Nature Biotechnology - Ermakova correspondence goes live (8/12/2007)

1.Nature Biotechnology - Ermakova correspondence goes live
2.Editor admits to serious errors of judgement

NOTE: The online version of the December 2007 edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology contains correspondence highly critical of the journal and its editor, Andrew Marshall.

At issue is the 'Feature' published in its September edition that effectively gave a free hand to four notorious biotech apologists - Bruce Chassy, Vivian Moses, Val Giddings and Alan McHughen - to make, what Dr. Brian John rightly calls, a premeditated attack on the Russian researcher, Irina Ermakova and her study of the effects of GM soy on rats.

Item 1 contains links to all the correspondence including the responses of Marshall and of Chassy, Moses, McHughen and Giddings.

While the extracts below and the comment in item 2 focus on the editorial process, it's also worth noting that Ermakova's reply to her detractors clearly shows they either mis-stated or mistook many aspects of her work. This in itself is an indictment of the journal's editorial process, which its editor seems to guardedly concede in some of his comments.


1.Nature Biotechnology - Ermakova correspondence goes live

GM soybeans - revisiting a controversial format Correspondence pp1351 - 1360 Nature Biotechnology, December 2007, Volume 25 No 12 pp1329-1492 http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/index.html#cr

GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format - pp1351 - 1354 Irina V. Ermakova


Full Text - GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1351.html

EXTRACT: ...in e-mail exchanges between us, you refused to publish the whole text of my paper... Yet, at the same time, Nature Biotechnology found it quite acceptable to assemble and publish a Feature which consisted of a brutal attack on my results. Second, the galley proof, sent to me by the journal as a 'publication proof' had my name as the author and was vastly different from the article that appeared in print, omitting the introduction by you and the critiques from Chassy et al. Third, the comments solicited were solely from researchers who I would regard as pro-GM, or with connections to the GM industry, who would likely be hostile to my work.


GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format - pp1354 - 1355 Brian John


Full Text - GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1354.html

EXTRACT: This miserable business has distinct echoes of the sinister happenings of 2002, when your sister publication Nature published a peer-reviewed paper by Quist and Chapela on GM-maize contamination, and then 'retracted' it, following sustained and intense pressure from the GM industry...


GM soybeansórevisiting a controversial format - p1355 Mae-Wan Ho & Peter T Saunders doi:10.1038/nbt1207-1355a Full Text - GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1355a.html

EXTRACT: You were wrong not to make it clear to Ermakova how you proposed to use her contribution, even to the extent of not showing her the proofs of what would actually appear in your journal. Such practice is more appropriate for a tabloid newspaper than for a serious scientific journal...


GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format - p1355 Carlo Leifert doi:10.1038/nbt1207-1355b Full Text - GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1355b.html

EXTRACTS: Publishing edited extracts of her work together with comments of scientists who are well known to uncritically reject even the notion that there may be risks associated with GM crops gives me the strong impression that your journal is politically motivated to (i) defend the dogma that there are no potential health risks associated with GM crops, (ii) destroy the reputation of scientists that dare to challenge that dogma and (iii) prevent such scientists from gaining the resources to continue their work on risks of GM crops and how to avoid them.


GM soybeansórevisiting a controversial format - pp1355 - 1356 Jack A Heinemann & Terje Traavik doi:10.1038/nbt1207-1355c Full Text - GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1355c.html

EXTRACT: Nature Biotechnology should not appear to be colluding with groups or individuals that have preformed views on a researcher or a data set, because we doubt that Nature Biotechnology would like to give the impression to its readers that a privileged few could organize an attack on a scientist with the collusion of the editor.


GM soybeansórevisiting a controversial format - p1356 Joe Cummins doi:10.1038/nbt1207-1356a Full Text - GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1356a.html

EXTRACT: I wish to point out that Irina Ermakova had no opportunity to respond to the criticism of your panel of 'researchers working in the field'. The lack of an opportunity to face those hostile comments lacks any sense of fundamental justice. Next, your researchers working in the field had not published animal feeding studies and their fields, like yours, were primarily public relations on behalf of the biotech industry.


Response to GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format - pp1356 - 1358 Bruce Chassy, Vivian Moses, Alan McHughen & Val Giddings respond:


Full Text - Response to GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1356b.html

EXTRACT: None of us characterize ourselves as 'pro-GMO' or 'anti-GMO' as a matter of philosophy. It is an issue on which we remain agnostic; rather, we characterize ourselves as 'pro-science', 'pro-environment' and 'pro-humanity'.


Response to GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format - pp1359 - 1360 Andrew Marshall [Editor of Nature Biotechnology and 'author' of the article]


Full Text - Response to GM soybeans-revisiting a controversial format http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1359.html

EXTRACT: With hindsight, a more thorough editorial effort should be undertaken to ensure that authors whose work is being commented upon have sufficient opportunity to respond to criticisms that are based on insufficiency of data provided.



2.Nature Biotech's Ermakova 'set-up'

-- Editor admits to serious errors of judgement

December's on-line edition of 'Nature Biotechnology' contains an extraordinary admission by the Editor, Andrew Marshall, that he made a series of very serious errors of judgement which effectively allowed four pro-GM scientists to make a premeditated attack on Russian scientist Irina Ermakova (1).

