to be manipulated or duplicated. Her terse, sometimes cryptic complaints have resulted in a handful of retractions and corrections, but editors have felt bombarded by her voluminous notices — many of which, they say, lead nowhere.
Tom Reller
Like her or not, Francis has sparked a debate about how editors deal with anonymous tips, which are now poised to grow thanks to the proliferation of websites that allow anyone to publicly air grievances about research papers.
 
We at Elsevier have a fair amount of experience with Clare and have discussed his requests and our recommended approach to responding to them frequently (Clare is a ‘He’ by the way, according to Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch). So when Nature reporter Richard Van Noorden asked us a series of questions, we were happy to respond. We were asked not just about Clare but the broader topic of anonymous whistleblowing. Given space constraints, Richard obviously couldn’t include more than a quote, (this article’s headline), but you can read the full dialogue below.

What my quote meant to convey is that there is absolutely a role for anonymous whistleblowers in science today, but there is also something to be said about how they go about it. Read below to learn more.

Generally speaking, Clare was rather disruptive at first, but by now most editors and publishing teams have an approach in place when it comes to managing Clare’s demands and threats. Clare’s emails are read and assessed, but they’ve set boundaries in regard to what kinds of cases they’ll investigate, how far back, and how many papers they’ll look into before deciding if it’s warranted to go any further. (Many cases will require cross referencing one piece of original research with 5, 10 or more suspected papers to plagiarize it). Clare’s frequent cc’ing of emails to Nature, The New York Times and other media were unsettling at first, but are no longer much of a concern.

Following are my email responses to the Nature reporter's questions:

What’s the ‘hit’ rate – in terms of queries that lead to some kind of correction, or retraction?

Most of the accusations appear to be derived from the déjà vu database. There have indeed been some correct accusations that have led to retractions but they are mostly false positives.

Does the fact that Clare Francis is a pseudonym make a difference to how you perceive the allegations? Are there other factors affecting how you react? (For example, tone of email, specificity of concerns, success rate in previous emails).

[pullquote align="right"]It's not that Clare Francis is a pseudonym; it’s that the pseudonym is Clare Francis.[/pullquote]

For some, it’s not that Clare Francis is a pseudonym; it’s that the pseudonym is Clare Francis. Editors and publishers are as interested in cleaning up the scientific record as anyone, but like any other facet of life, there’s something to be said about how you work with or make requests of people. For example, I don’t think repeated threats to expose people’s names to the media every time they disagree with the interpretation of a particular case helps Clare’s cause.


And some actually question the classification of Clare as a whistle-blower, if you believe the term ‘whistleblower’ suggests someone who reveals confidential knowledge or information. Clare’s accusations are essentially the product of running a software application over publicly available articles. She’s not really providing intelligence, just pointing out flaws in the record, so we’d prefer to spend our time with people telling us things about the scientific record we can’t otherwise know.

Many of Clare Francis’ queries are about quite old papers – does it make a difference when you’re handling issues that arose, say, more than 10 years ago?

Some journals have indeed set limits for how far back they’ll look, and the length of time is usually contingent upon how well-cited the older research in that field is. The problem is that the older a case, the harder it is to find out what really happened. In most cases, it is crucial to get the input of the different parties involved, and that may be hard. Authors have moved on, or in some cases, passed away. Some crucial correspondence might not be available anymore. Also, since the start of the electronic age, there is so much more evidence available at the click of a button, so those more recent cases tend to get more attention.

Another problem with going back too far into the print-only era, is that some publishing practices have changed in recent years, especially around text reuse or self-plagiarism. For example, a pre-electronic author writing for a print title might have been more inclined to produce longer versions of earlier work, for instance as review papers. That’s less acceptable now with the enhanced access afforded by electronic platforms and the internet. 

Still, journals tend to look into as many queries as they can at first, regardless of far back they go, then they start to set an approach for moving forward based on the results of the initial reviews.

Is Clare Francis usually satisfied with the way you handle queries (I’ve been cc’d in on email conversations where the threads go on and on, even after something has been checked out)?

That obviously varies. There are times Clare has pointed out something that’s legitimate, and worth addressing, upon which we’ve acted and repaired the record. So some email threads do end, but other times we have to tell Clare we’re simply done investigating a particular case. 

Do you perceive that anonymous queries on papers are increasing, relative to comments from named persons? (I mean in emails to editors, rather than comments online which are very often anonymous).

They are increasing in absolute terms, but we don’t know if that’s true on a percentage basis, as there is an increase in queries overall, due in part to the increase in readership coupled with more fierce competition for tenure and grants. 

I’d agree there’s a perception that anonymous inquiries are increasing, because they can be more frustrating and time consuming to deal with, so people talk about them more.

Do you prefer allegations/concerns about papers to come from people who disclose their identity, rather than from pseudonymous/anonymous whistle-blowers? 

