Profitable reviews: Nature Immunology defends reviews.

In one of my previous rantings (Click here), I wrote about how journals publish reviews to improve their impact factor. Now, in the recent issue of Nature Immunology (Click here for link), the editorial acquiesces:

“Because they are highly cited (on average, a review article is cited almost twice as often as a research paper), they help boost the impact factor of the journal.”

What the editorial does not mention is the trend that some glossy journals have adopted to publish special issues that predominantly contain reviews.

It also does not take into account the harm done by ‘expert reviews’ where an interpretation or speculation by an expert is perpetuated in the scientific literature as scientific facts. However, I would agree that scientists are responsible for testing the veracity of these ‘facts’, not the journals.

Author ranking system: ‘Impact factor’ of the last author.

AuthorshipWe all know that there is a very little room at the first author position on any scientific paper.  There can only be one name.  Even if two researchers equally contributed to the paper, only one name will appear at the front end of the author list.  According to the current convention, the other equal contributing author cannot put his name at front even on his own resume.  That’s a bummer!

Consider another scenario;  a young researcher who is the major contributor to the paper is on the way to become an independent researcher.  He writes the manuscript and has to decide the author list.  Whom should he put as first author? And the last author? Although there are collaborating scientists, their contribution is too small to grant first authorship.  In this case, the researcher takes the first authorship and also declares himself the corresponding author.  Problem solved!  Not exactly!  This researcher just lost a major point in becoming an expert in his field.

Both these cases illustrate an existing problem of author ranking in a paper.  It is a lesser known fact of scientific publication that funding agencies (including NIH), journals, and often the hiring authorities use softwares to rank the ‘impact factor’ of authors in a publication.  NIH uses such softwares to determine who are the experts in a research field.  These ‘experts’ are then invited to the study sections for reviewing grant applications.  Journals use these softwares to decide who could be potential reviewers for the manuscripts.

On the surface, the idea sounds reasonable.  However, there is a serious flaw in this reliance on softwares to select ‘experts’.  These softwares are mostly primitive and are not designed to rank contribution in multi-author papers.  They are highly biased towards the ‘senior author’  which they determine only by one criterion- the last position on the author list.  Selecting experts based on such faulty method may have ridiculous consequences.

Recently, a well established journal requested a newly minted postdoc to review a research manuscript.  The postdoc was thrilled by this opportunity and took the challenge.  However, we learnt that the scope and content of the manuscript was clearly beyond his expertise.  I don’t know what happened to the manuscript but I am glad to think that there are safeguards against such anomalies.  I must clarify that I am not against inviting new researchers to participate and contribute in the functioning of the scientific community.  However, this should be done with a deliberate choice by program officers and journal editors. It should not happen by mistake. Otherwise it will erode the confidence in validity of the process.

In case you are curious, a current ranking system used by the NIH, for example, gives highest score to the author whose name appears last on a paper.  The software considers the last author as senior author.  The next highest score goes to the first author.  Finally, it does not matter where your name is between the first and the last author, the software assigns you the same low score for ‘contributing authors’.

I see an irony here.  Traditionally, the last author is the senior author who directs the project and in most cases provides funding and laboratory space for the scientific work.  If you want to find out the experts, let common sense prevail- a simple Pubmed search should suffice.  Why do we need technological voodoo to assign complex scoring system to discover the known?

Scientific misconduct debate: The idea is getting traction.

We have all wondered about the debate over scientific misconduct and the utter lack of accountability demanded by the ‘system’. Earlier, I have written on this blog (Click here) that the privilege of using enormous amounts of public funds requires accountability from the scientists. Now, in the current issue of EMBO Reports, this idea has been featured by one of their editors (Click here). In addition, the journal commissioned at least three articles addressing different but related aspects of the rampant issues in contemporary scientific research.
Journals should not only concern themselves with the quality and validity of hypotheses, theories and data but they should also discuss how to improve the socio-economic framework of scientific research.  Discussing the ‘bread and butter’ issues of research are equally, if not more, important than vague policy matters.   At this point I should say that since the days of Frank Gannon as the editor of EMBO Reports, the journal has commendably highlighted the concerns of researchers.  Through advocacy of good research practices, the public trust can be won to improve funding.

