Sabotaging experiments and flat tires.

This week’s Science magazine carried a story (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24604172) about a postdoctoral fellow at Yale whose experiments were sabotaged by her fellow worker. As usual, there was some drama associated with the entire process of fault-finding and blames being thrown around but one interesting thing surfaced that this event was considered to be a laboratory prank, not a serious offense. The article goes-

“The complex case raises a host of questions about how to deal with sabotage, a type of misbehavior that some scientists believe is more common than the few known cases suggest. One key point of debate is whether ruining someone’s experiments should fall under the definition of research misconduct, which is usually restricted to fabricating or falsifying data and plagiarism. Some experts argue that wrecking experiments, while terrible, is more akin to slashing a fellow researcher’s tires than to making up data.”

Seriously? Slashing a tire is just that- it is a display of displeasure at a person or his/her act or a series of acts. Even then its validity as a retribution is only in the mind of the perpetrator. Sabotaging an experiment is much more than that. The saboteur wants not only to demonstrate displeasure but also goes to a length of discrediting the targeted scientist’s work. It is far more sinister. It erodes the credibility of the victim and that is what the goal of sabotaging a scientific experiment is. There are ‘legal’ questions being attached to it now:

“Whether sabotage belongs under ORI’s purview is questionable, Rasmussen says. A long and contentious debate took place in the 1990s over whether the U.S. federal definition of research misconduct should include anything beyond fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, commonly referred to as FFP. Some argued that other types of bad behavior, such as sexual harassment or vandalism, could constitute research misconduct as well; others said that would open the floodgates to all kind of accusations, and that such misdeeds could be dealt with through other mechanisms.”

It does not matter whether sabotage comes under the ORI’s purview. The decency of a mentor and the institution demands that the incident should be reported to the authorities. Essentially, the fear among the faculty members is that they would be considered to be lousy managers to let it happen. They take it too personally and distort the facts and penalize the victims. In doing so, they undermine their own credibility and promote a dishonest view of the scientific world.

In the era of print news this ploy of obfuscation could have worked for the lab managers and university authorities. But in an era of Facebook, Twitter and lightening fast worldwide communication, such approach may backfire and undermine the credibility of the scientific researchers in general. Beyond petty bickering, there is no place for egregious acts of sabotaging anyone’s experiments and such people should be quickly removed from the lab before they do bigger damage to the core of the scientific values.

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Coming soon: Don’t be an asshole reviewer!

Gather the reviews that you got for your research papers and grant applications. Everyone has one or more of those idiotic reviewers’ comments. Bring them out to have some fun. 🙂

Fire the editor.

Fire EditorIf a paper is retracted because of falsified data the authors probably did terribly wrong things in the name of science. But there is another side of the equation: the journal editor.

Commercial journals make money by publishing scientists’ work. To keep their circulation and impact factor high, they have to lure the manuscripts that effect a ‘paradigm shift’.

Contrary to the common fallacy that the high-profile journals are brutally objective in manuscript selection, their editors give plenty of unnecessary opportunities to the authors to resubmit their shoddy work. In principle they send the letter that the manuscript is rejected but they would consider it as a new submission if the reviewers’ concerns are addressed.  In practice, they routinely override some valid criticism and concerns of the reviewers to publish the paper.

If an editor overrides the reviewers’ concerns and the paper is later retracted, what should be done?  I have to find out how the board of editors acts under these circumstances.  As far as I know, there are no serious consequences for the lapse of editorial judgement.

EMBO Journal has adopted a policy of publishing the review proceedings should the authors agree to it.  Such policy should be embraced by every decent scientific journal because it affirms that the readers are intelligent scientists who will understand the limitations of the research work.

As for the editorial veto of the reviewers’ concern that leads to retraction of a paper, some accountability is expected not only for the commercial success of the journal but because there is also tax-payers’ money involved.   I would say, ‘Fire the editor’.

How to steal scientific ideas.

Locked drqwerScience is a business of ideas. By its very definition, researchers are required to generate new ideas. However, the ideas do not pop up in vacuum. Astute researchers have to master the literature, learn where the gaps in the current field of research exist and then find a feasible way to fill those gaps.

The way the current research training is done, the majority of researchers eventually become rigid in their ideas. Their research becomes dull and boring. In the name of ‘detailed study’ they keep burrowing deeper into descriptive research. Years of battles with paper publications, failed grant applications and stress of obtaining tenure and load of teaching wears them out. Only few remain as enthusiastic as they were in the beginnings of their career. Of those who remain enthusiastic, most are not driven by scientific inquiry but by the social and political thrill of it.

Surviving on the stolen ideas of trainees and postdocs becomes a viable means of their academic lives. But they have to do it in a sophisticated way. Here are a few simple ways to do it:

1. ‘Encourage’ every trainee applicant to write a 2 page mock research proposal. This is a shotgun approach whereby anyone showing an interest in your research can be asked to provide idea of what to do. You then take those ideas and adopt them in your current research.

2. Group discussions/brain storming in lab. Pretend that you are helping people bring out their best. Make them bust their ass to beat each other’s ideas and then pick all the good ones as your own.

3. Once the trainee presents a great idea with some interesting preliminary data, kill his/her enthusiasm by saying that the idea is useless, not relevant, premature, too complex for the current state of science etc. During the next few months, gently incorporate the idea in your casual talks. Finally, give the project to someone other than the originator of the idea as your own.

4.  Make your trainees write a fellowship proposal. Incorporate those questions as an aim in your own grant. Pretend that it was all your own to begin with.

