News & AnalysisImage Manipulation

Author of Popular Blog That Charged Fraud Unmasked

Science  11 Jan 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6116, pp. 132
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6116.132

She called herself the "fraudster," and offered up these biographical details: She was a tenured female scientist with "over 100 peer reviewed papers in the biomedical literature." And she was fed up with current systems to address scientific misconduct. Last summer, she launched www.science-fraud.org, an acerbic blog dedicated to unmasking such wrongdoing, which quickly gained thousands of fans. Thanks largely to tips from readers, the blog accused dozens of often prominent scientists of image manipulation in published papers, backing up claims with detailed analysis of figures.

Risky business.

Biologist Paul Brookes started his site, www.science-fraud.org, out of frustration with publication integrity.

CREDIT: WWW.SCIENCE-FRAUD.ORG

Last week, the fraudster's cover was blown and the site shut down. She turned out to be a he—Paul Brookes, a 40-year-old, highly respected mitochondrial biologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, who originally hails from the United Kingdom. The details of the unmasking remain murky. An accuser identified Brookes via e-mail to dozens of scientists and university administrators, including the president of Brookes's own university. In the e-mail, obtained by Science, the author, who appeared to have used an anonymous Gmail address, described science-fraud.org as a "hate website" and urged those named on it to file "an official legal suit."

Brookes confirmed on his personal blog that he was, indeed, the fraudster. He removed all content from science-fraud.org. He expressed a mix of defiance—"apparently anonymity is OK if you're inciting lawsuits but not if you're investigating scientific misconduct," Brookes wrote on science-fraud.org—and contrition. In an interview with Science, he admitted that his lumping all suspicious images under the rubric of fraud may have been a tactical error. He hunkered down, hoping Rochester wouldn't fire him and that he wouldn't be flooded with lawsuits. There are "100 plus people who can file suit against me," he told Science. None of those accused of misconduct on science-fraud.org whom Science contacted would comment.

Brookes's employer was not pleased to learn of his blog. "While we respect his right to free speech, we cannot condone the manner in which he raised these critically important questions," wrote Teri D'Agostino, a spokesperson for the medical center, in an e-mail. "We will immediately develop a plan with Dr. Brookes to ensure that he follows our policies for any University-related activity and that his personal activities continue to be kept entirely separate from his University role."

Many of Brookes's colleagues, who were unaware that Brookes was the anonymous critic, agree that although the blog may have gone too far, it tapped into a real problem—and that from what they knew of his character, Brookes had probably started it out of genuine concern and frustration. "This is not a person doing this because of anger and sour grapes," says Victor Darley-Usmar, a biochemist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who was Brookes's postdoctoral adviser. "He does very, very thorough work, very careful work," Darley-Usmar continues. "I've been proud to be associated with him."

Brookes says the impetus for science-fraud.org came from his own failed efforts to correct what he saw as discrepancies in published literature. Journals he contacted requested that he be named in accusations to the original authors. "That requires me to go on the record in my field accusing one of my peers of misconduct," he says. He considered that option a nonstarter.

With science-fraud.org, Brookes hoped to "speed up the process of resolution." He says he received tips from between 50 and 100 anonymous e-mail addresses, though a core group of about six people contacted him regularly. The tips generally listed the name of the paper and a description of the purported problem. Brookes then pulled the original paper from his university's library. Sometimes, he says, "I couldn't see what the person was talking about and I just wrote back politely and said, ‘Thanks, I don't see a problem.’ " But in other cases, he sided with the tipster and posted the case online for all to see.

By Brookes's count, science-fraud.org posted about 100 accusations. More than a dozen of those papers have been corrected or retracted. Still, Brookes may have opened himself up to charges of defamation with his presumptions that the scientists he named had committed fraud. "You've got someone who is publishing on a blog statements that are allegations of fact," meaning they are "provably true or provably false," says Katharine Larsen, an attorney at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whose focus is defamation and free speech. Furthermore, she says, although "there is a constitutional right in the first amendment to speak anonymously," that's balanced against other rights, such as the right of an aggrieved party to seek redress for an alleged injury.

There's no question that image modification is widespread—but gauging the intent behind it isn't always easy. The Journal of Cell Biology (JCB) has performed image analysis prepublication for just over a decade. One percent of papers have their acceptance revoked for inappropriate image manipulation. Another 25%, however, have at least one figure that's been modified in violation of JCB's rules—for example, by exaggerating contrast—but in a way that doesn't alter interpretation of the results. In those cases, the journal asks the authors to remake the figure or figures with a more accurate representation of the original data and then publishes the paper, says Mike Rossner, executive director of Rockefeller University Press, which publishes JCB.

While Brookes waits to see whether any lawsuits come his way, he's hoping to continue his efforts under his own name. He would still welcome anonymous tips. "Just because this site went away, the need for an anonymous postpublication peer review process is still there," he says.

Mike Murphy, a mitochondrial biologist at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, U.K., and a longtime collaborator, agrees. "It would be a terrible pity if a legal hammer was used to smash" Brookes's efforts, he says. "We can't just say science is self-correcting. There's a problem, and we really need to face up to it."

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