Impact Factor: Who are you bullshitting?

At the lunch table, I was thinking of an experiment when my attention turned to a colleague whose paper was recently rejected by a medium caliber (read impact factor) journal and his supervisor had dissuaded him from addressing the reviewers’ mean questions.  Instead, he was gently cajoled into submitting his paper to a new open-access online journal.  Despite the old adage that good things in the nature are free, he was unconvinced of the value of publishing in an open-access journal.  That only tells how much we are used to scientific journals’ policy of charging authors to ‘defray the cost of publication’.  In any other field, authors are paid when they publish. My colleague, probably smarting from the scathing verbiage of the ‘behind the curtain’ reviewers, was unimpressed and unconvinced, and skeptical about the quality of the open-access online journal.

My colleague is not alone in his quest of collecting impact factor points.  Every scientist, at least in biomedical research, is worried about the impact factor of the papers published.  Many have figured out complex algorithms as to which impact factor zone they should reside to keep their research lab afloat. The impact factor frenzy has generated a class system in science where publication in a journal with the glossiest cover page has become the ultimate goal of scientists. It also helps the supervisors as a carrot to dangle in front of their postdocs, ‘if you perform fifty experiments in a day, with a 24/7 attitude, you will get your paper published in the Cosmopolitan or Vogue of science world’.

Ever wondered why the movie The Devil Wears Prada appeared eerily familiar to the postdocs?  The only difference was that the Devil’s minion gets to wear glitzy clothes and gives away fabulous Bang & Olufsen phone;  most postdocs cannot even spell that name.

The impact factor sickness has not only caught scientists, it has also affected the morale of major hardcore science journals. Just in case you forgot, there are roughly two categories of science journals;  first, journals that are published by scientific societies and most of their scientific matters of soliciting, reviewing, and editing is done by real working scientists.  Second, those journals that are run by publishing powerhouses who pluck away energetic hotshot postdocs as editors to their ritzy offices to run the business of scientific publishing.

The impact factor is determined by a commercial arm of a major publishing conglomerate whose non-scientific methods of assigning impact factors generated brouhaha among the Rockefeller Press journals.  These journals were assigned low impact factor despite being darlings of a cross-section of research community.  Probably, the failure to attract good papers and loss of revenue led them to publish a syndicated editorial challenging and ridiculing the impact factor system (Click here).  Their arguments were cogent and the language was bold and challenging.  It is not clear how, but their impact factor did improve. However, after they gained the impact factor, their campaign against impact factor disparity fizzled. Publishers are not the only one who benefit from impact factor inflation.

Impact factor is a crutch that is most often used by impotent, unimaginative and incompetent committees in academic institutions for recruitment, promotions, and fiscal matters. Notice that I showered the adjectives on committees, not the members of the committees, who are generally intelligent people (including me).  Overworked, unappreciated, and sometimes lazy and indifferent members of a committee do not want to be held responsible for making a decision.  Therefore, they rely on impact factor to show their ‘objectivity’.  If they hire a new faculty member who later turns out to be a complete jerk in the department, they can easily blame it on the impact factor of his publication which led to his recruitment.  Had they selected him on the basis of their ‘judgement’, they would be scoffed at by their peers and colleagues.

So, once you begin to equate impact factor as being objective index of productivity, smartness, intelligence, and innovation, you have unleashed a monster that is going to take over the part of the system that traditionally relied on competing interests.  Grant reviewers and paper reviewers can now exercise more arbitrary control over the decision-making without appearing to be unfair.  They can veto the impact factor invoking their experience and judgement.  Essentially, the reviewers are manipulating the system in their favor.

