Dr. Elisabeth Bik

When the Crastina team was discussing trust, and mistrust in science, one name came to mind – Dr. Elisabeth Bik.

In 2013 a whimsical idea led Dr. Bik to check whether her recent publication was plagiarized. She hadn’t expected to find anything, but, lo and behold – whole sentences from her review paper were plagiarized fully and incorporated into a text-book! Unluckily for rogue scientists, but fortunately for the rest of the world, this experience sparked her passion for flagging inaccuracies in scientific publications – and she hasn’t looked back.

Seven years and over 60,000 scientific articles reviewed later, microbiologist-turned-misconduct spotter Elisabeth and her “spidey eyes” are doing more good for the scientific community than she ever imagined.

 

Let us dive right in – in your opinion, should reviewers who approve articles be held responsible for the content in the figures as well?

In some cases, yes, because the image duplications are so obvious that you would have to think “it’s the same photo”. And if there are two photos, and they’re the same, how did you not spot that?

However, in case of image manipulation, where it’s really hard to spot and one would not immediately see it, I would not think that the reviewer should be catching that. Those cases should be under the responsibility of the publisher or the journal – they could hire staff to look for complicated cases of photoshopping or manipulation.

I’ve scanned more than 60,000 papers by now, so I have a fairly good idea of what to look for, like a spidey sense about a certain figure. With my experience it would only take a couple of seconds extra- in comparison, a peer review usually takes four or five hours.

It’s almost absurd how easy it is to falsify a data that is stemming from years of innovative ideas and countless hours of work, but the competitive “Publish or Perish” culture nowadays does not help either.

I feel that is because we focus so much on how much output we produce, how much papers we write, and the impact factor of journals. Because of those requirements, people are tempted to do misconduct. You can imagine that if you need a paper for your letter of recommendation or tenure appointment, you’re more motivated to cheat rather than if those things would not have such weight, and instead, the evaluation would focus more on rigorous research.

I hope we can move towards an area where papers are not huge five-year projects but can be clipped into smaller chunks; a paper with one figure and one experiment could be good enough to be a publishable unit. Why do we want papers to have 65 supplemental figures? This leads to PI’s losing the oversight over things.

Do you think that the scientific world became so much more competitive at the beginning of the 2000s, which would also be a driver for bigger falsification incidence?

Yes, because I didn’t feel that previously. In the past, labs would not produce as many papers as they do now. There are people who publish so many papers per week that I cannot imagine that they are real research. And yet, they do that. And that’s very different from when I worked in labs. We had maybe two or three papers per year in a group of 20 people and there was a big celebration. Now, seems that the number has gone up a lot, and perhaps that makes people more likely to cut corners. And of course, when it’s an epidemic, like now, people want results really fast, that brings along with it that science is not done as carefully as it should be done. Good science is super slow – you cannot force an experiment to work.

“Their papers should be retracted and their award should be taken away”

What can you tell me about the atmosphere in academia about falsified data?

Unfortunately, misconduct happens in many universities or institutes. I am now dealing with a case at one university, and it’s completely covered up even though it’s been in the news a lot. They still say it wasn’t misconduct, but there are photoshopped photos. It’s like, how can that not be misconduct? I don’t know. It is horrible.

Nowadays there is a change – people who do bad things are no longer automatically protected as much as they were in the past. I do feel it’s a slow process because these publishers and universities are like enormous cruise ships that do not immediately take a different turn. But it is changing. Just being a genius is no longer enough to be protected against punishments. And the punishments can be light, people don’t have to go to prison in my opinion, but their papers should be retracted and their award should be taken away, in my opinion.

Those are really relevant ideas. In your 2016 article “The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications” you showed a clear trend in the increase in image duplication in publications over time – from the mid 90’s to the beginning of the ‘00s. What, in your opinion, were the drivers of this trend?

I think the increase around 2005 is mainly caused by the fact that, around that time, more and more journals became digital.

In the old days, when I was working in the lab at the Dutch Institute of Health, you had to bring your blot (explanation: data from commonly used experiments in life-sciences showing protein detection in a sample) to a photographer. Once you had the negatives of the photos, you had to submit them together with your manuscript to each of the reviewers – literally with a paperclip attached to the printed text. With these negatives, there were many eyes on that whole process. One could still cheat by loading different samples or different amounts of the sample, but the visual manipulation was much, much harder in those days. And that gradually, as people discovered Photoshop, changed. But I’m sure cheating was always there.

So that’s one process. And then I think things like misconduct are now more in the news. Because in the past, there were more cases swept under the rug, people didn’t really discuss science misconduct, and now people bring it out into the open on social media. And that is good because it allows people like me to expose all kinds of things that are wrong in science, such as conflict of interest, or important people who do misconduct and are protected by their university.

Over the past half-year, the public has seen all the “ugly” insides of science – the back-and-forth and uncertainty with the COVID-19 research. Many of the general public does not understand these processes fully, unfortunately. How do you relate to this?

