Field of Science

Authorship without responsibility?

I'm becoming increasingly disturbed by the behaviour of Wolfe-Simon's arseniclife coauthors.  She shared the credit for the work with 11 other authors but, in the year since the tide of support turned, the senior author is the only one to have said even a word to support her or defend the work.  And even he mostly says 'No comment' or 'We'll wait for the peer-reviewed responses'.  All of the authors signed the Response to Comments published in early June, so I presume they stand by the work.  Why then is Wolfe-Simon the only one speaking up to defend it? 

David Dobbs made this point very well in a post last September on his Wired Neuron Culture blog (Arsenic is Life and the View From Nowhere):
Meanwhile, I know that part of what unsettles me about this story, regardless of how much sympathy one feels is due Wolfe-Simon (and I generally lean toward sympathy), is how both NASA and her mentors and former lab heads seem to have abandoned Wolfe-Simon. It appears they bought and fueled the bus; put bright lights and banners on it; cheered as Wolfe-Simon drove it a bit wildly honking the horn; and have now thrown her under it.
Here's the author list from the paper.  Some of these people are junior members of the Oremland group, or of other research groups, but others are senior scientists with their own NASA-funded laboratories:
  • Felisa Wolfe-Simon:  The lead author, at that time a NASA-funded postdoc in Ron Oremland's group.
  • Jodi Switzer Blum: A long-time member of Ron Oremland's group.
  • Thomas R. Kulp: At the same USGS Menlo Park laboratory as Ron Oremland; has been publishing with them and others since 2004.
  • Gwyneth W. Gordon: Assistant Research Scientist in Ariel Anbar's group.
  • Jennifer Pett-Ridge:  Scientific staff member at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Expertise: Environmental microbial ecology; biogeochemistry; stable isotope probes for analysis of nutrient cycling, molecular genomics of environmental microbial communities, subcellular imaging via TEM and NanoSIM.
  • John F. Stoltz: Director, Center for Environmental Research and Education, and Professor, Environmental Microbiology, at Duqueyne University.  Expertise: microbial arsenic transformation, chromate reduction in the presence of high nitrate, community structure in modern marine stromatolites.
  • Samuel M. Webb: A beam line scientist at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) in the Structural Molecular Biology (SMB) program.
  • Peter K. Weber:  Scientific staff member at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Expertise: Environmental geochemistry; microbial geochemistry; elemental and isotopic tracers; salmonid migration and survival; and mass spectrometry.
  • Paul C. W. Davies: Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, both at Arizona State University.
  • Ariel D. Anbar:  Professor at Arizona State University.  Expertise: environmental chemistry of bioessential and redox-sensitive transition metals, using the isotope biogeochemistry of iron, molybdenum and other “non-traditional” stable isotope systems to examine changes in metal availability through time, particularly in the Precambrian, and to develop novel isotopic biosignatures.
  • Ronald Oremland: Senior Scientist with the USGS Laboratory at Menlo Park.  Expertise: microbial metabolism of reduced gases (e.g., methane, ethane, methyl halides, acetylene), and of toxic elements including selenium, arsenic, tellurium, mercury, and antimony.
The behaviour of these researchers suggests that they're happy to accept credit for this work (a paper in Science to list on their CVs) but unwilling to accept any responsibility for its quality.    Perhaps they see their contributions as contract work—they delivered their data, were paid with authorship, and washed their hands.


  1. "Perhaps they see their contributions as contract work—they delivered their data, were paid with authorship, and washed their hands."

    Is there room for this type of authorship in science? Sometimes you need to bring an expert collaborator in on a study and they may not know (or care) much about the rest of the paper. Is this wrong even though it may make the work significantly better overall?

  2. bioinformatics,complicated statistics, programing, sample analysis by an advanced method, analytical standard synthesis (not reported before)... All this someone did for me at some point. They contributed with a special skill I dont have, they are co-authors.

  3. I think this is an important point that needs to be addressed more often. I personally think Wolfe-Simon has run off the rails with her handling of the press release, response, and now your work (Ill only comment on peer reviewed publications and all that). However, it is important to note that post-docs are often, if not usually, still trainees. So where are the senior authors in all this? I think you are spot on with 'The behaviour of these researchers suggests that they're happy to accept credit for this work (a paper in Science to list on their CVs) but unwilling to accept any responsibility for its quality.'