Sure, they’re preferred, though not required. Most scientists deal in relatively close communities and are either aware, or can check anyone’s respective reputation and record. And since so many of these cases are subjective, it helps to know whom all the people involved are, including the whistle-blower. Everyone is focused on spending their time effectively so that we can have the greatest positive impact on improving the record, so the more time that’s spent discussing what’s wrong about the science, versus what’s unknown about the personalities involved, is desired.

Any time spent on trying to figure out who the whistle-blower is and what their particular motivation is time that can be better spent. Normally, when you know the name of the scientist raising the concern, you know their reputation, credibility, and often, their objective, so you have a more clear sense of what the right thing to do is.

Of course, if someone is pointing out a simple, straight forward problem, like an incorrect image in a paper, it doesn’t matter who spotted it. But more ethical cases tend to be complex and more often than not, further communication is needed to uncover all relevant details. In this process the identity of the complainant may need to be revealed. There is also the legal angle, in that if lawyers get involved, it is often seen as harming the rights of the accused if a complainant does not reveal himself.

Many allegations come from serious people who are genuinely concerned for the integrity of science. I believe that is true with the majority of cases but there are people who have different, more personal motives.

Do you have a particular policy on how to deal with anonymous reports, such as asking for names to be revealed confidentially?  

Elsevier doesn’t have any policy that requires a name to be revealed in order for an initial action to be taken. That runs counter to what COPE and Elsevier recommend. The initial assessment will always be based on the merits of the evidence presented. 

How would you recommend a whistle-blower raise concerns to you if they are worried about disclosing their identity?

[pullquote align="right"]The ‘how’ they come to a journal doesn’t really matter; it’s the information that matters first and foremost.[/pullquote]

There are times when there are perfectly legitimate reasons for not disclosing one’s identity. For example, maybe a PI wants an editor to know something about their professor, and disclosing their name poses a risk to their career. Maybe the professor is on the Journal’s editorial board. The ‘how’ they come to a journal doesn’t really matter; it’s the information that matters first and foremost.

When we receive a complaint we look first and foremost at how serious and how specific the complaint is. The complaints we take most seriously are those that mention specific problems in detail, and that do not sound as if they’re driven by personal feuds. If well-founded complaints come from anonymous sources, it will not make a difference in how we treat the case. We suggest the whistle-blower simply contact the Editor or the Publisher directly and explain the reasons for their concern.

Do you think there is a good way and a bad way to be a whistle-blower, in terms of  getting your concerns noticed and dealt with?

[pullquote align="right"]The successful examples I’ve seen are when the whistle-blower focused on the science, and not motivations, agendas, vendettas or threats. The information should be presented much like a scientific paper is, it should be clear, well researched, maybe include a methodology and a very specific request.[/pullquote]

The successful examples I’ve seen are when the whistle-blower focused on the science, and not motivations, agendas, vendettas or threats. The information should be presented much like a scientific paper is, it should be clear, well researched, maybe include a methodology and a very specific request. 

The bad way, for sure, is to make complaints that are personal, unclear, irrelevant and the like. We received one complaint stating that an author had not appointed him to the organizing committee of a conference, and that this proved his malicious intent towards the complainant. ‘Good’ complaints contain facts and are objective. 

At other times we receive long emails about an author’s supposedly malicious character, with a publishing-related complaint eventually discussed near the end. We prefer not to know too much background, in order not to cloud our judgment, but sometimes it is enlightening. For example, once we received several spiteful, but unfounded attacks on a particular group of scientists. As it turns out, the complainant had been fired for misconduct at his university and consequently directed his energy to discrediting his former peers. 

Sometimes we’ll also receive a message with just the title of an article and the instruction ‘Investigate!’ That might not get the highest priority. 

We always encourage those with concerns about scientific practice to work with their local University authorities in the first instance. As a publisher, we can only deal with matters regarding our journals. We are receiving complaints from people claiming to be treated unfairly at their university by certain authors but these are not matters we can address. 

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Elsevier Connect Author

As VP and Head of Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier, Tom Reller (@TomReller) leads a global team of media, social and web communicators for the world's largest provider of scientific, technical and medical (STM) information products and services. Together, they work to build on Elsevier's reputation by promoting the company's numerous contributions to the health and science communities, many of which are brought to life in our new online community and information resource: Elsevier Connect.

Reller directs strategy, execution and problem-solving for external corporate communications, including media relations, issues management and policy communications, and acts as a central communications counsel and resource for Elsevier senior management. Additionally, he develops and nurtures external corporate/institutional relationships that broaden Elsevier's influence and generate good will, including partnerships developed through the Elsevier Foundation.



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1 Archived Comment

Helene Z Hill December 6, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Well, I am not anonymous but no one listens to me, either. Just visit my website: www.helenezhill.com if you want to see how one whistleblower gets the runaround. And my colleagues look the other way when they pass me in the hall. And btw Elsevier is the publisher of Micron which published one of the papers that I believe is based on fabricated data. I challenged it in July, 2013, and so far, the paper still stands.



The quixotic one, Helene Z Hill, PhD

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