The Importance of Transparency in Research Integrity

Earlier this week, the journal BMC Medicine announced that it will not retract a controversial 2013 paper authored by botanist Steven Newmaster. Instead, the journal has added a new editor’s note that says indicates “no further editorial action is needed at this point”. 

Instead, the journal is leaving intact a February editor’s note that says, “Readers are alerted that concerns have been raised with respect to the reliability of the data presented in this article.”

The move is simply the latest chapter in Newmaster’s history. The paper, originally published in 2013, brought Newmaster to prominence in the field of botany and led to massive amounts of not just academic success, but also entrepreneurial success. 

However, in recent years that work has been called into question and, though several investigations into Newmaster’s work have been completed, his critics feel that those investigations were incomplete and failed to adequately weigh the evidence against him.

While it’s unlikely that all the uncertainty could be cleared, much of the problem stems from a simple fact: The investigations into his work have not been transparent, leaving open questions about the thoroughness and the findings of those investigations.

A Long, Complicated History

In October 2013, Newmaster, along with four coauthors, published a paper entitled DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products in the journal BMC medicine. 

The paper used a process dubbed DNA barcoding, a technique that was pioneered by fellow University of Guelph (UG) researcher Paul Hebert, to test various herbal substances being sold in stores. He found that many commercially-available products were not being sold as advertised and included fillers and even toxic substances mixed in.

The paper garnered a massive amount of attention and even prompted the New York attorney general to conduct an investigation. Suddenly, there was intense pressure on companies selling herbal remedies to validate their products, and Newmaster was one of the top experts in that field. 

Through a pair of companies he co-founded with UG geneticist Robert Hanner, Newmaster provided those services to at least three major supplementmakers. 

More to the point, Newmaster became a leader in this space and, in addition to multiple ventures related to supplement purity, also co-founded ParticleOne, which sells software to assess indoor air for COVID.

However, doubts about his work began to pile up. In 2020, Ken Thompson, a post-doctorate fellow and a co-author on a 2014 study published by Newmaster on forest plants, sounded the alarm and approached UG with concerns about Newmaster’s work. Specifically, he realized that some of the species identifications claimed in their paper were nearly impossible and that he had never seen the raw data nor had it been presented to any of the data banks. 

Those concerns went unheeded by UG, though the journalism Biodiversity and Conservation retracted the article in 2021. However, Thompson teamed up with seven other scientists and, in early 2022, filed a complaint with UG. It was then that a formal investigation began.

Perhaps the most damming evidence came out in a February 2022 feature published by Science Magazine. There, author Charles Piller examined a wide variety of allegations against Newmaster including allegations of plagiarism, pointing to seemingly copied text, charts, images and datasets, as well as evidence of data manipulation running rampant through Newmaster’s work.

According to the article, these findings came after a “review of thousands of pages of Newmaster’s published papers, conference speeches, slide decks, and training and promotional videos,” as well as interviews with dozens of individuals involved.

Newmaster, for his part, has staunchly denied any wrongdoing. In a quote in Piller’s article, he said, “I have never engaged in any unethical activity or academic misconduct.” He further claims that he has never made any money from his various business ventures.

And, to that end, Newmaster has two prominent supporters. First is UG itself. In June 2022 the university revealed the findings of its investigation and said that, while Newmaster’s behavior was “suspicious” and he showed “poor judgment” it ultimately concluded that there was not enough evidence to rule he had committed any misconduct.

The second came this week as BMC Medicine concluded its investigation into the 2013 paper and, ultimately, decided that no further editorial action was needed. In short, the paper would not be retracted.

Thompson, for his part, has said that he and his colleagues plan to “place our full set of concerns into the public domain soon,” signalling that this is not the end story. 

But even if it is the end, it’s an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers as both of these investigations are sharing little more than their conclusions, raising concerns about whether the investigations were as thorough as they needed to be.

The Problem of No Transparency

Right now the problem we, as outsiders, have is simple: Between the Science article and the work of Thompson and his colleagues, we have a mountain of evidence of integrity issues in Newmaster’s work. 

The plagiarism issues alone are clear, and they are mixed with exaggerated claims, in particular at conferences, and concerns over data integrity in his research. 

In short, we have more than ample evidence for, at the very least, deep concern. We also have the findings of both UG and BMC Medicine, both of which say there isn’t enough evidence to take additional action. However, we have very little in between those things.

We have limited idea how these investigations were conducted and how they reached their conclusions. This has brought what is known about the investigations under harsh criticism.

For example, we do know that the final panel in the UG investigation had no one with background into the relevant science. We also know that BMC Medicine based its findings in part on the UG findings and that they did consult an outside reviewer, whose identity has not been disclosed. Thompson also claims that BMC Medicine never reached out to him or his colleagues about the issue.

Both UG and BMC Medicine claim to have followed standard practices, and BMC Medicine further claims to have followed the guidelines set by Committee on Publication Ethics in evaluating the case, but there is no indication as to how the conclusions were drawn.

While it’s entirely possible that both UG and BMC Medicine performed thorough investigations, without the details, the investigation is a black box and outsiders have to simply trust that the findings were fair and correct.

However, that is a difficult ask when you’re dealing with such a prominent researcher and such seemingly compelling evidence. While there may be a myriad of reasons why the evidence was dismissed or inadequate, without details from the investigation it is impossible to know. 

This is grossly unfair to everyone involved. Thompson and the other signatories are left wondering whether the investigations were adequate and Newmaster, whose name should have been cleared by these rulings, still has a cloud hanging over his work, rightly or wrongly.

This is especially true since both UG and BMC Medicine seem to acknowledge issues with Newmaster’s work, but both say that the issues don’t rise to the level of misconduct.

Transparency in these matters helps everyone. If the evidence and investigation do clear Newmaster of wrongdoing, then showing the process can only help him. It also lets those that filed the complaint know that their concerns were taken seriously and handled fairly.

Instead, we are left with nothing but a slew of evidence and accusations and little clue as to how the conclusions were reached.

Bottom Line

We’ve seen time and time again that investigations such as these are always divisive. Accusers always feel they have a strong case, and the accused always feel that they are innocent. Both sides have their supporters.

Appeasing both sides is impossible. However, a good and fair investigation should hear both sides, carefully weigh the evidence and come up with a conclusion that is as close to the truth as possible. 

Unfortunately, in this case, we don’t know what the investigation process was and if it was adequate. Simply put, we don’t know how they drew the conclusions they did and if that process was flawed. This leaves those making the claims against Newmaster feeling unheard.

Simply put, without transparency, there is no conclusion here for them. This case will continue for them, and that means it will also continue for Newmaster. The only way to end cases like this is with a transparent process that proves all the voices and all the evidence was heard.

It’s a simple thing, but it makes a world of difference in disputes such as this one.