Why Do People Not “Trust the Science”? Because Like All People, Scientists Are Not Always Trustworthy
Will science publisher Taylor and Francis do anything about an unethical article that misdirected criticism about researchers doing dangerous virus research and apparently skated past peer review?
5 minute read
It sometimes feels like researchers are striving to give people reasons to doubt science in the age of COVID. In the most recent example, the DisInformation Chronicle discovered that, in one of the most widely read science journal articles of 2020, researchers wrote that it was a “conspiracy theory” to claim that the COVID-19 pandemic could have started from a lab accident in China. However, they violated publishing ethics by not disclosing that the article had been secretly edited by two scientists whose lab research involves genetically engineering coronaviruses.
The commentary titled, “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2“ appeared in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections, which is published by Taylor and Francis. The authors also appear to have bypassed the normal process of peer review, according to emails made public by U.S. Right to Know.
When contacted on Friday, a spokesperson for Taylor and Francis said they needed to connect with people in multiple time zones for comment. “I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to make that deadline,” said the spokesperson when asked to comment by Monday.
Shortly after the pandemic began in early 2020, researchers Shan-Lu Liu, Linda J. Saif, Susan R. Weiss, and Lishan Su published the controversial commentary which reads, “Currently, there are speculations, rumours and conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 is of laboratory origin.” This labeling of a possible lab escape as a “conspiracy theory” appears to have charmed scientists and science writers.
The commentary was later downloaded 75,000 times, making it the third most downloaded article published in 2020 by Taylor and Francis which puts out 2,500 journals. Media outlets such as the News & Observer, The Week, and Buzzfeed also cited the article in passages that downplayed a possible lab accident. While most science writers continue to promote the opinion that a natural origin for the pandemic is more likely, according to a POLITICO-Harvard poll, the majority of Americans believe the pandemic started from a lab leak in China.
In an email sent in late December 2020 to lead author Shan-Lu Liu, a Taylor and Francis spokesperson wrote:
I’m very pleased to let you know that your recent article “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2” was one of the most-downloaded open access articles published by Taylor & Francis so far this year.
But the commentary’s authors did not disclose editing assistance provided to them by Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina. Both Shi Zhengli and Ralph Baric study coronaviruses using risky research practices called “gain-of-function” which involve altering viruses to make them transmissible, more lethal, or more able to overcome countermeasures.
“See Zhengli’s comments,” wrote the commentary’s lead author Shan-Lu Liu, in an email to her co-authors. “We may not need to make those changes, although some of those are good.”
“The lack of transparency about how this was handled is concerning,” said Matt Ridley, author of the new book, “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19.” Ridley added that he feels let down by scientists who seem to have not shared all relevant information about the pandemic’s beginning.
A week before Shi Zhengli edited the commentary, Lishan Su emailed Ralph Baric and invited him to make his own edits. “We are trying to finish and had no plan to get you too involved, but I do value your input. It is almost final and we are also getting comments from Perlman and Weiss.”
The name “Perlman” apparently refers to Stanley Perlman, a physician and virologist at the University of Iowa, and a proponent of “gain-of-function” research. Perlman’s apparent contribution is not acknowledged in the paper. The name “Weiss” apparently refers to Susan Weiss, who later joined the commentary as an author.
“Sure, but don’t want to be cited in as having commented prior to submission,” responded Baric. After submitting several alterations to the text in track changes, Baric added, “I think the community needs to write these editorials and I thank you for your efforts.”
“I have just tried to incorporate Ralph's comments into the version from Linda to make a new ‘final’ version, please see attached,” wrote Shan-Lu Liu to her co-authors.
The authorship policies for Taylor and Francis require acknowledgement of all contributors and state:
Contributions made by professional scientific, medical or technical writers, translators or anyone who has assisted with the manuscript content must be acknowledged and their source of funding declared. They should be included in an ‘Acknowledgments’ section with an explanation of their role, or they should be included in the author list if appropriate.
However, neither Shi Zhengli nor Ralph Baric are acknowledged in the article. Nor are their sources of funding declared. When contacted for comment, authors Shan-Lu Liu, Linda J. Saif, Susan R. Weiss, and Lishan Su did not respond.
After reviewing the emails, University of Toronto law professor Trudo Lemmens told The DisInformation Chronicle that it is clear that the authors should have noted Baric’s contribution. “His request not to be mentioned suggests he knew it would have been the proper thing to do.”
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