  4. this 'list of shame' seems a little over the top. after all, rosie et al seem just as guilty of publication-mongering, trying to get their own science paper by 'disproving' a finding that apparently no one believed in the first place.

    i expect a continued cycle of arsenic proof, disproof, proof, etc. at the end of the day, many people will boost their careers off this, without really advancing the science.

  5. Replies
    1. FWS's or Rosie's? seems like both ought to be, if you ask me...although I guess Rosie's would have to be published before it could be retracted

  6. Redfield's post seems spot on to me. I've commented elsewhere that Paul Davies seems to have tucked his tail between his legs and ran for the hills. It's really shameful, that senior scientists left, as has been said here, basically a trainee, to take all the blame!

    1. FWS has chosen to defend herself publicly, the other authors have not. Perhaps they object to being lambasted by unpublished, unreviewed accusations (and don't even TRY to say that grilling Rosie about when one should use error bars constitutes scientific rigour). There's nothing wrong with favoring professional discourse over petty bloggery.

      As for you calling FWS a 'trainee', she received her Ph.D. in 2006 (when did you receive yours? -- try 1993 for me) and has been postdoc-ing ever since. She hardly constitutes a trainee—she's a big girl and if she wants to run point on this, so be it.

      PS Rosie: I noticed your acknowledgements section didn't reference any of the people on this blog, even globally. Given how much you've touted this blog as a 21st century 'salon' for science, you should probably give thanks to the people that contributed experiments and ideas to your work.

    2. I read original science paper, comments of R.R. and others, and reply of F.W.S to those comments. Did someone reacted on that reply (blog if not journal paper)?

  7. FWS made her own bed and continues to do so. Look at this ( ):

    Wolfe-Simon, who says she can’t comment in detail until Redfield’s results appear in a peer-reviewed journal, wrote in an email that her original paper never actually claimed that arsenate was being incorporated in GFAJ-1’s DNA, but that others had jumped to that conclusion. “As far as we know, all the data in our paper still stand,” she wrote. “Yet, it may take some time to accurately establish where the [arsenic] ends up.”

    1. It's easy enough to scan for "DNA" in her paper and check the truth of that statement:

      "These measurements therefore specifically demonstrated that the purified DNA extracted from +As/–P cells contained As. Our NanoSIMS analyses, combined with the evidence for intracellular arsenic by ICP-MS and our radiolabeled 73AsO43– experiments, indicated that intracellular AsO43– was incorporated into key biomolecules, specifically DNA."

      Sure sounds to me that her paper claimed that arsenate was being incorporated in GFAJ-1’s DNA...

    2. It will be interesting to see how she tries and contorts away from those statements. Reminds me of the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings.

  8. I agree, this post is spot-on. The fact that they haven't commented combined with FWS' claim that she was "evicted" from Oremland's group (even though she was basically free with two years of fellowship funding left!) suggest that the senior authors no longer stand by the work. If that is the case, the only responsible thing to do is move to retract the paper.

  9. So I'm a young scientist myself. And I didn't realize until Rosie and others pointed it out that the way FWS has been abandoned by her mentor and collaborators is wrong. Makes me wonder if there haven't been a few flaws in the human side of my training. And the fact it's taken so long for people to notice that the heat is being dumped entirely on one young scientist who had more than ten people behind her when the paper came out and maybe that's not exactly fair is making me wonder if there aren't some flaws in the human side of EVERYONE'S training. Still, it's good to see the rest of them finally getting blasted.

  10. Focus on the data and not the people. This about the science isn't it - or is this about the scientists. The former is much more compelling, the latter is, at best, a petty, personal pursuit.

  11. If someone has been fired because her PI decided (after co-authoring a paper with her in a high-impact journal) that he no longer believes her results, and despite that, is still not moving to retract the paper, then in a time of rampant scientific fraud, it is our responsibility as scientists to openly question whether this is an outright violation of the principles on which our work is founded.

  12. I don't think anyone has (or should have) accused Wolfe-Simon of fraud. Scientists need to be free to make honest mistakes, especially as we're all usually working at the frontiers of our abilities.