There are many more subtle ways you can steal the idea of your trainees to call your own. With the years of toiling under your own mentor, you have consciously or unconsciously picked up techniques to put down your colleagues and steal intellectual property. Now it is your turn to perpetuate it. Do it with style, do it with authority and when challenged, you can always say that all data and ideas belong to NIH or the institution. You only happen to be an agent of theft (read hired thief).

There are other better ways as you climb up the ladder of your academic career. You can steal from other labs by being a reviewer. Oh, don’t give me the shit about ethics and confidentiality. You know what I mean.

If everything else fails, you can also resort to saying that ideas are not novel it is the ability to materialize them matters.

Lawyers are universally loathed for their ability to fudge the truth. In reality, scientists can be worse than lawyers. They wear the cloak of honesty and objectivity, but the unscrupulous ones are constantly twisting the truth, presenting half-truth, and backstabbing with hidden dagger of greed and deception.

One PI =One R01 grant.

The great economic crisis in the Western world has affected the academic and research institutions.  One of the major funding agencies NIH has seen effective funding cut that has translated in reduction of both number of research grants and the amount of money apportioned to them.  The situation has reached a crisis level.  Yet, there seems to be no effect on the ‘higher echelons’ of the research community.

Research dollars are disproportionately distributed among researchers.  Although we resent to the notion that 1% of the US population possesses 90% of the wealth, we do not react the same way to the financial disparity in scientific research.  Relatively few scientists have monopolized the major chunk of tax-payers’ dollars while a large number of competent and innovative scientists do not.  This needs to end!

In these difficult times, everyone is required to sacrifice a little.  We ought to ensure that publicly funded scientific research is distributed to all competent scientists and not only to the members of scientific power broker cartel.  There is no obvious reason why a researcher should have more than one R01 grant, especially during tough economic situation.  By adopting One PI= One R01, the NIH can support thousands more new scientists and diversify the scientific research base.  By doing so, NIH will promote innovative research to catalyze scientific growth.

We should also understand that NIH cannot make a law.  To achieve One PI=One R01, we have to inform and educate our legislators of the benefits of this formula.  Write to your House Representative and Senator asking them to consider broadening the productive and innovative scientific base by expanding the participation by new scientists.  Ask them to implement One PI= One R01 formula.  There are numerous benefits of One PI= One R01 to the scientific community. It will improve educational standards of the universities and will bring back talent to our educational institutions.  This is the only way to assure that dwindling scientific impact is regained.

Scientific Research: A Ponzi Scheme.

Screenshot_3_10_13_6_28_PMRecently, a friend and colleague blurted out, “Man, academic scientific research is a Ponzi scheme”.  At first I laughed at this but soon I realized his point of view.  My friend is primarily a clinician.  His training and interest in understanding the bases of disease and hope of discovering new therapeutic targets had brought him in laboratory research.

He quickly realized that there was a chasm between his lofty ideals of studying a biological phenomenon and his mentor’s single-minded interest in using his data for fetching money.   My friend’s enthusiasm and motivation that had been his strength in conquering the daily grind of the lab work and failure of experiments were suddenly overcome by despair.  He is a good scientist who carefully designs and plans his experiments and is resourceful and skilled to execute them well.  Unfortunately, he decided to return to the clinic without completing his research project.

Under ordinary situations I would not have thought much about his return to clinics. Such departures are not uncommon among physician scientists who do not like the long drawn battle of laboratory scientists against leaking gels, failing western blots, suboptimal reagents, and a long dark tunnel of uncertainty without any glimmer of light at the end.  Many do not see how abstract concepts of basic research could ever be translated into clinically relevant knowledge.  But our guy has the smarts.

Like a painful sliver his analogy of scientific research as a Ponzi scheme stuck in my head.  Of course, I am not immune to the widely publicized Bernie Merdoff’s case of financial bungling.   I googled Ponzi scheme to find that…

In a Ponzi scheme potential investors are wooed with promises of unusually large returns, usually attributed to the investment manager’s savvy, skill or some other secret sauce. (Reference:  The New York Times)

Scientific research indeed is like a Ponzi scheme.  A very small number of people (established investigators) entice a very large number of young people (investor) for a dream of a very large profit (Nobel Prize, glory, publication, publicity, creative satisfaction etc).  To keep the scheme running, they do tell the ‘fine prints’ that not everyone gets there, the harder you work the larger the reward.  Cynics call it ‘rat-race’.  But I think Ponzi scheme is a better description.

Of course, once in a while from this large pool of investors a few are selected to receive the big profit that was promised to all.  They are given awards, positions and attention.  Usually these are the mediocre lot. The reason for this favor is that these mediocre are either unsure about their abilities or are too sure about it.  They stay indebted to the generosity of the ‘system’ and to display their loyalty to the system, they propagate the same scheme.  This is the pyramid scheme taken to extreme.

Does this mean that there are no smart people in scientific research?  On the contrary, there is a large number of smart people who keep pushing the leading edge further and beyond.  They are the pioneers with true passion for advancing the knowledge.  They are the ones who are genuinely interested in understanding nature of things.  They are not wheeler-dealers who relentlessly try to fill round holes of their hypotheses with square pegs of data.

I am not sure whether my friend will ever return to laboratory research but with a simple remark he gave me a different point of view.  We all thrive on such diverse points of view in research and I think that he did shift my paradigm.

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.

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?

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 Borsheim.com

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.