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The Excommunication of a Heretic

November 26, 2007 Biotechnology, Health, News, Science Media No Comments

by Roland Fischer

The article below is translated from an original article in the Swiss German-language newspaper WOZ

An unusual article was published in the September printed edition of the science magazine “Nature Biotechnology”. The editor of the magazine had arranged a sort of “triangular” interview. In one corner he had invited a Russian scientist to answer a few critical questions about her feeding study of GM soybeans. That was researcher Irina Ermakova, who had already presented her initial results at conferences, and who now gladly agreed to help. The study had created considerable controversy, since Ermakova had reported toxic effects on the offspring of laboratory rats, leading to stunted growth and low survival rates.

In another corner, prior to publication, Ermakova’s responses were submitted to four other researchers, allowing them total freedom to demonstrate to their satisfaction the shortcomings of her study. Their criticisms were printed, and even became the main part of the article. Ermakova was not given the opportunity to respond to their damning comments, and actually saw them in the final version of the text for the first time on the day when the issue was published. The editor was kind enough, on publication day, to send a PDF of the finished article to Ermakova.

A scientific journal’s publication route

Andrew Marshall, the editor of “Nature Biotechnology,” argues that there were “logistical reasons” for the manner in which Ermakova was treated. He claims that there would have been an endless back-and-forth dialogue if her criticisms before printing should have been permitted. That would have involved adjustments to the text, which in turn would have involved changes in the comments of her critics. “This has to stop somewhere,” said Marshall in justifying his action.

Where this “somewhere” lies, however, is entirely within the discretion of the editor. In the case of the Ermakova article he opted for the simplest variant and allowed no editorial exchange whatsoever. This is strange, especially for a scientific publication.

Usually scientific journals follow a meticulous process. A scientist who thinks he/she has discovered something remarkable follows a submission procedure according to strict formal rules. Experts are selected for the evaluation of a submitted paper. A referee can either flatly refuse to comment or, most commonly, make suggestions to the author for improvement. An author can prepare a revised version, which is then re-assessed and (possibly after further additional alterations) may be published or not, depending on referees’ recommendations. This so-called peer review system has its flaws (some promising results from direct competitors may be slowed down or rejected by partisan referees), but at least the mechanisms are transparent. The rules of the game are clear for all concerned.

The treatment of the Ermakova journal article was not remotely like this. It was a strange mix of interview and written examination. Indeed, in many scientific publications in recent years, the “journalistic part” has been enlarged. Because, for outsiders, journal articles are often about as exciting to read as meeting protocols, this is a move by “Nature Biotechnology” away from specialist science, with a view to enabling wider audience access. Marshall himself says that the Ermakova article presented him with a challenge. “We have never before published material with this format,” he says. Nevertheless, in conversation he repeatedly refers to “normal procedure” in order to justify his actions.

Speared by the critics

The fact that “Nature Biotechnology” has been in “uncharted waters” with this article is confirmed by Harvey Marcovitch, former editor of a scientific journal and now director of COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics), an organ of journal editors working mainly in the medical field. “This is a type of publication which I have never encountered,” says Marcovitch. In fact, while reading it he was struck by “some surprising things.” He is unwilling to speculate as to what exactly happened: “Either the Editor was experimenting with a new journalistic format, in which not everything went according to plan, or there was indeed something more sinister, a conspiracy or whatever one wants to call it.” As long as nothing could clearly indicate the latter, however, he prefers to think the former.

If you look more closely at the background to the publication of this article by “Nature Biotechnology”, however, doubts are raised about an innocent journalistic experiment. One thing is obvious: the article is anything but balanced. The supposed experts who reviewed Ermakova’s work hardly had a good word to say about her. And they were so intent upon “shooting the messenger” that they criticized aspects of her work on which they themselves had no expert knowledge. Marshall himself is forced to admit this. When asked whether the four would be acceptable as referees in a peer-review process, he replies evasively that for “some aspects” they might be included. But in practical questions about feeding studies or regarding animal physiology and toxicology all four referees should have had professional expertise. They had sought additional expertise, says Marshall. One can imagine where. Because the four men are not impartial or unknown. They are all well known as GM advocates, with a variety of relationships with industry.

How come that a publisher of a supposedly independent magazine managed to select four experts who were not exactly impartial? The answer is simple: he did not need to select them and did not even need to look, since the whole thing was the idea of the critics themselves. They had sent Marshall a message in the summer, and even proposed that they should attack Ermakova. Marshall tried to give a somewhat more balanced appearance to the feature article by not leaving the stage entirely to the critics; but he did not regard it as necessary to inform Ermakova about what was going on. To understand things from the perspective of an editor, this hot topic was too good to miss: but Ermakova has said herself that if everything had been transparent she would never have agreed to participate in the game .

“Nature Biotechnology” is now allowing the Russian researcher the possibility of replying to her critics in a subsequent number of the journal. Marcovitch finds this to be an unsatisfactory solution: “An author must always have the opportunity to respond to criticism, preferably in the same number.” Indeed, the publisher must accept the question why the Ermakova study results, which might not stand up to the rigorous scientific requirements of a peer review process and which might therefore not be published, were not simply ignored. Ermakova has never made a secret of the shortcomings of her studies, saying that she has always been open to suggestions for improvement. Due to her good faith, she was an appreciative and innocent victim for a “show trial”.

The response from the industry came immediately. In the newsletter “Inter Nutrition”, syndicated by the Swiss Federation of Genetic Engineering, the case of Ermakova was presented as an exemplary belly-flop by a research scientist who dared, without respectable results, to report something that might be damaging to GM food. The GM lobbyists couldn’t pass up this opportunity of destroying the credibility of all of their critics at a single stroke.

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