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The Trouble with Transparency

Last week we posted an article by two journalists, Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, who argued that the integrity of the scientific and medical literature depends on protecting tools that ensure greater transparency about financial ties to industry that could potentially bias research results. We have heard from many groups who were deeply offended by the article. Our intention was not to cause offense and we wish to express our apologies to any members of the scientific community who felt the post misrepresented their situation. A desire for transparency is in line with the competing interests policies of PLOS, but we appreciate that the realities of implementation may pose challenges. We have since offered to others, including Dr. Kevin Folta, one of the cases mentioned in the post, the opportunity to contribute their views to the debate, under similar conditions, on this blog.

The tools in question in the original piece by Thacker and Seife include public records and Freedom of Information Act requests. These tools, the authors argue, give reporters, and members of the public, access to documents with the potential to uncover undeclared conflicts of interest, dubious research practices, fraud and scientific misconduct. Without these tools, the authors go on to say, the integrity of the scientific and medical literature could be in jeopardy.

We felt the message—that if researchers disclose any and all ties, financial or otherwise, to industries that benefit from research that they engage in, it helps build public confidence in that research by virtue of showing there is nothing to hide—is one that is well worth debating.

That financial conflicts of interest can influence research results is well-documented in the scientific and medical literature. Against a backdrop where research output doubles nearly every decade and concerns over fraud, misconduct and research reliability are on the rise, we at PLOS Biology believe that efforts to boost scientific integrity, literacy and transparency are sorely needed. That’s why when two journalists with a track record for exposing corruption in science came to us with an article outlining the reasons to protect tools to ensure transparency – even though many scientists see the tools as invasive and disruptive — we offered to consider their piece for our blog.

Nonetheless, we appreciate that some of the parties mentioned in the article took grave offense at the authors’ characterization of their situation. In particular, Dr. Kevin Folta, one of several cases mentioned in the article, has publicly stated some of his issues with the article and the authors’ interpretation. Unfortunately, our processes went wrong and we failed to respond as quickly as we should have to Dr. Folta’s initial message to us. We are reviewing our processes to ensure that a similar failure will not be repeated.

We continue to believe that this is an important, if highly charged, issue that merits discussion. On Monday we offered Dr. Folta the opportunity to provide his views on conflicts of interest on PLOS Biologue. We invite your comments and are currently approaching others to showcase and present a variety of views and experiences relating to the FOIA, COI disclosures and transparency in scientific research and publishing.


  1. This is beyond simple and PLoS editors still can’t get it right.

    The authors posted false and defamatory information about me, and you were notified that it is false, complete with evidence. Your site was the seed that spread that false information to other venues, and continues to do so.

    You are hosting an activist’s harmful language that is meant to damage the career and credibility of a PLoS author and reviewer.

    Your journal has offered me space to “add to the debate”. I do not understand why we have to debate false information. Do I get to spin wild tales of Seife and Thacker that give them professional harm?

    Sorry, if that’s the eye-for-an-eye you are offering me I”m not going there. They published false information in YOUR venue, you were notified that this is harmful, and you let it stand. Anyone can see that their journalistic integrity leaves much to be desired. I was never asked or interviewed.

    If this is the kind of hatchet job you are going to freely host, then I will strongly recommend that all scientists seriously consider publishing in, or reviewing for PLoS journals.

  2. Thank you for offering space for debate and transparency. Full disclosure is the only way forward.


  3. Sorry, Biologue, you still don’t get it. Discussing issues is one thing (yes, I agree, transparency is important). But PLOS as an organization has no business hosting the kind of mischaracterizations that were rife in Thacker and Seife’s article, and Biologue needs to dissociate itself EXPLICITLY from those specific statements and to make a clear policy for the future that posts with such statements are not permissible. If Biologue doesn’t understand how this article has undermined the credibility of PLOS as an honest broker, they can contact me for a simple explanation. Just by way of disclosure, I am an academic editor at PLOS Biology, Genetics, and ONE, and am on the editorial advisory boards of Bio and ONE. So, I have more than just a generic interest in the credibility of PLOS as a whole.
    It is very important for Biologue, in the future, to make sure that blog posts are about issues and not people. It may make for posts that are less fun to read, but we aren’t here to have fun.
    Again, I think that transparency is critical to science, because it is a fundamental part of HONESTY. Doesn’t Biologue understand how an article with dishonest reporting can undermine that mission?

  4. This is what I wrote on the PLOS One editors internal forum in response to this new post:

    The response is insufficient, although a step in the right direction. The original guest post misquoted emails in a manner that cannot without much difficulty be seen as honest.

    Few scientists have the courage and energy to bring expertise to socially debated and important issues. The mission of PLOS should be to encourage them. This blog post [the one of Thacker and Seife] does the opposite, it participates to the message that bringing scientific expertise when it’s unpopular will bring you trouble, even from institutions which should be your allies.

    I have been committed to the mission of PLOS for a long time, and I am proud to contribute my time and expertise to PLOS One. We need to get this right as a community, to continue the mission of contributing to public access and use of scientific knowledge.

    At this stage, I feel that the best solution would be a retraction of the original blog post, similar to what Science Magazine did for the infamous “Ask Alice” column:

  5. – A Message from the /r/Science Team

    This apology isn’t enough, and it is imperative that the original article be removed with full-apology. Over the past few days, we have been closely following this story unfold. Full disclosure, we currently operate a weekly Q&A session in collaboration with PLoS journals (PLoS Wednesday Science AMA Series), which is part of our broader Science AMA Series that reaches out to our 9+ Million subscribers. In addition, we have now had Dr. Kevin Folta participate in our Science AMA Series on two occasions.

    Our outreach efforts at /r/science connect the public directly to scientists. Unfortunately, we see distortion and misrepresentation of facts made by journalists, such as in the original article, happen far too often. It is impossible to have a discussion about transparency and then purposely misrepresent conclusions made by recent research through veiled usage of primary literature citations, all while conducting personal attacks on practicing scientists AND without any initial avenue for fair rebuttal.

    These two journalists have undermined the credibility of themselves, PLoS and advocates of transparency in science – a group that we consider ourselves a leading voice for on the internet. We are disheartened that PLoS would ever allow such an article to be posted, and shocked that they continue to refuse to denounce the piece and remove it. In the scientific community, PLoS has always been a supporter for the open disclosure of valid, peer-reviewed facts and data. This type of article is incongruous to their mission as well as the beliefs held by so many of the practicing scientists (as editors, authors and reviewers) that make PLoS what it is.

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