    1. You are right Rosie. So why do you waste your energies on smearing other people work And/ or behavior. You have something to dispute do it in a peer review paper and not

    2. Well, is it OK to accuse of incompetence then? Because that's, coupled with sensationalism, is clearly the case here.

    3. @Anon: The whole point here is to demonstrate that the discussion of science need not be locked away in closed-access, peer-reviewed channels. Just as much science happens in the coffee rooms and bars pre-publication, it is perfectly valid to discuss it in analogous situations post-publication, in plain view of everyone. As a scientist, I stand by this, and would be honoured to see my work discussed (and criticised) outside dusty academic journals.

  13. "then in a time of rampant scientific fraud"

    How about "in a time of more awareness of scientific fraud"? There's no evidence fraud in science is rampant.

  14. Anonymi like those above,
    Do we need to keep bringing up the 'peer review' canard?

    Rosie hasn't smeared anyone. A bunch of people decided to post a rubbish paper and grandiose claims; Rosie has done some straightforward experiments to demonstrate that they are probably wrong.

    What she has done is talk about her experiments on an open forum that anyone can access (and doesn't even need to pay unaffordable subscription fees), this is as "peer review"-y as you can get. I find FWS's lack of comments in this forum conspicuous.

    1. hi notanastrobiologist,

      i do think that rosie has smeared these scientists: she has been calling FWS and her colleagues irresponsible even before any evidence existed to challenge their claims (eg, she called arseniclife a travesty of peer review in a scifoo talk prior to any GFAJ experiments). i mean, it's become quite a spectacle: rosie angling to get her own press and high profile papers for showing a few weeks' worth of results that 'disprove' a finding no one believed in the first place. perhaps the line between science and careerism/publicity stunt has already been crossed. as a big fan of rosie's DNA uptake work, i think this is unfortunate.

      regarding your claim that this blog constitutes peer have to admit the scientific comments on this blog are risible at best (and links to vile images at worst). just imagine them on Science magazine letterhead.

    2. @ precociouschild:

      The "peer review" discussion should be put aside. Also the idea, which is also a smear, that all blog comments would be science.

      As for the rest, I simply don't understand the back-and-forth suggestion here, if the initial science got a high profile why wouldn't a refutation not warrant it?

      The usual claim is that, for example, the media doesn't give equal time. For once, they seem to act more responsive to the situation.

      You can't smear new work with the characteristics of the old without tainting the old. And we have yet to see Rosie's NASA press conference.

      From this OT the return to our regularly scheduled science. The arsenic uptake results are debunked as expected. That is good, it means chemists know their stuff.

    3. Hi Rosie,
      I very much love blog. Have questions with debunk:

      (i) can we verify final GFAJ-1 dna preps are actually GFAJ-1 by 16s seq (i know you make sure early but best to dot the t and cross your eyes!)

      (ii) What about micro–x-ray absorption near-edge spectroscopy data (my specialty!) showing As peaks in very unusual arrangements inside GFAJ (not As-S! not As-Fe). as these experiment happen with intact cell, chance for As protection machinery still inside DNA to save DNA (unlike in your expt where we expect hydrolysis). how you interpret this data?

      (iii) what regard to earlier question a "open reviewer (^_^)" about dAMA v. As. Both the timescale of hydrolysis. AND That is, why you no standards when they can be made?

      (iv) can you reproduce FWSs original 'false results' to show that you repeat what she saw but that when you do assay properly it does not indicate arsenate. When me and my old boss (Xianu Xie Xiang) refute a paper we must first show that we can SEE the garbage they see, but then when we do experiment appropriately we see that it IS garbage. As old chinese proverb say: 为了开释手套必须符合

      Looking forward to the final bunk!

      Liong "Hugh" Jidong

    4. @precociouschild
      Smearing indicates some underhand way of administering ad hominem or poisoning the well. None of that happened. The scientists were criticised for the work they did and the conclusions they reached.

      'Comments are risible' You should treat these comments in the same way as chats over the coffee with researchers working on different topics. You would be bloody upset if they were able to find flaw in your work from just a chat and a few graphs. More, you might get an idea of how to progress your own work further. Of course, if you think you could have raised the level of comments, why didn't you?

