A group of whistleblowers has asked three funding agencies for a misconduct investigation into a series of 22 research papers, many of them on the effects of ocean acidification on fish behavior and ecology.
The request rests on what they say is evidence of manipulation in publicly available raw data files for two papers.
The disputed papers’ main authors –Philip Munday (a marine ecologist) and Danielle Dixson (a U.S. biologist)– emphatically deny making up data, and James Cook University, Townsville, in Australia has dismissed the fabrication allegations against one of them after a preliminary investigation. But multiple independent scientists and data experts who reviewed the case flagged what they said were serious problems in the data sets.
Back in 2009, Munday and Dixson began to publish evidence that ocean acidification –a proposed knock-on effect of the rising carbon dioxide (CO2) level in Earth’s atmosphere– has a range of striking effects on fish behavior, such as making them bolder and steering them toward chemicals produced by their predators. As one journalist covering the research put it, “Ocean acidification can mess with a fish’s mind.” The pairs’ findings were even included in a 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and ultimately have “profound consequences for marine diversity” and fisheries, warned Munday and Dixson.
But their work has since come under attack.
In January 2020, a group of seven scientists, led by fish physiologist Timothy Clark of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, published a Nature paper reporting that in a massive, 3-year study, they didn’t see these dramatic effects of acidification on fish behavior at all.
The Seven went further still, accusing Munday and Dixson of “methodological or analytical weaknesses” which might have led to irreproducible results (aka fraud).
The Seven are known for taking a strong interest in sloppy science and fraud — they had previously blown the whistle on a 2016 Science paper by another former Ph.D. student of Munday’s that was subsequently deemed fraudulent and retracted–and felt the Nature paper hinted at malfeasance.
In August 2020, Clark and three other members of the group took another, far bigger step: They asked three funders that together spent millions on Dixson’s and Munday’s work –the Australian Research Council (ARC), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)– to investigate possible fraud in 22 papers.
The request, which they shared with a Science reporter, rests on what they say is evidence of manipulation in publicly available raw data files for two papers, one published in Science, the other in Nature Climate Change, combined with remarkably large and “statistically impossible” effects from CO2 reported in many of the other papers. They also provided testimony from former members of the Dixson and Munday labs, some of whom monitored Dixson’s activities and concluded she made up data.
Munday retired from JCU in April of this year and has since emigrated to Tasmania, but emphasizes there is no connection between that timing and the allegations. Dixson denies making up data as well, “I fully stand by all the data I’ve collected, I stand by the papers that we’ve published,” she says, adding; “There hypothetically could be an error in there,” perhaps because of mistakes in transcribing the data; “I don’t know. I’m human.”
Multiple scientists and data experts unconnected to the Clark group who reviewed the case also flagged a host of problems in the two data sets, with one even finding serious irregularities in the data for additional papers co-authored by Munday.
This case isn’t just about data and the future of the oceans. It highlights issues in the sociology, psychology, and politics of science, including pressure on researchers to publish in top-tier journals, the journals’ thirst for eye-catching and alarming findings, and the risks involved in whistleblowing.
Members of the Clark group say they will soon publicize the alleged data problems on PubPeer, a website for discussion of published work.
For a more detailed look into the disputed research, click HERE.
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