One may argue that eventually, the system will be ‘normalized’ so that no one will be clearly at an undue advantage.  The truth is that it is the same old bullshit with the added objectivity armor of the impact factor.

In case you wondered how some journals achieve high impact factor, it is quite revealing to notice that the Annual Reviews series have some of the highest impact factor.  Wow!!  You would have thought that real research papers should be the winners.  Apparently not!  And there lies the trick.  Most high impact journals are highly cited not because of their published research papers but because of the review articles.  It is not their altruism that glitzy journals are happy to let you download artistic slides for your PowerPoint presentations.

Although it is a great business plan to target lazy scientists who don’t want to do their own legwork of literature review, there is another reason for using review articles to boost impact factor. Many shrewd scientists like to cite reviews published in the high impact factor journals in their grant proposals and research papers upfront.  This way a lazy reviewer can be convinced that because the topic was reviewed in a high impact journal, it must be of great importance.

When I was a new postdoc, I learnt a valuable lesson in assessing the scientific caliber of a scientist.  My research advisor was a soft-spoken, astute scientist with an incisive vision. He showed me how he judged the quality and productivity of a faculty candidate from his Curriculum vitae.

1.  Throw out all reviews, he (or she) has listed.
2.  Take away all papers where authorship is beyond the second author (or senior author).
3.  Trash all conferences and posters presented.
4.  Look at how regularly papers have been published and how good they are.  Yes, use your judgement.  A good paper does not need any assistance, you will know when you see it (at least in the area of research close to you).

I think I agree with his style of assessment rather than the bullshit of impact factor.  Won’t you agree?

Technician or Postdoc?

Postdocs are the slaves of the modern ‘Science Plantations’.  If you look carefully, some cases of horrible treatments of the postdocs may just qualify to be the cases of human trafficking. Strong horrifying words? You betcha!

There used to be a time when postdoc-ing was done only to finish an unfinished business of a project or to get highly desirable additional training to conduct independent research.  Not anymore!

Postdocs are the workhorses of the modern labs.  Given a choice, a scientist with his own lab will hire a postdoc rather than a technician.  Why?  Read the first line-  a postdoc is a virtual slave.

  1. A technician will work 8 to 5;  a postdoc will practically live in the lab.
  2. A technician has a life outside the lab; a postdoc has never seen life, neither here nor in his own country.
  3. A technician’s rights are protected by the institution and government’s labor laws; who gives a fuck to the postdoc?
  4. A technician will do research only if you have a brain to tell him what to do; a postdoc will bust his ass to find a new project even if you are a dud.
  5. A technician observes weekends and holidays; a postdoc will be tormented by the guilt of holidays.
  6. You tell a technician about the virtues of scientific tempo and most likely he will give you the middle finger;  you can make the postdoc cry in shame by telling him that he is not up to the snuff.
  7. You ask a technician to work harder and you will see the bird flipped up again;  a postdoc will kowtow to you because you got the power of writing the reference letter for him.
  8. You cannot threaten a technician about the pending immigration visa;  you can manipulate the postdoc’s entire life by dangling the visa/immigration/green card in front.
  9. You have to pay a technician a salary that is defined by the institution/labor law; you pay what you think is ‘commensurate with experience’ to the postdoc, and if you are a real asshole, you can make the postdoc even work for free in your lab as a volunteer.
  10. A technician will only do what a job description is; you can make postdoc do any dirty job in the lab or, if you are a scum bag, even your dirty laundry at home.
  11. You cannot easily find a good technician who can do the job right; you can find hundreds of mail-order postdocs simply by placing a 10 dollar advertisement in Science magazine.

So, what do you want?  A technician or a postdoc?

Should Scientific Misconduct be Criminalized?

It has been a while since the last post.  It was not a ‘mysterious disappearance’.  No, I have not been manhandled or killed.  Not yet.

