|Nature Biotech's "professional malpractice" (29/9/2007)|
28th September 2007
Further to our letter of 17th September, we understand that you have now offered Dr Ermakova space for the publication of a letter in the pages of Nature Biotechnology in which she can outline her grievances against the methods employed by you and your journal, and address some of the issues raised by the self-appointed "reviewers" who set out to destroy her reputation. In our view this is an entirely unsatisfactory recompense for the deliberate and cynical damage which you have done to Dr Ermakova's good name, since you will reserve the right to edit whatever she may say, and since a letter will have virtually no status academically and will have no interest as far as the media are concerned. An effective way of "closing down" the issue........
This miserable business has distinct echoes of the sinister happenings of 2002, when your sister publication "Nature" published a peer-reviewed and important paper by Quist and Chapela on GM maize contamination, and then "retracted" it following sustained and intense pressure from the GM industry and from parts of the GM research community. That was an unprecedented and thoroughly distasteful episode which did immense damage to Nature's good name (1). Afterwards Philip Campbell, the Editor, sought to justify his action on the grounds of a "technical oversight" by the journal which led to the "mistaken" publication of a "flawed" paper (2).
Well, in the current case we have a whole series of "technical oversights" which have led "Nature Biotechnology" to publish an article which was written by the Editor of the journal and which would not have been out of place in the cheapest tabloid newspaper. It should never have seen the light of day. To remind you:
1. Was it through a technical oversight that you allowed four of the best-known apologists for the GM industry to have "free space" in the pages of "Nature Biotechnology" for a premeditated attack on Dr Ermakova, whose findings they happened to find distasteful?
2. Was it through a technical oversight that you connived with them to induce Dr Ermakova to outline her findings in response to your questions, and then to publish their not-attributed responses? (I remind you that their comments were published as "joint comments" for which no particular person took responsibility, which were presumably not subject to a review process of any sort, and which were quite probably ghost written in any case.)
3. Was it through a technical oversight that Dr Ermakova was never told the names of the four men who were out to destroy her reputation, and was never shown their comments prior to publication?
4. Was it through a technical oversight that some of Dr Ermakova's key references were removed from the article and replaced by 20 new references brought in the bolster the case made by the four GM industry spokesmen?
5. Was it through a technical oversight that in the correspondence we have seen, Dr Ermakova was clearly given the impression that this was to be "her" article, and was then sent a proof (the only proof she saw) which had her name on it as author?
6. Was it through a technical oversight that Dr Ermakova was advised by your colleague Dr Kathy Aschheim that she would not accept a paper for consideration and peer review on the grounds that it would be more appropriate for another journal, while at the same time you were pressing on with the publication of a "feature" devoted to the destruction of her scientific reputation?
We have outlined the full story of this catalogue of lies and deceit here: http://www.gmfreecymru.org/pivotal_papers/rottweiler.htm
Possibly the most serious instance of professional malpractice we have ever seen relates to the "dummy proof" which you sent to Dr Ermakova on 20th August 2007. We gather that you have explained this away as down to a "mistake" in your office. We cannot accept that, and none of the scientists with whom we have had contact has ever encountered such a blatant example of malpractice before.
If the above instances of "technical oversight" were indeed down to administrative errors within your office, that does not say much for the efficiency and competence of you and your staff. If they were down to a deliberate and predetermined strategy to destroy the academic reputation of Dr Ermakova (and that is indeed our interpretation) that is without doubt a resigning matter.
We therefore ask you immediately to retract the paper which you published. If a retraction was deemed by your publishers to be appropriate in the case of the Quist and Chapela article in 2002, it is infinitely more appropriate in this case. We look forward to your confirmation that this will be done.
We also ask that in your retraction statement you give a full apology to Dr Ermakova for the manner in which she has been lied to and misled, and for the damage done to her reputation. We think you should specifically apologize for the dummy proof.
You should also give the aggrieved scientist space in a future edition of the journal (and not just in a letter) to defend herself and to answer the ill-considered and inaccurate points made by Giddings, Chassy, McHugh[en] and Moses. The article should be published as a feature, with Dr Ermakova as the named author, with the following words at the head of the article: "Through an oversight the author was not given the names of her critics or shown the comments on her work before they were published. Nature Biotechnology has therefore offered her this opportunity to respond to them."
We imagine that Dr Ermakova and the rest of the "GM community" would be happy to see a further commitment to publish letters that you might subsequently receive (from scientists who may wish either to support or criticise her work) in the normal way.
We know that Dr Ermakova been advised to seek legal redress for the damage done to her reputation through the publication of your article, and no doubt matters will become clearer on that account in due course.
Dr Brian John
It's been drawn to our attention that the Quist/Chapela article in "Nature" in 2002 was never formally "retracted" or "withdrawn" by the Editor, although he did use the word "retract" himself in later correspondence. At the time Philip Campbell said, in response to the brutal lobbying of the GM apologists: "In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper." The journal's response, involving the publication of two critiques of the original article, was widely interpreted by the media as having been feeble, confused, and highly influenced by political and commercial considerations rather than scientific ones.