      Dr Redfield's blogs will lead to a new style of publication and probably fewer mistakes in finished papers. One example you might consider, FWS would not be having such a bad time, if she had blogged her results before publication.

      Notepad blogging and open source publishing benefits everyone except the existing publishers. The model could do with tuning with peer assessment but is a better way then the existing system.

      I'm long retired from research and understand only too well the frustration of being unable to access papers, especially now I'm net paying for the research.

  15. Rosie hasn't been angling to get press as far as I know, she certainly didn't hold a press conference with a 3D animation of phosphorus atoms being raptured from a DNA segment and replaced with arsenic.

    She has every right to post whatever she wants on her blog, if people interview her because it is related to calling shenanigans (my words, not hers) on a very hyped public event, all the better. Calling her response to a publiciy stunt a publicity stunt, doesn't leave much space to call out these types of science disasters.

    The (presumably eventual) venue of her published response is entirely appropriate given that is where the original paper was published. Even if Rosie was rubbing her hands together, laughing maniacally, DOING AND PUBLISHING SCIENCE TO FURTHER HER does that make her different than anyone else?

    Peer review happens when people that are smart are given an efficient means to exchange information, not much more to it. I don't judge a blog based on how many spam comments here are, junk is pretty easy to filter....I measure on how insightful the best comments are, and you can see some sound discussion in the previous post. There isn't anything stopping anyone to contributing their thoughts.

    Science let through a paper that was shooting whole gel slices with MS, for no apparent reason. Contrast and compare with the comments on this blog.

    You can find plenty of insightful critical discussion in blog world, they are often ignited by crankish papers getting attention...take a look at Terrance Tao's posts on the P!=NP paper. It doesn't really matter if insightful thoughts are posted in print journals, web sites or toilet paper...they are still insightful. This blog, run by someone actually doing relevant experiments is as an appropriate place to peer review as under a Science letterhead. I am absolutely confused as to why you might think otherwise.

    There was something incredibly fishy about this entire affair right from the press conference (determined cringeworthy by Oremland) , but it is hard for people like children and non specialists to be able to tell. Rosie is putting in a very respectable time and effort in clearing it up. I am very glad she has made her efforts so easy to analyse and discuss.

  16. For the person who said there is no evidence to suggest that fraud is rampant:

    This is just one of many surveys revealing that a significant portion of scientists admit to witnessing or participating in misconduct...

  17. Nothing in that blog post indicates that fraud is rampant in science.

  18. Okay, I guess (?) you are taking issue with my use of the word "rampant" an my use of the word "fraud", and if that's the case, you are right, it was hyperbole. But it is fair to say that there is "significant" "misconduct" in science.

    I did not mean to directly accuse FWS of fraud. I meant to raise the possibility that one or more of the authors of the paper engaged in scientific or professional misconduct, which I think is reasonable given that a well-funded, highly successful postdoc was abruptly fired by her co-author PI. What are the possible reasons why this would happen? Misconduct (committed by someone, not necessarily FWS) was the first thing that came to my mind, but maybe someone else has a better, more reasonable explanation?

  19. Additional statistics related to scientific misconduct:

    1. I believe that is the same study you quoted earlier, right?

      So a small fraction of scientists (14%, about 1 in 7) have ever observed a colleague falsify any data - throughout their entire career.

      I'm not going to dig for the data, but I suspect that is probably a smaller % than for medical or legal malpractice. Not to mention ethics violation (or for that matter, felony convictions) in congress.

      Ok, so that last one is a bad counterexample - unethical and illegal activity in Congress *is* rampant, but I digress...

  20. "The behaviour of these researchers suggests that they're happy to accept credit for this work (a paper in Science to list on their CVs) but unwilling to accept any responsibility for its quality."

    OR... Perhaps they have a peer-reviewed paper and do not see the value in arguing with every blogger on the internet. They already published their responses to criticism and addressed each of your points in the published exchange in Science. Until someone publishes a peer-reviewed paper that contradicts their results, these authors do not owe you or anyone on the internet any sort of acknowledgement. They have made it clear that if that happens they will respond. Publish or STFU. That is the system that we have always had, and you can whine all you want to but that is how it will continue to be.