I noticed an article (click here) that some vigilante group has been sending accusatory notices targeting stem-cell researchers of their wrongdoings.  This has rattled the researchers and the publishers alike.

Well, if you look at it, the business of science has been given a lot of freedom to operate, and enormous amounts of trust has been put into scientists’ integrity, when it comes to their conduct.

Scientists obtain sumptuous chunk of money from the exchequer and when bad things happen, they simply say, “Oops!  We fucked!”  There are practically no consequences to their misdeeds.

Publishing a research paper is an enormous undertaking.  It not only takes time, money and collaborative effort of the authors involved,  but it also affects a huge number of researchers across the globe.

When someone produces and publishes fraudulent data in a major journal, it means years of work and at least a quarter million dollar worth of time and reagent go down the toilet.

Who pays for this?  People pay for this.  But, all the culprit gets is a slap on the wrist.  The culprits are told not to participate in any publicly funded program in any manner, and sometimes, the institution washes its hands with them. That’s it.  In fact, in most cases, the culprit returns to science to continue.

When a junior scientist publishes fraudulent results, it takes a while before the results could be verified by other researchers.  There is the ‘window of opportunity’ during which the junior scientist moves on to find a cushy job and by the time the fraud is exposed, he or she has obtained job security.  The senior scientist, on the other hand, has nothing to lose because he/she can blame the person who has already left the lab.  So it is convenient to everyone.

Anywhere else, one would be tried in a criminal court for such misappropriation of public funds and will likely be thrown in the prison, if the guilt is proven.  Not in science.

Why?  Because it is a ‘noble’ profession.  Scientists walk with an aura around them that rivals that of the angels.  Some even think that they are gods.

So, the question is, whether such misbehavior of the unscrupulous scientists be pardoned, or it should be consider a criminal act?  Only public can decide.

Scamming the Antibody.

Pick and choose.

Has anyone noticed that suddenly there is a mushrooming growth of companies offering antibodies. Anything you can think of, protein, DNA, acetylation, phosphorylation, methylation- nothing is sacred anymore. All the Nature’s secrets can be revealed by these antibodies.

In the antibody, the researchers have found a wonderful tool to snub that stupid reviewer who doubts their hypothesis that their favorite protein has a wonderful modification called ‘titillation’. If you isolate your favorite protein under inebriated conditions looking at the full moon through your laboratory window (only if you have a window in your lab), the protein gets titillated.  Hell, no one has any clue what this titillation of the protein does, but all you have to do is to buy an anti-titillation antibody supplied by the BigAss Biotech company and smear it on your immunoblot.

So what if more protein bands light up than are catalogued in the proteome database, you are on the front grille of the ‘omic’ discovery train.  How can the reviewer ever refute your meticulous selection of the protein band that runs at the right size. For God’s sake (yeah I mean God, the ultimate reviewer) you even stripped (hopefully the blot) and reprobed with another funky antibody to again select the correct size band.  And you also know that if in your Experimental Methods section you write ‘anti-titillation antibody was used (BigAss Biotech, Timbuktu) according to manufacturer’s protocol’, no one, even God, can question its validity.

With the advent of proteomics, the new surge of antibody selling companies is not surprising.  More research is done using antibodies.  But it is more so because selling antibodies is a lucrative business.  It is almost a scam.  There is a well-known antibody company that has earned its reputation and fortune by selling antibodies that do not work.  Yet, it has managed to stay in business for almost 20 years!

Others are not any better.  Another company pretends to support and promote science by sponsoring and organizing scientific conferences and symposia.  They also invite free review of their products by researchers and end-users.  Oh give me a break.  If the end-user had time, he or she would have written that paper they have been contemplating for months, or at least completed the laboratory notebook.

Well, there is another ploy, make antibodies to anything.  It is easy.  Search the database for proteins, find the cDNA sequence, produce recombinant protein in some kind of  biological system and inject the partially purified protein into your animal of choice.  Antibody will be produced in a few weeks.  Most of these companies do not do any testing or quality control.

