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Friday, November 18, 2011

500 Papers

Retraction Watch posted the story yesterday of Dr. Don Polderman who was fired from Erasmus University in Rotterdam for scientific misconduct. He studied the risk of complications during cardio-vascular surgery. According to the DutchNews website, "In particular, he failed to obtain patient consent for carrying out research and recorded results ‘which cannot be resolved to patient information."

Having a forum like Retraction Watch allows for a conversation that doesn't always take place among people interested in science. We know people cheat. We know all of us are prone to fooling ourselves. What a forum such as Retraction Watch does is provide a journalistic approach to the fallout of being wrong. You might be purposely wrong or accidentally wrong. Being wrong however is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact finding out that you were wrong is how some of us learn. The greater our concern over right and wrong, the greater our desire is to understand why something is true or false. Retraction Watch opens up room for a conversation on the way in which scientists communicate (publish their work) and how flawed the system can be.

Our analogy of the Cargo Cults provides another way of looking at modern science. We like the philosophy of right and wrong and how subjective the two can be among mere mortals. Let's take two of the four comments currently up on Retraction Watch's story on Dr. Polderman.

Polderman has “some 500 publications to his name”; does that number, 500, alone incite incredulity? A vast undertaking would be to review all of those publications to determine just how unique and how reliable was each study. Conrad Seitz M.D.

It’s a culture in clinical medicine to just look at the quantity, not the quality. You need to get more than 15 publication/year in order to reach 500 in a 30 year career span and this is a theoretically impossible task if you’re doing real science. Jey

These two concerned scientific people seem to be at odds in their philosophy. Dr. Seitz suggests that the quantity of publications is not important. He suggests reviewing each paper. Jey suggests that 500 papers in 30 years is too good to be true. Looking at the quantity of publications versus the quality of them seems to be a part of the culture of success in clinical medicine.

When I was a boy in Boy Scouts we had a contest of who could hold their breath the longest. The winner went about 4 minutes. Of course the winner and everyone who made it past the first minute were cheating. We didn't really need to follow each boy scout to see when they took in a fresh lung full of air. We didn't need to hold a mirror under every kids nose to see if they were breathing. We knew that the max of holding ones breath lasts about a minute. Jey is very astute in his observation regarding the number of papers Dr. Polderman has his name on. Jey goes on to say "Only possibility I can think of is that everyone in the building have been putting his name as a co-author. It’s even difficult to make up over 15 papers/year".

It is very difficult to take a single paper and reproduce the entire set of experiments and come to the same conclusion as the lead author. The list of authors on a paper haven't even taken the time to verify (in the lab) what is being reported. Therefore Dr. Seitz has proposed a far more difficult way of resolving this situation. Rather it would be of some value to assess the main thrust of what Dr. Polderman has put forth for the medical profession and to first look into the papers that support those ideas. Along the way perhaps a pattern will emerge that will lead us to pull out other papers that may contain false information.

The fact of the matter remains, a successful doctor/scientist has been caught cheating once again. As Jey pointed out, one would have to publish 15 papers a year. In 2001 Jan Hendrik Schon of the infamous Schon Scandal was listed as an author on an average of one newly published research paper every eight days. A pattern is thus already apparent for scientists. The quantity of ones publications may be inversely correlated to the quality.

I have my name, as an author, on a paper that was "published" in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. In fact, that paper is listed as a paid advertisement.
The costs of publication of this article were defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. This article must therefore be hereby marked “advertisement” in accordance with 18 U.S.C. Section 1734 solely to indicate this fact.
Other than that paragraph, the paper looks like a normal peer reviewed article. It is listed on the authors resumes. I did the work, my supervisor wrote the paper, our CSO signed off on it and a couple others got their names on it as well. And of course it is part of the art of deception.

Those who work inside the laboratories are usually too young, scared and otherwise unfit to take on the likes of a powerful doctor such as Dr. Polderman. It takes a lot to correct someone who has captured the attention of the scientific community. My thanks go out to Retraction Watch for the valuable service they are providing to help shine a light on the dark side of science. We, who have worked or currently work inside the laboratories know all about the pressure to obtain publishable results. It is the Cargo Cult Culture. It is not important whether or not the planes land. Our careers present a conflict of interest in the pursuit of the truth.

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