Journal 'sets up' scientist for brutal attack by GM industry advocates
Press Notice from GM Free Cymru
27th November 2007
Jeremiah 11:19: But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me..........
Independent scientists and NGOs across the world have been outraged by the editorial malpractice of a well-known biotechnology journal, which helped to 'set up' a Russian scientist for a brutal attack by four GM industry advocates (1).
The journal involved was 'Nature Biotechnology', and the scientist who was led 'as a lamb to the slaughter' was Dr Irina Ermakova, whose discoveries concerning the toxic effects of GM soya on laboratory rats (2) were deemed to be immensely harmful to the commercial ambitions of Monsanto and the other GM multinationals. She has been attacked before, largely on the grounds that her work has never been published in a peer-reviewed journal; but this year four scientists with a long history of advocacy for the GM industry (3) decided that they would mount a comprehensive assault on her with the agreement of Andrew Marshall, the Editor of 'Nature Biotechnology.'
The four men wrote to Marshall in the summer to suggest a feature article based upon a 'question and answer' session, in which Ermakova would be asked a series of questions about her research methods and results, and in which they would be given free space to criticise her replies. The editor agreed, and wrote to Ermakova to ask for her participation (4). Eager for an open scientific debate, she willingly provided the answers to the questions which she was asked. So far, so good. But as publication day approached, she began to suspect that everything was not quite as simple as it appeared; and it was only on the day of publication in September that she discovered:
(a) that the article as published did not have her name on it as author, but the name of the Editor instead;
(b) that all but four of her references had been deleted, to be replaced by 20 references chosen to bolster the case made by her critics;
(c) that the 'dummy proof' she had been sent prior to publication (with her name on it as author) bore little relationship to the final article;
(d) that the critiques of her detractors were lengthy and detailed -- and were indeed longer than her printed answers; furthermore, they were all unattributed, making it impossible for any reader of the journal to know who had said what.
This whole 'set-up and betrayal' was even more serious than it appeared initially, since over the past two months we have established that Ermakova was never told the names of her detractors, and never given an opportunity to examine their comments, let alone respond to them (5). Indeed, the journal Editor told Ermakova in writing that her answers would be presented together with 'community feedback', implying some balance between critics and supporters.
In the final (published) version of the article the Editor wrote:
'Nature Biotechnology approached Ermakova to ask for a detailed account of her work in her own words. Her answers are presented below together with comments solicited from a group of researchers working in the field.'
The first sentence is true, but the second is not. The comments were not 'solicited' but offered; and the researchers were not working in Ermakova's field at all. Indeed, by their own admission they had no experience whatsoever of animal feeding experiments or animal physiology. They would never have been chosen as experts if Ermakova had submitted her material for peer review; and yet they were given the freedom to make a whole range of aggressive and cynical comments without, apparently, any checks on their scientific validity.
Such has been the storm of protest that Marshall has at last agreed to publish letters about the behaviour of the journal in a future edition. That will not satisfy those who see in this episode evidence of a serious decline in ethical standards in the bioscience publishing world (6). GM Free Cymru spokesman Dr Brian John says: 'This miserable business would not have come to light had not Dr Ermakova asked us whether the behaviour of Nature Biotechnology in this instance was acceptable or not. We were able to examine her correspondence file, and discovered the worst case of editorial malpractice we have ever seen. She has been comprehensively 'set up' here, and we have never before seen a 'dummy proof' such as the one she was sent prior to publication.
'It has not gone unnoticed that 'Nature Biotechnology' is a near relation of 'Nature' -- which was involved in the appalling publication and subsequent 'disowning' of the Quist & Chapela article on GM contamination of Mexican maize in 2001-2002 (7).
'Sadly, we are seeing the rise of 'tabloid science journalism' in which editors can use grubby and dishonest techniques and hope to get away with them; in which publishing priorities are set by magazine owners and biotechnology multinationals; and in which political and commercial interests are more important than the old-fashioned virtues of truth and integrity.'
Contact for further information:
Dr Brian John
GM Free Cymru