There is an element of danger that the general audience might think “all science is flawed” and I’m very worried about that as well. I always say when I give a talk – don’t leave my talk thinking that all science is flawed and that you cannot trust anything. I’m just focusing on the bad guys and gals who do this, but I’m still convinced that most scientists are honest and look for the truth. But I’m very worried, especially in the climate now, where we have world leaders who do not believe that much in science, that exposing misconduct will erode the way that people see science.

Recently I have seen, for example, that Nobel Laureate Francis Arnold has gone public on Twitter about retracting a paper, giving an example of how these things should be handled.
Are we witnessing the beginning of a movement of key opinion leaders within science coming open about this?

Absolutely, yes. I think in the past people were a little bit worried that if they retracted the paper that even if the misconduct might have been linked, or limited to one of the authors, they will be punished in their career. But actually, we’ve seen cases like that one and a couple of others where people have come forward saying “this paper should be retracted, and I’m going to redo the work, and I should have had better oversight”. They gained so much positive press, the scientific community is very open and, in fact, rewarding behaviour like that. And journals are also starting to do the right thing and retract papers, I do think that that helps the journal look better. And they are starting to realize that now as well.

I think that in today’s post-truth/fake-news era, these little moments of honesty, and the little gestures of honesty are even more appreciated.

 

“I feel that together with other people who do the same thing we are changing things”

 

 

I hope that I can give a little bit of hope to other people- that there are many, many people doing the same or supporting what I’m doing. I do not want to take all the credit, it’s just that I’m probably one of the more visible ones. There are many people behind the scenes who do this work as well, but they choose to be a little bit less in the spotlight, so I always feel like I’m also advocating for them. They operate under pseudonyms for all kinds of reasons. I hope that by being on Twitter, I can make this circle bigger. I cannot always help everybody, but at least I’m trying to make sure that we know what is right and what is wrong, and that we are always aware of where we are on that fine line.

But I keep on fighting the fight. And I feel that together with other people who do the same thing we are changing things a little bit. You need to take it to either social media or build up a reputation among science journalists because I feel that also makes a little bit of a difference.

It is similar, maybe, to some extent, to the #MeToo movement which focuses on sexual misconduct. That is obviously not comparable to scientific misconduct, I don’t want to put these two at the same level of bad things that can happen to people. But I do feel that exposure on social media and blog posts makes other people more courageous and also share their story.

Can you share your plans for upcoming work within this field?

I am planning to follow up on my publication from 2016 which had looked into about 20,000 papers, and we found 800 papers with duplications. What happens after reporting these 800 papers? And as far as I know, only one-third of them have been corrected or retracted – so two-thirds have not been touched!

“Something good has been done for science”

I would be very much looking forward to reading that follow-up paper when it’s out!
Last question – but not least important – how do you stay motivated in doing this work?

I just feel very passionate about science. I’ve had lots of frustration when papers are not being picked up on, but every now and then there’s a little success. That sounds bad because it doesn’t really feel like a success if a paper gets retracted, there’s a sad story behind that paper. People working in that lab who might not have been involved with that paper are still damaged because now they’ve worked in the lab that has been reprimanded for misconduct. And so it leaves a stain on everybody’s career. But if a journal retracts a paper that I flagged, it does feel like something good has been done for science. It’s obviously not a good thing for the authors and all the people involved. And so I don’t really want to call that success, but it motivates me that every now and then there’s a good decision that is being taken by a journal.

I have a very patient approach. Already when I started doing this, I realized this is going to take years to have a profound effect. In the beginning, not a lot of people were cheering for what I was doing and I was actually told by a lot of people that I should stop. But I kept on doing it, it just felt right, it felt like I needed to do this.

“I can do more for science now than I did when I was in my previous career. I feel that now I can make a little bit more impact on science than I could ever do previously”

I want to change science. I can do more for science now than I did when I was in my previous career. I felt I did amazing things, worked on amazing projects with wonderful people and I learned a lot of techniques. But, in the end, I feel that now I can make a little bit more impact on science than I could ever do previously.

It has been really interesting to hear this outlook on things – you are contributing to science in another way than creating new knowledge. And that is also making waves of change and bringing new spirit into the field – you are impacting many scientists from all kinds of fields by spreading those ideas.

Thank you so much for the interview, Elisabeth!

Dr. Bik holds a PhD in Microbiology from the University of Utrecht. She completed a postdoctoral appointment at the same university and followed to conduct research at Stanford University for 15 years. Nowadays, she works as an independent science consultant.

You can follow Dr. Bik at:

Twitter @MicrobiomDigest

www.MicrobiomeDigest.com

www.ScienceIntegrityDigest.com

Image credit to Michel N Co Photography

About Elizabeth Vaisbourd

I first realized that science is the coolest thing when I learned about genetically engineered glow-in-the-dark fish, at the age of 11. Since then, I haven't looked back. Nowadays, I am a full-time biomedicine student fascinated with molecular biology. I believe that effective science communication can benefit researchers, businesses and the general public alike, which is why I am excited to promote SciComm literacy through Crastina!
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