In the September 2007 edition the journal published a 'feature' which gave Bruce Chassy, Vivian Moses, Val Giddings and Alan McHughen free space to attack the work of Irina Ermakova, whose findings (on the deleterious effects of GM soy on rats involved in feeding experiments) had caused profound concern in the GM industry and across the world (2). In certain quarters the decision was taken to 'shoot the messenger.' Ermakova was invited by the Editor to answer a set of questions about her research methods and her findings, and she willingly agreed to this, assuming that this would be 'her' article. She was even sent a dummy proof which had her name on it as author. She was never told the names of the four men who were intent upon attacking her work, and never given sight of their comments. Most of Ermakova's references were removed, and replaced with references chosen by her critics to bolster their case. What is more, when the article appeared in print it had Andrew Marshall's name on it as author. GM Free Cymru has described the full sequence of events very carefully (3), and is in no doubt that this was a cynical 'set-up' by a journal which fell far short of the standards to be expected of mainstream academic publishing (4).

Following the publication of the article there was a storm of protest relating largely to the unethical practices employed by the journal in its treatment of Ermakova, and letters poured in not only to the Editor of 'Nature Biotechnology' but also to senior personnel in the Nature / Macmillan publications empire. The editor was forced to accept a full defence of her science by Ermakova and a series of direct criticisms by her relating to the manner in which she had been treated. He also had to agree to publish five out of the twenty or so critical letters which he received, and to print a rather feeble

'justification' concerning his ill-fated 'publication experiment.' This went on-line on the Nature Biotechnology web site on 7th December 2007 (5).

In his article (6) Marshall has now admitted that his removal of Ermakova's references did indeed give the impression to readers that her work was 'inferior and unsupported by the literature'; that the dummy proof should never have been sent with her name on it; that she was indeed misled into the belief that the article would be hers; that she was not fully informed as to the publication process or the intention of the feature article; that he, as Editor, should never have accepted comments made jointly by the four critics, and for which no one individual would accept responsibility; that he published criticisms relating to a perceived lack of data in her answers without giving her an opportunity to provide that data; and that he deliberately withheld from Ermakova the names and the comments of the four critics, since he viewed the article as an exercise in journalism rather than an exercise in scientific publishing.

Critics of the behaviour of the journal in this 'set-up' are by no means placated, since there is no proper apology in Marshall's statement, and since he has given yet more space to the group of four critics to respond to Ermakova's self-defence (7). So effectively they have the 'last word' in this issue of the journal, which no doubt gives those four doughty defenders of the GM cause a degree of satisfaction, as well as indicating (if there was any doubt about it) the journal's position in this particular debate. Marshall also criticizes the writers of the five new letters (8) for failing to address any of the scientific issues either in Ermakova's paper or in the criticisms of the 'group of four'. In doing this, he fails to appreciate that all of them refrained from detailed scientific comment in order to concentrate on the matter of publication ethics. Scientific analysis will no doubt follow.

There are other issues too that Marshall evades or glosses over, including his 'choice' of Chassy, Giddings, McHughen and Moses on the grounds that they were 'established independent scientists working in the field'. However established or independent they may be, they certainly do not represent a fair cross-section of expert scientists working in the field of animal nutrition, and it does not help the journal's cause when we now learn that 'Chassy also consulted with an expert in the field of animal toxicology.' Who was this mysterious expert, and why is he or she not named? Marshall has not denied the accusation made by GM Free Cymru that the group of 'experts' was self-selected, and that far from them being invited by the Editor to participate in this little game, they were the ones who put the idea to him in the first place (9).

Referring to the new Correspondence published in the December issue of the journal, GM Free Cymru spokesman Dr Brian John said: 'We are satisfied that Nature Biotechnology has now accepted that it made serious mistakes in the publication of this feature article in September 2007, and that the Editor has promised never to make the same mistakes again. However, there are still aspects of this affair that are very disturbing, and these relate to a serious decline in publication ethics. We are used to seeing the proponents of GM crops and foods setting out in the pages of GM promotional magazines to 'shoot the messenger' whenever they see something in the literature of which they do not approve; but it is a new and sinister development when a mainstream scientific journal connives in giving a free platform to a self-selected group of scientists who wish to criticize another scientist working in a field about which they themselves know relatively little.'


Contact: Brian John

GM Free Cymru

Tel 01239-820470


(1) http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n9/abs/nbt0907-981.html

(2) http://www.regnum.ru/english/526651.html





(3) http://www.gmfreecymru.org/pivotal_papers/rottweiler.htm

(4) http://www.woz.ch/artikel/inhalt/2007/nr44/Wissen/15584.html

The Excommunication of a Heretic, by Roland Fischer, 13th November 2007 Translated from the German-language Swiss weekly newspaper WOZ and published originally on 1st November 2007 http://www.gmfreecymru.org/pivotal_papers/excommunication.htm

(5) http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/index.html#cr

(6) http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1359.html

(7) http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/full/nbt1207-1356b.html

(8) Brian John, Mae-wan Ho and Peter Saunders, Carlo Leifert, Jack Heinemann and Terje Traavik, and Joe Cummins

(9) The Editor of the journal wrote to Ermakova on 25th June 2007: 'I am writing to you because the journal has been approached by a group of authors wishing to critique the results of your work that have been discussed in public forums.'

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