If you ask the Technical Support of the company, they will offer you something like this, “buy our antibody and see if it works.  If it does not work, we will give you another antibody’.

No, thank you sir!  I am NOT going to test your lousy antibody at my expense!  How stupid I have to be with my MD, PhD degree to buy a product at inflated price with no guarantee, and to test it so that you could refer to my work and my endorsement to make a killing?

Diamond price based on

Did I say a killing?  Yes, I did.  Antibodies sell at a profit where DeBeers would look like the corner grocery store.  Apparently, they have got knuckleheads working for them in their planning division otherwise, they would quit the blood diamond business and dive into the real blood business of making antibodies.

Antibodies cost more than diamonds! Do your maths, baby!  An aliquot of 100 microgram (usual packing size) costs on average US$ 300!  A 1 carat diamond (1 carat= 200 mg) costs approximately 10,000 dollars.  Remember that the inflection point for the price rise in diamonds is at 1 carat size, so this is a generous comparison.  Now if you see, a diamond would cost you at a rate of 5 cents per microgram but an antibody will cost you about 3 US dollars per microgram! Now that is a killing if you consider that a Diamond is forever, but an antibody…?  Well, go figure!

Just because NIH gave you that money to spend, don’t spend on crap.  Demand the best and insist on quality control.  If they fail to do that, make your own antibody.  There are numerous vendors who will produce antibodies for you at a fraction of the purchase cost.  What are you scared of?  In the worst case, your titillation will go undetected.

Scientific misconduct: A prick-ly issue of gutless scientists.

Data forgery is a frikkin troublesome issue in scientific research.  It is the same story every time:  “The damned post-doc fucked up the data!  We are retracting the paper although so and so stands by his or her results.”

A lamentation recently appeared in a prominent science journal. A junior researcher in a scientist’s laboratory had fucked up some data that resulted in retraction of four papers and data from a few more paper are suspect. The writer was thankful that the prominent scientist’s image was not tarnished. Had it been, the author would have used spit to bring it to the original shine.

I mean come on, give me a break!  Don’t we have enough of this bullshit? Every time it happens, and it is happening a lot nowadays, an obituary of the paper is published and apology is issued for any inconvenience to the research community.  What about those other researchers who were genuinely working on a similar project and had contrary results?  Their bosses were whipping their rear ends for being incompetent and not being able to produce similar results as the pioneers.  They lost their credibility because some jerk happened to publish fake data.

And thank goodness the image of the senior scientist is not tarnished because it would be a bad press. (really?  who cares?) The big guy brings a lot of money to the institution  so that they can claim to have an internal investigation committee.

Don’t you think that the rot is a bit deeper?  How the hell two measly post-doc get away with four high profile papers with grafted data? Were they constantly providing data to fit the pet theory of the boss?  Was the jet-lagged senior scientist’s judgement obscured by the desire of giving a crushing blow to the competitor?

In politics, when someone screws up in a big way, the superior takes the responsibility of failure to oversee.  In science, it is all about the lowly post-doc’s mess.  The principal investigators, as they are called, drop the culprits like a hot potato. That is the easy way out.

Today, science has completely changed in its intensity, competition, and amount of money involved.  It is no more a recluse hobbyist’s muse.  With these changes have come the unwanted but expected problems.  Data forgery is one of them.  It is a big enough problem that the National Institute of Health, the largest scientific funding body in the world, has established an Office of Research Integrity that monitors these allegations.

Although there are many facets of this problem that involve the bench researcher, the institution, the scientific and technical journals and the research funding agency, still the senior scientists have to own their responsibility of directly or indirectly promoting data falsification and other scientific misconducts.  It is a prick-ly issue and it sure requires some guts to deal with.


And the Overlord said, “Go forth and inseminate the world…”

Oh No!  It was something like, “Go ahead and disseminate the knowledge among the herd of sheep.”