Research detective wins standing up for science prize

Elisabeth Bik wins John Maddox Prize for exposing image and data manipulation in published scientific papers

December 1, 2021
Elisabeth Bik
Source: Elisabeth Bik

The 2021 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science has been awarded to Elisabeth Bik, a research integrity consultant who has faced intimidation for raising concerns about almost 5,000 scholarly papers.

The £3,000 prize acknowledges Dr Bik’s work spotting image and data manipulation, plagiarism and methodological concerns, which has led to retractions and corrections and has prompted publishers to better screen the images in submitted papers, the judges said.

“We owe an enormous debt of thanks to Elisabeth Bik for her indefatigable and painstaking work, which has examined the integrity of scientific papers over many years. The world is better off thanks to the light that she has brought to some dark corners of science,” said Natasha Loder, health policy editor at The Economist and one of the judges.

Dr Bik gained global attention in March 2020, when she wrote a critique of research by Didier Raoult, a French scientist who championed using hydroxychloroquine as a Covid treatment. Dr Bik posed questions about his trial’s size, ethics, protocols and unusually quick peer review.

The World Health Organisation has since advised against using the drug for Covid, but not before Donald Trump tweeted about it while he was US president, causing the controversial treatment to become popular.

Dr Bik, who generally tweets her findings and works for free, said scientific integrity work was “often not considered to be a real part of science, with little to no funding opportunities and very few awards”.

“Unfortunately, as I have experienced in the past years, being critical about scientific papers can lead to online harassment, doxxing and threats of lawsuits and jail time,” she said.

The John Maddox Prize is jointly organised by the charity Sense About Science and the journal Nature.

An additional early career prize, also worth £3,000, was awarded to Mohammad Sharif Razai, an academic clinical fellow at St George’s, University of London, for raising awareness of evidence-based racial health inequalities.

“Sir John Maddox set an example for researchers and clinicians like me to stand up for what is right and never sidestep controversy even if it receives a hostile reception in high places. My work on racial health inequalities brought me in the crosshairs of those who thought that they could sacrifice scientific evidence in the service of a short-term political project,” Dr Razai said.

“No matter what obstacles and challenges we may face as scientists in the Global North, it is not the same as Afghan scientists, especially women and those from racial minorities, who literally pay with their lives in speaking truth and standing up for their rights. I remember them and dedicate this prize to them.”

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