How a well-known scientific journal "set up" an honest scientist through a conspiracy of lies and deception
But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me..........
When Russian scientist Irina Ermakova revealed the results of her studies of rats which had been fed on a diet of GM soy in 2005, there was immediate and widespread press coverage, since her findings indicated that the fertility of animals fed on the GM material was compromised, and that the survival rates of offspring were dramatically reduced (1). Her results were seized upon by anti-GM campaigners and consumer groups, since they seemed to confirm other published research showing damage to the vital organs of animals fed on GM plants of various kinds (2). The GM industry and the regulatory bodies in Europe and elsewhere were not best pleased, and over the past two years they have sought to marginalise and vilify Dr Ermakova, to demonstrate that her research methods were fundamentally flawed, and to spread the message that her findings were anomalous and untrustworthy. One of their on-going criticisms has been that the research cannot be trusted because it is not peer-reviewed and published in a "respectable" scientific journal. However, Dr Ermakova has admitted over and again that her facilities in Moscow and her research design are not perfect, and that there may be aspects of her work that can be improved. She has had no cooperation whatsoever from Monsanto or from the Russian Academy of Science, and indeed they have sought to block her research by starving her of funds and refusing to supply her with GM soy for the feeding experiments. Against all the odds, she has repeated her experiments five times, with very similar results on each occasion. And she has repeatedly called for others to replicate or improve her experiments -- a call which has gone unheeded thus far. It does not take a genius to work out that the GM industry is very scared that any new research will simply confirm Ermakova's findings. For the same reason, Pusztai's controversial research involving GM potatoes (3) has never been repeated. So the instinct of the GM industry, when shown research results which are uncomfortable, is to do what it has always done -- shoot the messenger.
The key events are as follows. We have in our possession the crucial documents to support every single point.
1. In the summer of 2007 a group of four scientists (Bruce M Chassy, L. Val Giddings, Alan McHughen and Vivian Moses) contacted the Editor of Nature Biotechnology and asked him if he would facilitate an opportunity for them to attack the research methods and findings of Dr Irina Ermakova (4). He agreed to this request (5).
2. The Editor of the journal wrote to IE on 25th June 2007. Extracts: "I am writing to you because the journal has been approached by a group of authors wishing to critique the results of your work that have been discussed in public forums." "......... the journal would, however, prefer to provide you with an opportunity to present your own findings and conclusions in your own words, rather than a critique from one side. I was therefore wondering whether you be willing to answer (via e-mail or telephone) a set of questions about your work, with a view to their questions and answers being published as part of an article?"
3. In a letter dated 28 June the editor stated: "I envisage an article that would present the results and conclusions you previously discussed at the NAGS symposium on genetic modification in Russia, together with community feedback." (6)
4. In the exchange of correspondence between June and September 2007 IE repeatedly asked if she could submit a paper in the normal way, presenting her results for consideration, peer review, and eventual acceptance / rejection (6). But the Editor (letter dated 29 June) indicated his reluctance to accept a submission on the grounds that the research results "have already been published publicly and discussed widely in the media". He indicated that the results were "no longer eligible for peer review at Nature Biotechnology under our policies." On the same day IE responded that, having repeated her experiments five times, she had new data to report. The Editor then agreed to accept a short "presubmission enquiry", but continued to encourage her to participate in a question and answer session.
5. On 19 July the Editor sent his list of questions to IE, and she sent her responses to him on 2nd August. Her text was edited and finalized on 14th August after the provision of certain additional information requested by the Editor. With the text she provided 12 references.
6. On 7th August Ermakova's offer to submit a paper entitled "Comparison of effects of different kinds of maternal diet with soy modified by gene CP4 EPSPS on rat offspring" was turned down by Dr Kathy Aschheim, Senior editor of Nature Biotechnology, on the pretext that it would be more appropriate for another journal.
7. On 20 August the Senior Production Editor of Nature Biotechnology sent IE a "dummy proof" in PDF format (7), with the title "GM Soybeans and health safety -- a controversy reexamined" and with Irina V Ermakova listed beneath the title as author. Eight of the original 12 references had been deleted. In the introductory paragraph (presumably written by the Editor) were the words "Nature Biotechnology approached Ermakova to ask for a detailed account of her work in her own words. Her answers are presented below together with comments solicited from a group of researchers working in the field." The comments from the group of researchers were NOT included in the dummy proof, which was referred to as a "publication proof." (8)
8. On 12th September, without any further reference to IE, the article was published on the Nature Biotechnology web site. It was now a totally different article, with Andrew Marshall listed as author, with 20 new references (all chosen to bolster the case made by the "group of four"), with photos and biographical notes on Val Giddings, Bruce Chassy, Alan McHugh and Vivian Moses, and with lengthy critiques by the group inserted after every one of the answers provided by IE.
9. The critiques printed in the article are not attributed to individuals, but appear to be the "agreed positions" of the four of them working together. There must have been considerable communication between them before the wording of each critique was finalized for publication.
