In June 2016, a study published in the prestigious research journal Science purported to find serious behavioural impairments in larval fishes caused by micro-plastics in sea water. Although the study was done at an island laboratory in the Baltic Sea, it set in motion an expanding exposure of scientific malpractice extending all the way to the Great Barrier Reef and James Cook University in Townsville, where even more serious and extensive malpractice has subsequently been uncovered.
Soon after the study in Science was published, a statement affirming serious misrepresentation in the duration and extent of the reported work was issued by seven other researchers. Two of them were also visiting the Baltic lab when the work reported in Science was claimed to have been carried out.
At the University of Uppsala in Sweden, where the two authors of the disputed study were employed, an in-house investigation was conducted and, without addressing the specific concerns of the whistle-blowers, it found no evidence of misconduct. In addition, they quickly concluded their colleagues had been falsely maligned.
It is noticeable that whenever questions of propriety in research involving environmental threats have risen to a level of public attention where something beyond arrogant dismissal is required, the next level of response is to invoke a cursory “investigation” in which the specifics of any concerns is ignored and a blanket exoneration is issued. Then, if nothing further erupts after a year or two, it also seems the accused are likely to be rehabilitated by some kind of award or other recognition for their valuable achievements.
However, in this instance Sweden also has a Central Ethical Review Board which conducted its own, more thorough inquiry and found there had indeed been serious misconduct amounting to research fraud by the lead author, Dr. Oona Lönnstedt. The University then quickly established a new in-house investigation and came to the same conclusion. A year after publication, the study was formally withdrawn.
The rot spreads
Meanwhile, it transpired that Dr. Lönnstedt (right) had received her PhD at James Cook University in Townsville, where she was either lead author or co-author on some 18 or more published studies that had attracted scientific and even mainstream news interest. This is a remarkable achievement in both quantity and interest for such a young researcher in a relatively short time.
The next shoe to drop was a study Lönnstedt had published while at JCU that involved the predatory behaviour of lionfish. Following the finding of fraud in the Science paper, a concern was raised regarding an improbable number of lionfish claimed to have been used in this study, as it would be very difficult to capture so many at the location where the study was conducted. There were also further questions about an illustration of 50 fish provided with it and which clearly appeared to include multiple images of some individuals and two images that had been flipped making two fish appear to be four. That montage is reproduced at the foot of this article.
When questions about this research were raised in 2017 the response by JCU was again to announce an investigation. A year later their reply to follow up inquiries was that it was being investigated. The next year it was the same. The latest news from JCU is that a retired judge has been appointed to head the inquiry. One might be forgiven for wondering if JCU has dragged its heels in hope that the whole thing would blow over and be forgotten.
Bad to worse
Unfortunately for JCU the situation has grown worse — actually, much worse. On January 8, 2020, a new paper published in the prestigious UK journal Nature reported a 100 per cent failure rate in an extensive three-year effort by the same seven researchers from Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden who had exposed the false claims by Lönnstedt in the Baltic microplastics study. This had led to an examination of other work Lönnstedt had done at JCU, and then attempts to replicate the results of a series of studies by other senior JCU researchers with whom she had also co-authored research publications. These studies reported serious detrimental effects of “ocean acidification” on the behaviour of various coral reef fish species at levels of atmospheric CO2 expected near the end of this century.
The attempt to replicate these effects for more detailed investigation concluded that
… we comprehensively and transparently show that—in contrast to previous studies—end-of-century ocean acidification levels have negligible effects on important behaviours of coral reef fishes, such as the avoidance of chemical cues from predators, fish activity levels and behavioural lateralization (left–right turning preference).
Using data simulations, we additionally show that the large effect sizes and small within-group variances that have been reported in several previous studies are highly improbable. Together, our findings indicate that the reported effects of ocean acidification on the behaviour of coral reef fishes are not reproducible, suggesting that behavioural perturbations will not be a major consequence for coral reef fishes in high CO2 oceans.
