Interview. We interviewed Dutch biologist Elizabeth Bik, the world’s leading expert on scientific fraud, on the findings related to Health Minister Orazio Schillaci’s research.

Elisabeth Bik: Several anomalies ‘indicate a certain tendency to cut corners’

Dutch biologist Elizabeth Bik is the world’s leading expert on combating scientific fraud. She has identified more than 4,000 scientific studies with obvious anomalies.

She was the one who documented the numerous irregularities in the research carried out by Didier Raoult, one of France’s most well-regarded biologists and one of the leading proponents of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19. After she was subjected to insults and attacks by Raoult for her work, Bik received the support of thousands of scientists around the world who signed several open letters in her defense.

Bik was also the one who documented many of the duplicate images that led to the resignation of Stanford University neuroscientist and president Mark Tessier-Lavigne, until then one of the world’s most respected researchers, which sent shockwaves through the scientific community.

In 2021 she was awarded the prestigious international John Maddox Prize for her “for outstanding work exposing widespread threats to research integrity in scientific papers.” il manifesto interviewed her to get her view on the anomalies discovered in the publications of Health Minister Orazio Schillaci.

Professor Bik, is it possible that the duplicate images appearing in scientific papers under Schillaci’s name could be unintentional errors?

Taken individually, each of these duplicate images might represent an unintentional error. But such errors have occurred in a number of scientific articles from this research group, and this might indicate a certain tendency to cut corners.

In addition, duplicate images where the same image is shown at a different level of magnification (while claiming that both are at the same scale) suggest an attempt to mislead the reader, unlike those shown with the same magnification.

More generally, scientists are supposed to keep careful track of their experiments. So, if it turns out that a number of articles all have the same kind of error, it’s natural to wonder whether the experiments were recorded with due care.

In addition, this could indicate that other data, such as those in tables or graphs, were also not kept track of. Mistakes involving images leave visible evidence, which we are able to detect nowadays. But if there is sloppiness about other types of data, this is more difficult to uncover by just reading the articles.

Do you see similarities with the case of Stanford President Mark Tessier-Lavigne, who had to resign for putting his name to articles featuring duplicate images?

I do. In both cases, the senior author held two very different positions at the same time. In Tessier-Lavigne’s case, he was both a senior executive at Genentech (executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer) and the head of the laboratory.

Orazio Schillaci was both dean of the university and director of the lab at the time of the disputed events. As Holden Thorp, the editor of Science magazine, wrote, leading a laboratory is a full-time job and it is almost impossible to do it at the same time as another role of such a demanding nature.

When research published under the name of multiple authors has possible errors or fraud, who is responsible?

This is not an easy question to answer. In principle, all co-authors take responsibility for the quality and authenticity of the data. But the corresponding author is primarily responsible. In a number of the articles in question, the corresponding author is Schillaci himself.

Of course, one may think that anomalies occurred because of the neglect of a single researcher and point the finger at the first author, who is usually the younger researcher doing most of the lab work. But they are often a doctoral or postdoctoral student [the early stages of a researcher’s career]. And their supervisor or the professor in charge is supposed to instruct, supervise and manage their work.

Accordingly, in my view, the one ultimately responsible for their work is the senior researcher in charge or the corresponding author. Unfortunately, they often try to shift the blame onto a younger researcher instead of taking responsibility, which would be the right thing to do.

In your experience, what factors lie behind the most common cases of fraud?

Often these cases arise from the desire of scientists to publish as many research papers as possible, since most of a researcher’s progress in their career depends on the number of articles published, the impact factor (a coefficient that measures the prestige of a scientific journal, n.ed.) of the journal, and how often the articles are cited. It’s much easier to publish good-looking and positive results than inconclusive or negative data, so it’s clear that cheating can be advantageous.

Second, in laboratories run by very demanding or even overbearing professors, students, graduate students and postdocs may have a tendency to please the professor and provide them with the results they want.

Third, in labs run by mostly absent professors, as in the case of Mark Tessier-Lavigne or Orazio Schillaci, there may be little supervision. If these three factors are combined, misconduct is very likely to occur.

Schillaci is a researcher who has more than 400 publications to his name. Is there any precedent for something like that?

This case may bear some similarities to that of Didier Raoult, who headed the University Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Marseille [and who has been accused of manipulating numerous research studies and frequently violating bioethical regulations] and who probably put his name on almost every publication put out by his institute.

By itself, the fact that one leads an institution is not enough to justify putting one’s name as the author of a research paper. However, using this method, Professor Raoult has amassed an impressive – while highly implausible – resume of more than 3,000 scientific publications under his name.

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