Meet the scientist with an eye for problematic research papers

10 Aug 2022

Image: Elisabeth Bik

Microbiologist-turned-integrity expert Dr Elisabeth Bik makes it her job to keep an eye on the scientific community, watching out for plagiarism, research misconduct and a lack of proper evidence.

In the early days of Covid-19, it quickly became clear that it was a science communication crisis as well as a public health crisis.

Misinformation was – and still is – everywhere and scientists had to scramble to disprove certain info put out into the public domain. And this was far from a new problem.

From the climate emergency to the danger of harmful chemicals, scientists have had to work at their communication skills for years in order to make people see the truth of the science they were presenting.

But there’s another layer to that, which is the science has to be trustworthy to begin with. That’s where Dutch scientific integrity expert Dr Elisabeth Bik comes in.

Bik is known for her work detecting photo manipulation in scientific publications and identifying more than 4,000 potential cases of improper research conduct.

In 2021, she was awarded the John Maddox Prize for outstanding work exposing widespread threats to research integrity in scientific papers.

“I started this work in 2013 when I read about science misconduct and plagiarism,” she told SiliconRepublic.com.

“Just for fun, I put a sentence from a review paper that I had written myself into Google Scholar, between quotes. By chance, some other authors had stolen my sentence and used it in another paper. That made me pretty angry, and I decided to scan more papers for plagiarism.”

‘I scan the literature for duplicated or perhaps photoshopped images in biomedical papers’
– ELISABETH BIK

Bik’s scientific career began in microbiology, which could have laid the groundwork for what she described as a “strange talent to recognise western blots”. A western blot is a laboratory method used to detect specific protein molecules among a mixture of proteins.

“While working on a PhD thesis that contained plagiarised text, I noticed a western blot with a particular stain that had been used in other figures as well but representing different experiments.”

Bik started scanning biomedical papers for image duplications, either within or across papers, in 2014.

“As I still had a daytime job at that time, I only searched on the weekends and evenings. In 2019, I decided to do this work full time. Most of my work is on duplicated images and fabricated papers from paper mills, but I occasionally will find other concerns, such as implausible table data, lack of ethical approval, or conflicts of interest.”

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bik became the subject of international attention when she questioned the methodology of a paper that claimed hydroxychloroquine was effective in treating the virus.

In 2020, Bik along with several other forensic detectives also identified more than 400 scientific papers with potentially fabricated images, which they think came from a single source.

More recently, she was asked to help with an investigation into potential fabrication in scores of Alzheimer’s articles.

“I occasionally work as a consultant for institutions and scientific publishers to investigate research misconduct allegations or to help with policies and guidelines, but most of the work I do is unpaid,” she explained.

“I scan the literature for duplicated or perhaps photoshopped images in biomedical papers, and report my findings to the journals and online, at PubPeer.com.”

Bik said most of her findings stem from tips she receives via Twitter or email. She also scans papers from authors who have previously written papers with potential problems. “I mainly scan by eye, but increasingly make use of software to help me find overlapping or duplicated figures.”

The threats to scientific integrity

The need to trust science has arguably become more important than ever in recent years and bad actors such as paper mills churning out sham science is an undeniable problem.

“These are companies that sell completely fabricated papers to authors who need them for their career. They are a rampant problem in countries such as Russia or China, where there are stringent requirements and monetary incentives for scientists or medical doctors to publish papers,” said Bik.

“Together with several other scientific ‘detectives’ we have already identified thousands of these papers, all of which passed peer review and were published.”

Outside of these paper mills, Bik has identified two other problems within the science community itself, the first being the pressure to publish.

“The more a scientist publishes, the more stellar their career will be and the more grants they get. There is so much emphasis on quantity and publishing positive results, that it can be tempting to make up results to get more and better publications,” she said.

Another challenge to scientific integrity is “the inertness of scientific publishers and academic institutions” to address concerns raised about the data in scientific papers.

“It often takes years before papers get corrected or retracted, or for an institution to finish their investigations. And often, institutions will come to the conclusion that no misconduct has been found, even if some images are clearly photoshopped,” she claimed.

“These types of investigations are often not without conflict of interest, with journals reluctant to retract a paper they had published previously, and institutions reluctant to admit that one of their star researchers has been doing fraudulent work.”

Fighting misinformation

Bik also addressed the rise in misinformation that became more rampant during Covid-19 along with a rise in distrust of science.

“Part of this is understandable, as science is not capable of giving quick answers to new problems, such as the Covid-19 virus. Rather, as others have already pointed out, science is a process, and it sometimes reports contradictory findings,” she said.

“The general public might find it hard to understand those seemingly conflicting reports and I understand that some people have lost their trust. Unfortunately, with social media and TV discussion programmes, minority opinions and conspiracy theories can quickly grow and be perceived as a reasonable alternative to scientific findings.”

And while some can argue that the science community as a whole needs to change communication approaches, Bik said it’s important to acknowledge the challenges and hostility scientists can face.

“There are many scientists and medical professionals who have been very communicative and who have provided the general public with good, accessible information,” she said.

“But unfortunately, they have been met with online hostility and personal threats, in particular women and people of colour. This has made other scientists more reluctant to communicate. So, I do not think that scientists are necessarily at fault here, but the increased rudeness and short fuses of the public.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com