The finding of no effect on behaviour at the predicted CO2 levels despite extensive experiments involving over 900 fish of six different species is not surprising. Seawater is strongly buffered against acidification and is not acidic even at much higher levels of CO2. It only becomes slightly less alkaline, not acidic. Furthermore, the reduction in pH being predicted for the end of the century is in fact commonly exceeded on shallow reef tops during low tide at night, when photosynthesis has ceased consuming CO2 and the whole vast community of reef organisms continues to produce it. The ABC’s unquestioning promotion of the notion that ocean acidification will make prey species easier to catch is typical.
Then, too, a huge diversity of fishes live in fresh water where a lack of buffering permits genuinely acidic pH levels to prevail. This includes a significant number of species from a variety of reef fish families which have a capacity to also live in fresh water and which regularly enter streams and rivers. Among them are even several species of damselfishes in the same family as the species used in both the JCU and the replication experiments.
Of the eight key studies which failed to replicate, all involved researchers at JCU and with one author in particular appearing in all and as lead author in four. That person was Philip Munday (left), Professor & Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU. Oona Lönnstedt was one of the co-authors.
Professor Ridd’s concerns validated
While all this in itself may not look very good for JCU, it has further serious implications for an even more difficult problem they face, and that is the unlawful dismissal of Professor Peter Ridd, who was head of the Physics Department at JCU with several decades research experience in siltation, currents and water movements on the Reef. He had become increasing concerned about the doubtful quality of much of the reef research being relied upon for government policy.
In 2017 he went public with his concerns about the quality of Barrier Reef research and the need for replication or other assessment of research used by government. JCU administrators attempted to silence him with draconian orders and threats. When this failed, they fired him. He brought suit for breach of his employment contract and, in April 2019, the court found
…that the 17 findings made by the University, the two speech directions, the five confidentiality directions, the no satire direction, the censure and the final censure given by the University and the termination of employment of Professor Ridd by the University were all unlawful.
The major replication effort’s 100 per cent failure rate for a whole series of studies from the ironically titled ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU specifically confirms the concerns of Professor Ridd. It was some of the ARC work that he used as a key example of to support his complaint for which he was ultimately fired. Now his criticism has been strongly vindicated, as a report by Times Higher Education makes clear:
Lead author of the three-year study, Timothy Clark, said it was the first time anybody had attempted to replicate the “profound” effects of carbon dioxide on fish behaviour outlined in dozens of studies conducted by “a small group of researchers”. He said the team had taken great care to match the conditions of the previous studies while improving the methodology “to maximise transparency and minimise the potential for experimenter biases”.
“We have exhausted all reasonable methodological avenues to explain the disparity in our findings compared with previous studies,” said Dr Clark, an aquatic physiologist at Victoria’s Deakin University.
“The global scientific community deserves to understand how it is possible to achieve such remarkably different findings when addressing the same question.”
Five of the studies the team scrutinised were led by JCU reef researcher Philip Munday.
So, what to make of all this, for
Oona Lönnstedt: It would be tempting to dismiss Lönnstedt as just a dishonest individual who was found out. However, it is important to be aware that in training for science there is normally no formal instruction in the philosophy and ethics of science. It is simply assumed that such understanding prevails in the academic community and will have been absorbed as a matter of course by graduate students.
In Lönnstedt’s case what she absorbed appears to have been what she perceived to be going on around her. The idea that one is engaged in something as important as saving the Great Barrier Reef, or even the whole world, from the dire threat of climate change, is intoxicating. Under such circumstances, it appears to have been deemed excusable, virtuous even, to play loose with the facts when it serves to support such a noble cause. This would be further enhanced if all this seemed to be tacitly accepted and was something that nobody questioned.
In approaching her research in this manner, she was soon receiving recognition and status well beyond her years and experience. In its role as Lönnstedt’s mentor, JCU has a lot to answer for. When she was being lauded as a star student and brilliant young researcher, they were eager to publicise her research and take credit for it. They are now also due equal credit for the malpractices involved in her collaboration with and under the direct supervision of their own senior researchers.
