Heroes of science and research integrity

Protecting research integrity is often a thankless task, but on November 14 some of those at the coalface were recognized for their efforts.

Nature and Sense About Science announced the winners of the John Maddox Prize 2019 as Bambang Hero Saharjo (in a great case of nominative determinism), for his work as forensics expert testifying in court about companies burning Indonesian forests, and Olivier Bernard, an early-career researcher who spoke out in the face of threats and harassment against the use of high-dose vitamin C in cancer. I was happy to be able to attend the prize giving again at the Wellcome Collection, just down the road from our office (I also commented on last year’s prize).

Not wishing to detract from the well-deserved winners, what drew my attention — as Head of Research Integrity — was that the judges also gave commendations to three people who have persevered in identifying and drawing attention to research integrity concerns: Elisabeth Bik, Ivan Oransky, and James Heathers.

Rightfully thanked for her “extraordinary contribution”, microbiologist Elisabeth Bik is a true Stakhanovite. Her efforts began as a hobby a few years ago after she noticed an article that reused her own work, stumbling on her uncanny ability to spot image manipulation and duplication by eye —  akin to the “super recognisers” who never fail to recognise a face. She worked behind the scenes with journals to correct or retract hundreds of articles (as well as posting concerns to the post-publication commenting site PubPeer), before revealing her initial findings in “The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications” in 2016. I’ve always found her reports to be accurate and constructive and it’s been a pleasure to collaborate with her. She has since become a full-time science sleuth, blogger, and social media star, supported by Patreon patrons and consultancy work. Dr. Bik was “extremely honored” to be nominated.

Retraction Watch was founded nearly a decade ago and has become a ubiquitous presence in the world of research integrity. Journalist and medic Ivan Oransky, along with fellow science writer and co-founder Adam Marcus, has been instrumental in turning a scrappy side project into a respected watchdog and a strong advocate for “doing the right thing”. The addition of a database of retractions in 2017 has been a boon to those wanting to track and research retractions. An increase in detail of retraction notices in the last few years can be attributed to Ivan’s watchful eye.

James Heathers is often tongue-in-cheek, typified by his self-description as a “data thug”, but his work with Nick Brown on exposing flawed and potentially fraudulent statistics using tools like GRIM is nothing but serious. He also runs the light-hearted justsaysinmice Twitter feed that nevertheless carries a serious point, highlighting how results of experiments in mice are reported in the press as though they directly apply to people.

What unites them is a focus on facts and a dedication to uncovering error and misconduct. Elisabeth, Ivan, and James are just three examples of the many people who are working to improve the integrity of science and the published literature and groups like the Committee on Publication Ethics and the new Embassy of Good Science, launched at the World Conference on Research Integrity this summer, are aiming to bring us together. Recognition like this from the Maddox Prize judges is also heartening.


Matt Hodgkinson is Head of Research Integrity at Hindawi. publication ethics at Hindawi. This blog post a is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.