Friday, July 27, 2012

Nature wins libel trial

Nature won a long-running libel suit in July brought against them in England by Mohamed El Naschie on account of the following article (which is now back online) by Quirin Schiermeier : Self-publishing editor set to retire: Criticism grows over high number of self-penned articles in physics journal. (Published online 26 November 2008 in Nature 456, 432 (2008) | doi:10.1038/456432a)

Nature has both published a report on the outcome of the suit and an article by the author of the original article describing the process. The main focus of the 2008 article had been about how El Naschie had been self-publishing in an Elsevier journal (Chaos, Solitons and Fractals), of which he was editor-in-chief, at a very unusual rate, and that he was retiring from this position. Schiermeier was looking into how exactly this enormous publishing output was happening.

Schiermeier was also curious to know more about this person, as there were a number of blogs that were criticizing him, for example the El-Naschie Watch, but that were being threatened with litigation. Threats of legal action in science are often in inverse proportion to the scientific value of the contested results.  Schiermeier notes:
Still, unlike other science journalists, such as Simon Singh, who had previously had to go through the libel ordeal on their own, I was in the comparatively comfortable situation that my employers had the resources, the stamina and the willpower to take the case on.
Síle Lane, a campaigns manager at Sense About Science in London, is reported by Nature as noting that "[i]ndividuals who lack the financial support of an institution capable of defending against a libel action will probably look at the amount of time and money it took to defend this case and decide that they shouldn’t speak out."

The judgement ([2012] EWHC 1809 (QB)) is available online at Nature and its 91 pages make a fascinating read. I think it should be required reading for anyone dealing with the scientific publishing process, peer review, impact factors, or junk journals and vanity publishing.

The Honorable Mrs. Justice Sharp, DBE, the judge for this suit, should have been made DBE for her thorough analysis of the situation, but she already is. She looked at the norms of scientific publishing, the peer review system, an the problem of journal self-citation by calling on expert witnesses.

In paragraph 90 we see that El Naschie published 58 papers in 2008 (the year he was being forced to step down as editor). That would be more than one paper a week, and the next most frequent published author at the journal that year had only 9 publications. The next paragraphs contain some fascinating statistics comparing the publication record of other editors-in-chief of top-rate journals. 

In paragraph 114 in response to El Naschie's statement that no peer group existed for assessing his theories, so his only recourse was to self-publish, Sharp states: "We are not living in the age of Galileo. Scientists or those with a keen interest in science as informed amateurs are free to publish and thus disseminate their ideas to the outside world: and in the age of the internet, there are many platforms by which they can do so."

Paragraph 120 details the expert witness of Professor Neil Turok, professor for applied mathematics and theoretical physics. His gruesome task was to actually read and analyze all 58 papers published by El Naschie in 2008 in the journal in question. What an enormous amount of effort!
120.
Through Professor Turok, it is said by the Defendants that on analysis, the 58 papers or articles contained the following defects:
i) A failure to define terminology and concepts, including in particular a failure to present the principles and equations of “E-infinity theory” and the predictions which are said to be deduced from it;
ii) Strongly expressed conclusions, unsupported by any, or any intelligible process of logical reasoning; in particular, the repeated unexplained reliance on numerical coincidences in support of the assertion that the Claimant’s “E-infinity theory” is correct;
iii) Statements which are meaningless or obscure, even to a readers with expertise in the field of theoretical physics;
iv) Statements which are simply wrong;
v) Elementary errors of spelling and grammar;
vi) A lack of any, or any substantial, contribution of new knowledge to the field;
vii) An excessive degree of citation of other articles written or co-written by the Claimant, in particular in order to justify assertions which should have been
supported by self-contained argument or references to the work of independent authors (the articles published by the Claimant in CSF in 2008 contained approximately 301 citations of his own articles in CSF, including citations of “in press” articles: i.e. those articles which were due to be, but which had not at the material time, been formally published);
viii) The use of those articles to advertise other articles by the Claimant.
The judgement then goes on to examine each and every one of these defects. In paragraph 122 already Sharp notes: "But to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, you do not have to be a carpenter to see when the legs of a table are uneven, or even to see that it has no legs at all." On questioning about peer review, Turok states in paragraph 169: "Peer review is essentially what separates theoretical physics from chaos."

It goes on, paragraph after paragraph detailing the bizarreness of the case. This includes the witness Anke Boehm who worked for El Naschie insisting that it was not the policy of the journal to keep reviews and papers once they had been published (paragraph 182) and then speaking of "deleting" the reviews when El Naschie insisted that everything was only done on paper and the he does not use email.  Paragraph 290 notes that El Naschie admitted that some of the people who were speaking for him or working at the journal just did not exist.

The judgment also includes material from Elsevier that makes it clear that even they found the journal problematic (paragraph 228). An internal review of the journal is quoted as stating “Although the journal has a growing impact factor, we are concerned that this is too dependent upon self-citation […] The journal appears to have a high acceptance rate with many accepted papers coming from China." I don't normally praise Elsevier, but I am glad to see that they took the initiative here in terminating the editorship of El Naschie.

I wish to thank Nature for standing up for the name of science reporting and against junk journals! It cost them much time and money, I do hope that they can get the money for the lawyers back from El Naschie, which will probably not be an easy task.

4 comments:

  1. The statement by Mrs Sharp referring to Galileo is quoted here out of context. Is this a misunderstanding by Prof Weber-Wulf or is it intended for some obscure reasons connected with this case?

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  2. Anonymous, this is a direct quote from the report, and it is directly connected with the question of self-publication.

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  3. Let others go back and read precisely the context in which this statement was made by Mrs Sharp. It was in the context of Galileo's Trial by the churge and not in the context of self-publication, as there was nothing related to self-publication in Galileo's case. History is clear on this and it is history which is the real judge at the end. And the present case is no exception. Leave it to history and you will see the real and just judgement. It always works this way. Misunderstanding or intentions cannot affect the path of history whether we liked it or not.

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  4. I'm sorry, what is a "churge"? Oh, do you mean "church"?

    In number 110: "In his evidence, the Claimant also appeared to suggest that self-publication without recourse to the recommended safeguards is acceptable so long as it is clear a journal exists to promote the works and theories of editor."

    111: "These views..."
    112: "First, the case that this was ‘his journal’, ..."
    113: "I should mention here a related point ..."
    114: "This argument does not assist the Claimant on the facts either. We are not living in the age of Galileo...."

    114 is referring to 110. But since the judgement is online, anyone can read for them selves.

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