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‘Research Misconduct’: Scientist Falsified Work On Fish Behavior And Reefs

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Yesterday, Science magazine reported that the University of Delaware “found one of its star scientists guilty of research misconduct.” This is a big deal. Science reports that the university [bold, links added]:

…has accepted an investigative panel’s conclusion that marine ecologist Danielle Dixson committed fabrication and falsification in work on fish behavior and coral reefs.

The university is seeking the retraction of three of Dixson’s papers and “has notified the appropriate federal agencies,” a spokesperson says.

In response, Science retracted one of the three papers which last February was placed under an “editorial expression of concern.”

The University of Delaware report and associated call to retract three papers is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg, as dozens of other studies may be implicated.

In response, Prof. Dixson’s lawyer says, “Dr. Dixson adamantly denies any and all allegations of wrongdoing, and will vigorously appeal any finding of research misconduct.”

In a nutshell, the controversy here involves research into the supposed effects of increased carbon dioxide levels on the behavior of tropical fish — and yes, that means there is a direct climate change connection.

Professor Dixson and her collaborators, including her Ph.D. supervisor Philip Munday of James Cook University (now retired) in Townsville, Australia, have published dozens of papers suggesting very large and ecologically harmful effects of increasing carbon dioxide on fish behavior.

Not surprisingly, this research has been published in major journals, cited widely in the media, and resulted in considerable public funding for subsequent studies.

Several years ago, a separate group of researchers led by Timothy Clark, of Deakin University in Australia, expressed concerns about the integrity of this research.

Deakin and colleagues documented their concerns in a 2020 paper that sought to replicate the findings of a significant effect of increased carbon dioxide in the ocean, called “ocean acidification,” on the behavior of fish (Prof. Munday’s response can be found here in PDF).

Deakin’s replication failed to reproduce the original findings. (For a deeper look at the background to this story see the excellent reporting of Martin Enserink here, here, here, and here).

The scientific integrity issues here are not subtle. I spent some time last year looking at this case and the underlying data issues, and quickly identified some concerning problems in one of the datasets in question (see this long Twitter thread), confirming some of the excellent work of independent analyst Nick Brown.

Bad Science Often Has Powerful Defenders

One might think that uncovering and exposing scientific misconduct would be rewarded in the scientific community. Sometimes it is, but in many cases, scientists themselves oppose the exposure of bad science.

Such resistance is often political — including the small politics of academia and the big politics of how research plays in real-world politics.

In my experience, bringing into the picture climate change (or any hyper-politicized issue) dramatically increases the stakes and the magnitude of opposition.

Consider how Hans-Otto Pörtner of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany — a co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — responded to allegations of misconduct in this case:

“Building a career on judging what other people did is not right. If such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility.”

This statement gives me chills every time I read it.

And Pörtner is not an outlier. Just recently I was told by another high-ranking IPCC official that they strongly agree with our recent peer-reviewed critiques of out-of-date climate scenarios, but: “Of course, I can never say that in public.

Oh, the stories I can tell. Another time.

Individual scientists are often quick to take sides in debates over research integrity and at times invoke factors well outside the scientific dispute.

Have a look at the following Tweet from an influential professor at the University of North Carolina to Fredrik Jutfelt, a co-author of the Clark et al. paper which failed to replicate the original research.

The solutions here are simple to state but difficult to implement.

  • Leading institutions and their leaders should be honest brokers, and not advocates for their friends, peers, or favorite scientific or political conclusions. If those at the helm can’t serve as an honest brokers, they should not be at the helm.
  • Those identifying research misconduct or even just bad research should be professionally encouraged and rewarded. The incentives in science and academia typically discourage such recognition.
  • Those seeking to shout down or shame legitimate scientific inquiry — even if that inquiry is politically or professionally uncomfortable — should be called out for impeding research. Science is tribal, like many areas of human activity, but because we occupy an authoritative and privileged position in society we should expect more from our community.

Read rest at The Honest Broker

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