Professor Peter Ridd: The concerns raised by Professor Ridd (right) have now been robustly confirmed in an extensive three-year effort by an international team of seven researchers from four countries. It also appears that the governing council of JCU is going to continue to do nothing to see that the JCU administration end the waste of public funds, the ongoing injustice to Professor Ridd and the ongoing damage to the reputation of the institution entailed in their legal appeal. As JCU is publicly funded, Minister of Education Dan Tehan now has a responsibility to intervene, end the farce and clean JCU’s house of those responsible so that an important institution can begin to redeem itself.
Hopefully too, an appeal court will recognise the true scope of the injustice to Peter Ridd and increase his award for damages that the premature termination of his career has in actuality inflicted. This is especially important in that it is not just the personal damage involved but also the malfeasance that can continue unhindered if speaking out against it is likely to be unprotected and inadequately compensated for retaliation while perpetrators of such injustice are allowed to remain unpunished.
JCU: The JCU administration has achieved a clear track record of inexcusable, multifold and increasing malfeasance in a major public institution. There is abundant reason for Tehan to step in and stop the rot.
Science: The institution of science itself is under serious assault from within by a creeping infection of postmodern nihilism which denies, opposes and corrupts the entire open, evidence based, logically consistent search for objective truth on which science is based. The establishment of a clear formal statement of the philosophy and ethics of science is sorely needed to be developed, taught and practiced across the natural sciences. Without this the ascendency science has provided Western culture will almost certainly shift to wherever it is more fully valued and practiced.
Government: There are at least three important things that need to be addressed.
1/ A formal mechanism for assessing and testing is badly needed for scientific information to be used by government.
2/ A “science court” is needed to adjudicate malpractice, with barring from public funding being a key power of enforcement.
3/ As JCU is to a major extent publicly funded, government has a clear obligation to intervene and stop the rot. The waste and injustice of a continuing appeal against the Ridd decision cries out to be stopped with those responsible appropriately dealt with, perhaps to the extent of prosecution. Allowing this farce to continue at public expense must surely be an ongoing miscarriage of justice.
The Wider Picture
In today’s academic world research grants from government comprise a major element of funding for universities who typically receive a third to a half of the budget of research grants for administration of them and providing the facilities involved. The status of academics in the system and the level of their salaries is strongly related to their ability to obtain grants. Getting through the herd of applicants to a space at the grant trough is highly competitive. A hog’s share goes to recognised researchers who have a lengthy bibliography of professional publications, especially if their research accords with government policy, political correctness and “saving” something. For some idea of the sums involved, Professor Munday’s funded research projects makes interesting reading — and no, the $28 million listed for one project is not a typo.
In the cutthroat realm of “publish or perish” the highest status is accorded publications in the most prestigious and widely read professional journals, Science in the US and Nature in the U.K. being the twin pinnacles. The scramble for publication has also led to most studies in the top journals listing multiple co-authors, with a half-dozen or more being common. Being the lead author, whose name comes first, is also of considerable import. While that position traditionally signified the person who actually did the key work of discovery and/or wrote the manuscript, it is now often the grant-getter. They may have multiple grants with assistants, colleagues and students doing the actual research and writing. Being adept at obtaining grants has become a highly skilled and demanding ability, too valuable to waste time on actual research.
The modern practice of academic research has drifted away from the classical ideals of science and a refreshment and reinforcement of such standards is needed. As most academic research is highly dependent on funding from government, making research malpractice a disqualification for such funding would be highly effective if applied to both individuals and institutions found responsible.
As government also relies heavily on such research in determining policy, it is important not only ethically but also for the effective functioning of government itself that this problem is addressed.
A marine biologist, Walter Starck has spent much of his career studying coral reef and marine fishery ecosystems
The deceptive photo montage