  21. They don't have to argue with every blogger on the Internet. Some defacto sites emerge as central places to discuss crankish papers like the one at issue.

    Take a look at how some high profile mathematicians collaborated over blogs to demonstrate that the Deolalikar P vs. NP paper was not sound.

    There are a number of points in the FWS paper and presentation that left many of us scratching our heads. It doesn't cost very much to come on to a blog and select good questions and try to provide comprehensive answers. The author's evasiveness on what would've seemed to be one of the greatest biological discoveries ever, is concerning.

    Take a look at how many high profile scientists engage many people on places like blogs (e.g. Paul Krugman).

    The FWS authors have projected themselves as obstinate by not casually engaging in public discussion.. The odd, and inconsistent statements that FWS has made in interviews, in my mind, cements the idea that this whole affair appears to be a result of something approaching incompetence.

    1. I completely agree, but would add that Ron Oremland has made even odder, more inconsistent statements, comparing himself and FWS to Einstein in the early days and more recently saying that he was embarrassed by the press conference and that he may be "eating crow" after Rosie's paper is reviewed and published. He is gradually distancing himself from the results in the public sphere. But will he keep the Science paper on his CV? Probably.

    2. what I have found more odd than either of these is the fact that Rosie and colleagues have not responded to a number of thoughtful criticisms posed on these comments. some of these comments (for example Jidong's earlier post that contained 4 points worth of criticism, all of which seemed fair), were erased by administrators. it would not surprise me if this post is also deleted for even bringing these points up.

      Additionally, NAAB suggests that RRResearch has "emerge[d] as [a] central place to discuss crankish papers like the one at issue". He cites how effective blog based review can be by referencing the Deolalikar P v. NP internet discussions and that "many high profile mathematicians collaborated" to refute the claims. However, the type of discussion that you could find on the polymath forums and the type of discussion that's been going on here on RRResearch are like night and day. Many commenters are lay-people. Those who claim to have backgrounds in the subject matter (including the coauthors of the submitted article!), don't even have basic facts like halflife of the arsenate ester a dAMA nucleotide correct.

      I don't think its "obstinate" to wait until the finished product of Rosie and co's work comes out for them to provide comment, nor do I think its worth them wasting their time in engaging in casual conversation with people who, in general, don't really know what they're talking about.

      While i have very much enjoyed following Rosie's progress on bother her DNA uptake work as well as her efforts to get to the bottom of the GFAJ-1 story, I can't say that the dialogue among this blog's readers has improved the overall quality of her work (I imagine Rosie agrees as she didn't even tongue-in-cheek acknowledge this forum in her Science submission)


  22. Everyone knows this paper so well that it is irrelevant whether these authors "keep it on their CV". Most of these authors on this paper including Oremland already have several Science papers on their CVs. While many people would probably cling to any Science paper on their CV for prestiege and career advancement, Oremland and many of the other authors do not need to do this.

  23. Rosie, I'll be the first person to applaud and commend you for your work to get scientists engaged in a more open and "real-time" discussion of their results. That said, this post is the wrong way to do it.

    There are many scientists out there that are not interested in engaging in scientific debates and discussion on blogs or in the media. One source of their reticence is the observation that tenor of the debate can quickly degrade in these environments (blogs in particular). Between anonymous posting and lower-level debate practices such as ad hominem attacks, they feel it is not worth their time and below the level of discourse maintained in scientific journals. Despite my enthusiasm for online scientific discourse, I share that concern. Posts such as these that make suppositions about the motivations of the authors are a big part of the problem.

    To be fair, many of the comments critiquing your post contain the same problem. Your critics above do not know whether you posted this because you are trying to get more scientists actively engaged in this conversation, whether it was to drive up the visits to your website, or whether it was to leverage this paper to spark a broader discussion about the responsibility of co-authors in the public discourse on a manuscript.... or whether it was for some other reason. But just as they are unaware of your motivations, you are unaware of the reasons the co-authors of the paper have chosen to remain silent.

    I contend speculations such as these as to motivations of individual scientists isn't helping any cause, including the one we share of encouraging more online discussions of scientific results.


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