I have to give a huge round of applause to PLoS, specifically, PLoS ONE, and their handling of the XMRV fiasco.
Some of you might remember, early 2010 PLoS published the very first ‘Umm… XMRV isnt there…’ paper, Failure to Detect the Novel Retrovirus XMRV in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
To a scientist, it was interesting, but not that big of a deal. People publish conflicting findings all the time. Eventually we get to the bottom of it. Whatever. Its annoying when you are in it, but its kinda funny to outside observing scientists.
The reaction from the initial studys principle investigator, however, was *shocking*– Judy Mikovits ran to the media accusing everyone on the negative paper of fraud, accepting bribes, conspiracy, anything she could think of to discredit their work. You do not do this in science until you have evidence in hand. There are innumerable examples from very real instances of scientific misconduct where no action was taken until the case against the investigator was iron clad. Because science exists on a foundation of trust– that everyone honestly recording and presenting their data– accusing someone of breaching that trust is functionally ostracizing them from the scientific community (interfering with their ability to get/hold a job), marking them as a felon (at least in the US), and putting everything they have ever published into question (going back decades, in some instances). I cannot emphasize enough how inappropriate those statements were, and how shockingly offensive they were to me, even though I was not the target. (NOTE: almost two years later, and no evidence has surfaced to support the claims made by Mikovits).
Self proclaimed CFS patients were quick to follow suit, posting comments on the PLoS paper that were so over the top and over the line, the editors had to remove them– something that is basically unheard of in the online publishing world.
Nor were these actions the result of ‘bad apples’– scientists are nuts, and sometimes we say nutty things. Random anons on the internet are nuts, and sometimes they do nutty things. No, all of this behavior was encouraged by the head of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, Anette Whittemore, who also took a turn harassing the negative papers principle investigator, Myra McClure.
In light of the continuing harassment of XMRV researchers (and journalists, and bloggers, I might add), the editors at PLoS have issued a statement where they unequivocally denounce the behavior of the XMRV True Believer Brigade, and unequivocally support the rights of scientists to perform and report their research without harassment:
As the debate about CFS continues, we at PLoS would like to take the opportunity to express support for our authors and for their right, and of course everyone else’s right, to enjoy the freedom to debate and investigate scientific topics openly, constructively, and without fear. This situation has emphasized, to us, the importance of civilized discourse in these matters. Those who threaten researchers’ safety above all do themselves a major disservice by dissuading other researchers from entering the field, chasing away the very people who may be able to help them. It is bad both for science and for patients, and should absolutely not be tolerated.
Though jackoffs like those harassing researchers (and journalists, and bloggers *cough*) might occasionally score a win, its important the public knows that the entities publishing said research will not tolerate that kind of behavior directed towards the scientists who publish in their journals, and the journal itself will not be harassed ‘into line’.
Kudos to you, PLoS ONE, for making that crystal clear.