When Sholto David left his job last fall, he could have looked for another position, taken time to travel, or grabbed his tent and hopped on his bike. But David, a biologist living in Pontypridd, Wales, has devoted his efforts to a somewhat obscure hobby: finding flaws in scientific papers and doing his best to rectify them.
The work, David says, is largely thankless. Scholars were often defensive about his studies or refused to respond to his criticisms. The newspaper’s editors took a similar approach, ignoring his letters, rejecting them, or investigating near glacial deadlines.
But then came an announcement. Last week, one of the most prestigious cancer centers in the United States, the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said it was seeking to retract six research articles and correct 31 others after David expressed his concerns in a blog on dozens of his studies. Many have been led by senior staff of the institute.
Of the other documents David pointed out, Dr. Barrett Rollins, head of integrity research at Dana-Farber, said one was still under investigation and three did not require no further action. Sixteen contained data generated in other laboratories and, where possible, those responsible for these laboratories were contacted. “We will work with them to ensure that they correct the literature as warranted,” he said.
The move came as a “major surprise,” David said. “To the credit of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I am obviously happy that they are making the corrections and retractions. But at the same time, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Most of the time, it just doesn’t happen. People ignore you, institutions insist it takes years to investigate, and newspapers drag their feet at every opportunity.
According to Rollins, following the standard practice of “reviewing any potential data errors and making corrections where warranted,” the institute had already taken “prompt and decisive action” in 97 percent of the cases reported by David where his scientists were the main authors. Rollins himself authored some of the reported articles and has been recused from any relevant investigations.
David, who holds a PhD in molecular biology at Newcastle University, has long been fascinated by the flaws in science. He began by finding errors in systematic reviews, meta-analyses and clinical trials, which he reported to the responsible scientists and the journals that published them. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, he turned to publishing on PubPeera website where scientists can comment on published articles.
It has become more than a hobby. The biologist reported about 2,000 articles on PubPeer, most due to concerns about possible image manipulation. At first, he identified cases by eye, looking for duplications and questionable manipulations that stretched images, cropped specific elements, or assembled parts. It now has help from Imagetwin, an AI-powered software that compares images with a database of more than 25 million images published in open access journals.
“A lot of it is due to neglect and I think people have higher expectations,” David said. “When people think about science, when they donate to science and to cancer campaigns, they expect the scientists doing this research to have high standards and to be very careful in what they do. they do. »
The wave of retractions and corrections follows a big project in 2021 which found that researchers could replicate results from only half of the major preclinical cancer studies they reviewed. In many cases, when the experiments were repeated, the positive results were much smaller than initially reported. “Part of this may be that the work being done is not of high quality,” David said. “All of this ends up resulting in a lack of reproducibility.”
David did not allege wrongdoing and stressed that he did not want to create an environment in which scientists felt harassed or terrified of publishing. But he also said the repeated errors were troubling.
“How many mistakes are acceptable before you think something more worrying is happening?” ” he said. “If you go through a lot of papers, you’ll find mistakes, but there has to be, at some point, a limit to how many sloppy mistakes you make before it’s something else, before it’s not something you you can dismiss as an honest mistake.”
Rollins said: “The presence of image discrepancies in an article is not evidence of an author’s intent to deceive. This conclusion can only be drawn after careful and factual examination, which is an integral part of our response. Our experience shows that errors are often unintentional and do not constitute misconduct.
As for David, he plans to return to more conventional work in a year or two. “I’m just spending some savings,” he said. “Maybe this year I’ll travel a little. I look well off, but I’m not. I’m just spending my meager savings and the rent is cheap here.