The Editor of a prestigious biotechnology journal has admitted that he allowed his journal to be used as a vehicle for a premeditated attack on Russian scientist Irina Ermakova. December's on-line edition of "Nature Biotechnology" contains an extraordinary admission that he was closely involved in a plan by four scientists to "set up" Ermakova and then to seek to dissect and dismiss her scientific methods and her results (1).
In the September 2007 edition the journal published an "experimental 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." So Ermakova was invited by the Editor, Andrew Marshall, 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 deliberate "set-up" by a journal which fell far short of the standards to be expected in 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 detailed defence of her science by Ermakova herself, and a series of complaints 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 from other scientists, and to print a rather feeble and convoluted "justification" concerning his notorious "publication experiment." In a further unprecented move, Marshall placed the full correspondence between himself and Ermakova onto the Nature Biotechnology web site. All of this material went on- line on the Nature Biotechnology web site on 7th December 2007 (5).
In his article (6) Marshall refused to apologize for his actions, and put everything down to mistakes and misunderstandings. But he has at least had the good grace to admit 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 Marshall has given yet more space to the group of four critics to respond to Ermakova's self-defence (7). So effectively they have again been given the "last word" in this issue of the journal, which no doubt gives those four doughty defenders of the GM cause (8) 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 (9) 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 consciously refrained from detailed scientific comment in order to concentrate on the matter of publication ethics. Scientific analysis will no doubt follow, and MUST be published by the journal in future issues, since Marshall has again abused his Editorial position by engineering the manifestly false impression that Ermakova is scientifically isolated, with no bona fide scientists prepared to defend her and to tackle the comments of her critics.
There are other issues too that Marshall evades, misrepresents or glosses over, including his use of Chassy, Giddings, McHughen and Moses as "experts" 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 from Marshall 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? The Editor 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 (10). So Marshall's statement in the second paragraph of the article referring to "comments solicited from a group of researchers working in the field" (1) is untrue, since the comments were offered and not solicited (11).
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 on the record 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
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
(8) The affiliations and track record of Chassy, McHughen, Moses and Giddings
make it clear that they are anything but unbiased and uninvolved in the promotion
of the GM agenda. They have made their positions obvious on very many occasions
in the past. On all sides of the GM debate they are well known for their
feisty and even aggressive pro-GM attitudes and their willingness to attack
those who are identified as belonging to the opposition camp. It is disingenuous
in the extreme for Andrew Marshall to have pretended to know nothing of their
past activities and to portray them as independent, objective and impartial
experts. They may claim these attributes for themselves, but don't we all?
What matters is the light in which others see us. Moses is heavily involved
in the biotechnology-industry funded lobby group CropGen: http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=91 http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=1209 Val Giddings was involved
in the denunciation of Quist and Chapela in 2001-2002, and claimed that their
commitment was not to data and science but to ideology. http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=23 Bruce M Chassy is a biochemist with an interest in GM microorganisms in food.
He has received research grants from major food companies and has conducted
seminars for Monsanto, Genencor, Amgen, Connaught Labs and Transgene. http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=140
http://www.thefutureofscience.org/veniceconference2005/speakers/ chassy_b.htm Alan McHughen has personally developed and promoted GM flax. He is also the author of "Pandora's Picnic Basket", referred to by one reviewer as "a gross manipulation of the truth."
http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=33 Chassy, Moses and McHughen were each involved in this attempt to block an independent animal feeding study in Adelaide. They wrote to Premier Dr Geoff Gallop -- and in the letter made outrageous statements about the professional competence and scientific standing of Dr Judy Carman and Dr Mae-wan Ho: http://www.jennifermarohasy.com/blog/archives/001067.html In 2006 McHughen published an attack questioning Dr Arpad Pusztai's professional competence on the GM propagandist site AgBioWorld: http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/articles/biotech-art/pusztai- picnic.html
http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php? caseid=archive&newsid=2497 In 2001 McHughen made unsupported accusations against Dr Ann Clark, a colleague in the University of Guelph, behind her back, to various individuals including her Faculty Chairman. The allegations were unfounded, and there was a clear intent to damage Dr Clark's academic reputation.
(9) The writers were: Brian John, Mae-wan Ho and Peter Saunders, Carlo Leifert, Jack Heinemann and Terje Traavik, and Joe Cummins. To quote Marshall: "I am also struck that none of the correspondence elicited by the article has taken issue with the validity of the scientific criticisms made, only the identity of the authors who made them."
(10) The initial approach seems to have Giddings with the offer of a "Commentary" on Ermakova's work. His three colleagues then became involved, and they worked out how best to achieve their objective. Subsequently 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."
(11) The full correspondence is here: http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v25/n12/extref/nbt1207-1359-S1.pdf