24 May 2020

The Silence of the RIOs

Just over a month ago, I published these two blog posts. After the first, Daniël Lakens tweeted this:
I thought that was a good idea, so I set out to find who the "university ethics person" might be for the 15 co-authors of the article in question. (I wrote directly and separately to the two PhD supervisors of the lead author, as it is he who appears to be prima facie responsible for most of its deficiencies; I also wrote to Nature Scientific Reports outlining my concerns about the article. In both cases I received a serious reply indicating that they were concerned about the situation.)

It turns out that finding the address of the person to whom complaints about research integrity at a university or other institution is not always easy. There were only one or two cases where I was able to do this by following links from the institution's web site, as regular readers of xkcd might have been able to guess. In a few cases I used Google with the site: option to find a person. But about half the time, I couldn't identify anyone. In those cases I looked for the e-mail address of someone who might be the dean or head of department of the author concerned. Hilariously, in one case, the author was the head of department and I ended up writing to the president of the university.

Anyway, by 24 April 2020 I had what looked like a plausible address at all of the different institutions to which the co-authors were affiliated (which turned out to be nine in total, not 12), so I sent this e-mail.
From: Nicholas Brown <nicholas.brown@lnu.se>
Sent: 24 April 2020 16:04
To: [9 people]
Subject: Possible scientific misconduct in an article published in Nature Scientific Reports
First, allow me to apologise if I have addressed this e-mail to any of you in error, and also if my use of the phrase "Research Integrity Officer" in the above salutation is not an accurate summary of your job title. I had some difficulty in establishing, from your institution's web site, who was the correct person to write to for questions of research integrity in many cases, including [list]. In those cases I attempted to identify somebody who appears to have a senior function in the relevant department. In the case of [institution], I only found a general contact address --- I am trying to reach someone who might have responsibility for the ethical conduct of "XXX" in the XXX Department.
I am writing to bring your attention to these [sic; I started drafting the e-mail before I wrote the second post, and not everything about it evolved correctly after that] blog posts, which I published on April 21, 2020: https://steamtraen.blogspot.com/2020/04/some-issues-in-recent-gaming-research.html.
At least one author of the scientific article that is the principal subject of that blog post (Etindele Sosso et al., 2020; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58462-0, published on 2020-02-06 in Nature Scientific Reports) lists your institution as their affiliation. 
While my phrasing in that public blog post (and a follow-up, which is now linked from the first post) was necessarily conservative, I think it is clear to anyone with even a minimum of relevant scientific training who reads it that there is strong prima facie evidence that the results of the Etindele Sosso et al. (2020) article have been falsified, and perhaps even fabricated entirely. Yet, 15 other scholars, including at least one at your institution (in the absence of errors of interpretation on my part) signed up to be co-authors of this article.
There would seem to be two possibilities in the case of each author.
1. They knew, or should have known, that the reported results were essentially impossible. (Even the Abstract contains claims about the percentage of variance explained by the main independent variable that are utterly implausible on their face.)
2. They did not read the manuscript at all before it was submitted to a Nature group journal, despite the fact that their name is listed as a co-author and included in the "Author contributions" section as having, at least, "contributed to the writing".
It seems to me that either of these constitutes a form of academic misconduct. If these researchers knew that the results were impossible, they are culpable in the publication of falsified results. If they are not --- that is, their defence is that they did not read and understand the implications of the results, even in the Abstract --- then they have made inappropriate claims of authorship (in a journal whose own web site states that it is the 11th most highly cited in the world). Either of these would surely be likely to bring your institution into disrepute.
For your information, I intend to make this e-mail public 30 days from today, accompanied by a one-sentence summary (without, as far as possible, revealing any details that might be damaging to the interests of anyone involved) of your respective institutions' responses until that point. I would hope that, despite the difficult circumstances under which we are all working at the moment, it ought to be able to at least give a commitment to thoroughly investigate a matter of this importance within a month. I mention this because in previous cases where I have made reports of this kind, the modal response from institutional research integrity officers has been no response at all.
Of course, whatever subsequent action you might decide to take in this matter is entirely up to you.
Kind regards,
Nicholas J L Brown, PhD
Linnaeus University
The last-but-one paragraph of that e-mail mentions that, 30 days from the date of the e-mail, I intended to make it public, along with a brief summary of the responses from each institution. The e-mail is above. Here is how each institution responded:

Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK: Stated that they would investigate, and gave me an approximate date by which they anticipated that their investigation would be complete.
Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Australia: Stated that they would investigate, but with no estimate of how long this would take.
Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, Monterrey, N.L., Mexico: No reply.
Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India: No reply.
University of L’Aquila, L’Aquila, Italy: No reply.
Army Share Fund Hospital, Athens, Greece: No reply.
Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada: No reply.
University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland: No reply.
Lero Irish Software Research Centre, Limerick, Ireland: No reply.

By "No reply" here, I mean that I received nothing. No "Undeliverable" message. No out-of-office message. No quick reply saying "Sorry, COVID-19 happened, we're busy". Not "We'll look into it". Not "We won't look into it". Not even "Get lost, there is clearly no case to answer here". Nothing, nada, nichts, rien, zip, in reply to what I (and, apparently, the research integrity people at the two institutions that did reply) think is a polite, professional e-mail, with a subject line that I hope suggests that a couple of minutes of the recipient's time might be a worthwhile investment, in 7 out of 9 cases.

I find this disappointing. I wish I could say that I found it remotely surprising. Maybe I should just be grateful that Daniël's estimate of one institution taking any sort of action was exceeded by 100%.


  1. Thank you for not letting this slide by. It would have been easy for you to do. I appreciate the time and effort you've expended on the matter. Gary Comstock

  2. These experiences with communicating with RIOs (also named RIAs) reminded me to my efforts to communicate with all RIA's at QUT = https://www.qut.edu.au/

    I have listed these experiences in my comments on a draft of the new version of the ACRCR, the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (submitted in February 2017). I have lateron deposited my comments at https://osf.io/u73bc/

    Copy/pasted from a relevant part of my comments about the new version of the ACRCR (available at OSF):

    "Page 9. "RIAs are people with research experience, analytical skills, empathy, good communication skills."


    Y is affiliated to QUT. Y is not allowed to open e-mails from my side. It therefore not possible to communicate with Y. Contacting RIA's at QUT was a disaster (when I tried to communicate with them about the behaviour of Y). It turned out that all RIA's at that time at QUT have no (zero = 0) communication skills: there was no response, also not on reminders and also not on reminders about reminders why there was no response (etc.).

    I have also tried to communicate with them through the concept of 'tacit approval within a fixed period of time'. This was a successful option, as all of them did not respond. All of them have therefore provided me with a tacit approval that all of them were unable to provide me with a name and contact details of experts (at QUT) who were refuting the views of Henri Dumont and Çağan Şekercioğlu about the fraudulent paper on the breeding biology of the Basra Reed Warbler (see above and see the attached document).

    It seems to me that is has no sense for Australian universities to have RIA's who do not communicate. I therefore propose to list in the new version of the ACRCR that it is allowed to communicate with RIA's through the concept of 'tacit approval within a fixed period of time' when it turns out that RIA's do not communicate."

    Y = last author of https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002108

  3. Nick:

    I'm confused. In your post you say you sent emails to 12 institutions, but then you only mention 9 of them. What happened to the other 3?

    1. Well spotted!

      I checked... My initial blog post (to which Daniël Lakens responded) stated that there were 12 different institutions. In fact these were different departmental-level affiliations, and there should have been a total of 13 for the 16 authors of the article because the lead author reported two affiliations; I was going by the superscript numbers in the original article, which only went from 1 to 12 (the lead author did not get two numbers for his two affiliations). However, the lead author was not the subject of the letter that I describe in the present blog post. Of the remaining 11 departmental affiliations shared by the 15 co-authors, there were two separate cases where two people had different departmental affiliations at the same institution, so the number of unique institutions becomes nine. (It could have been even more complicated, since "Lero Irish Software Research Centre" appears to be a spin-off or joint venture of the University of Limerick, but its web site suggests that it is academically independent.)