The journal Science calculated that Health Minister and researcher Orazio Schillaci published one research paper every 12 days during the time he was rector of Tor Vergata University in Rome. This is a remarkable performance, given that he was conducting his research – which, in eight papers, featured recycled images, as we discovered and reported – while also leading Rome’s second-largest university, with more than 30,000 registered students. However, if we go deeper into the data, it turns out that his scientific productivity actually increased during his tenure as minister.
According to the Google Scholar database, after his appointment as Health Minister (on October 22, 2022), Schillaci published one scientific paper every 11 days, including Sundays. This only takes into account papers that have already been published, and it’s likely that others, submitted and not yet approved, will come to light in the near future. If we go by the date of publication alone, 28 papers authored by Schillaci have been published in 2023, or one every 8.6 days.
This pace puts him close to the all-time records uncovered by John Ioannidis, renowned statistician and scientific integrity specialist at Stanford University, who in 2018 surveyed 265 researchers in the biomedical field who were able to publish as many as one article every five days. Ioannidis also observed that, paradoxically, the more a researcher takes on management positions that take them away from the laboratory (such as heading a department or university), the more “prolific” at publishing they mysteriously become – a sign that the large number of publications more often reflects academic hierarchies rather than the actual scientific contribution of researchers.
However, none of Ioannidis’s record-breakers were serving as Health Minister while doing their research – a post that hardly leaves one any time to nurture a university career: public health needs to be rebuilt, waiting lists are becoming longer and longer, the NRRP needs to be implemented. And one has to wonder whether Schillaci really did double duty as minister-researcher, or whether those publications amount to “honorary authorship,” the term for researchers who sign off on research without contributing to it, just by virtue of their power in academia.
Luca Filippi, a radiologist at the S. Maria Goretti Hospital in Latina, is one of Schillaci’s closest collaborators, having co-authored some 20 papers with him in 2023 alone. He assured us that Schillaci hadn’t abandoned his academic work, even as minister: “The professor has done direct work as well as guiding and inspiring,” he told il manifesto.
Specifically, is Schillaci also doing the work of a scientist? “Undoubtedly, the collaboration with him to direct, review and guide our research continued while he was rector and continues to this day, albeit with less intensity.” In the papers he published with Filippi, Schillaci is indeed given a “supervisory” role. But it must have been distant supervision, as he wasn’t involved in choosing where to publish the papers: “The professor’s input did not involve the choice of journals,” Filippi mentioned.
Very often, the journals chosen turned out to be published by the infamous publisher MDPI, where authors pay thousands of euros to publish their papers without too many controls. This is evidenced by the numerous recycled images discovered in the papers of Schillaci and colleagues, which would not have passed a closer scrutiny, as is the practice at serious journals.
This was admitted to us by Manuel Scimeca, another collaborator of the minister and the one who took direct responsibility for the controversial images: “That’s not a cell line, and one can see it from a mile away,” he explained to il manifesto, commenting on an image of a breast cancer biopsy recycled in another paper as supposedly showing prostate cells, one of the most striking cases of duplication.
However, Schillaci himself, who claims to be the originator, supervisor, and responsible for the methodology and writing of that paper, was somehow unaware of this. Scimeca assured us, however, that the paper will be corrected and that the analyzed data will be made available to the scientific community – which is clamoring for some clarity on the matter.
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