10. On the day of publication, IE asked for a copy of the published article, and it was sent to her in PDF format (9). This was the first time she had seen it in its final form, and the first time she had seen the comments from the "group of four." She was surprised to see that her name had been replaced by that of Andrew Marshall as author. On the same day the Editor sent an Email to IE to explain the rationale behind the change of attribution at the head of the article. He wrote: ......."it was decided to present the article from a neutral point of view of an editor, with both your viewpoints and those of the other authors presented together."
THE CUNNING LITTLE PLAN
It is clear from the early correspondence that the initiative for this extraordinary piece of deception and duplicity came from the "group of four". At no time was IE told who these people were, or what sort of "community" they represented. Had she been told, she would certainly not have cooperated in this exercise, in view of the known reputations of the "group of four" as spokesmen for the GM industry and as researchers with no expertise in her research field (10). She was not told at any stage what final form the article would take, and as we can see from the above she was led to believe that the "other side" would ask the questions, and she would be able to provide the answers.
The statement in the article referring to "comments solicited from a group of researchers" is patently untrue, since the Editor's letter dated 25 June makes it clear that the researchers made the first approach to him, and that he responded favourably to their suggestion.
Throughout the correspondence, IE was cooperative and trusting, and clearly assumed that the Editor was intent upon publishing an honest discussion of assorted scientific issues (6). As recently as publication day (12th September 2007), she was under the impression that this was "her" article, and that her name should have been on the piece as author. Indeed, this was a natural conclusion, given the nature of the "dummy proof" which she was sent.
The sending of this "dummy proof" is in our experience absolutely unprecedented, and is in total contravention of good academic practice. It is also unethical, and can only be interpreted as a deliberate (and successful) attempt to lead an honest scientist into a sordid trap laid by academics who should know better, with the connivance of a supposedly respectable journal. The actions of this group of five men are doubly reprehensible when one considers that English is not Dr Ermakova's first language and that she was not in a position to interpret the subtleties of wording in the Editor's letters to her.
The liaison between the "peer reviewers" in this case also raises serious questions, since traditionally peer reviewers should be acknowledged experts in the field; they should be chosen by the Editor; they should act independently, without reference to one another; they should be prepared to put their names to their own comments; and they should be willing to communicate with the author prior to publication with a view to improving the quality of the submitted material. But the most crucial point of all is that reviewers should always assume that the colleague whose work is being scrutinized is honest and sincere; and the comments from the "group of four" are singularly lacking in respect for an honest scientist who has been working under very difficult conditions.
Since none of the comments in the final article is attributed to any individual, there is a distinct possibility that they were written either (a) by a "ghost writer" or (b) by a much larger group of individuals from the GM industry working together.
As a piece of crude character assassination, this is on a par with what happened to Arpad Pusztai in 1999, and there are some VERY serious questions that now need to be asked about the editorial practices, affiliations and motives of a journal which used to be a serious scientific publication (11). This is "tabloid academic publishing" involving deception, lies, duplicity and editorial malpractice. What we effectively have in this article is a piece of very brutal and biased (and inaccurate) peer reviewing by a self-selected and ill-qualified group of GM proponents (12), in print and on the record, and published without the vilified scientist being given any opportunity to defend herself.
2. A selection of articles:
3. Ewen SWB and Pusztai A, Lancet, 354, 1353-1354, 1999
4. None of these scientists is an expert in the field of animal physiology,
toxicology or laboratory-based animal nutrition studies, and none of them would
have been qualified to peer review any article that might have been submitted
by Irina Ermakova. Further information here:
Bruce M Chassy
Bruce Chassy has received research grants from major food companies and has conducted seminars for Monsanto, Genencor, Amgen, Connaught Labs and Transgene.
5. Letter from Dr Andrew Marshall to Dr Irina Ermakova dated 25 June 2007.
6. GM Free Cymru is in possession of the full file of correspondence between Dr Irina Ermakova and Dr Andrew Marshall, June - September 2007.
7. This dummy proof is in the possession of GM Free Cymru.
8. Email message from Ingrid McNamara, Senior Production Editor, to Irina Ermakova, dated 20 August 2007
9. The published version of the article, as sent to Dr Ermakova on
12th September 2007 following her request, is in the possession of GM Free
Cymru. The abstract is here:
10. This point is admitted in the critical comments by the "group of four" on page 985 of the published article.
11. Nature Biotechnology was also implicated in the attempts in 2002-2005
to discredit Prof Ignacio Chapela's work on GM maize in Mexico, and to get
him sacked from his position in UC Berkeley.
12. In the declaration of competing interests accompanying the published article, there is only one declaration -- from Vivian Moses. He describes CropGen (of which he is Chairman) as "an information service directed at informing the UK public about agricultural biotechnology." However, on the appropriate web site, CropGen's mission statement includes these words: "....CropGen's mission is to make the case for GM crops and foods..."
GM Free Cymru
17th September 2007