“Remember the saying ‘when they go low, we go high’? Well, they did go low, as low as you can imagine. And I will try to go high, as much as ‘their low’ allows me. — The tale starts with a cartoonish illustration of a baboon, labeled ‘figure 1.’ Next to the baboon’s rump appears a sketch of its feces or ‘the sample.’ — Someone posted online a video zooming in and revealing the details of ‘the sample.’ The face of Donald J. Trump had been purposely inserted into the sketch. — Outrageous acts by scientists cannot simply vanish.”
By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C
Remember the saying “when they go low, we go high”? Well, they did go low, as low as you can imagine. And I will try to go high, as much as “their low” allows me.
The tale starts with a 1.5-inch cartoonish illustration of a baboon, labeled “figure 1,” in the journal Scientific Reports, a branch of the prestigious Nature. Next to the baboon’s rump appears a 1/4-of-an-inch sketch of its feces. From here on, I will refer to it as “the sample.” The purpose of the publication was to document a new technique for DNA extraction from baboons’ excretions and, potentially, from any other animal. The breakthrough was significant, it allowed scientists to exclude unwanted DNA (exogenous) that the organism had eliminated after digesting multiple food items (each with its own DNA), and focus the analysis on a single DNA, in this case the baboon’s (host DNA).
The study was released January 31, 2018. But it took until early December to gain media notoriety. Why? Someone posted online a video zooming in and revealing the details of “the sample.” A minimum of 800-percent magnification was needed to spot the meme, and only a 3000-close-up exposed it fully. The face of Donald J. Trump had been purposely inserted into the sketch.
Although a youthful celebration surged on Facebook/Twitter, scientists condemned the deed (regardless of their opposition to the White House’s current stance on science). But it was not clear who was responsible. The authors? An illustrator? At what point during the editorial process ―which included resubmissions of the work― was the image modified to depict the face of Trump?
I commented on the journal’s website, at the end of the article: “Author(s) and/or the person who did the illustration deceived the editorial or article-production process by introducing a concealed message irrelevant to the research; he/she/they misused the purpose of the Scientific Reports platform, i.e. to communicate best science to the scientific community.”
On December 14, 2018, the journal posted: “The editors have become aware of unusual aspects to the ‘Extract fecal DNA’ illustration in figure 1. We are investigating, and appropriate editorial action will be taken once the matter is resolved.”
Rejections by scholars continued on the Scientific Reports’ interface; here, I abridge some. Scooter wrote “Any credibility these ‘researchers’ may have enjoyed was instantly nullified by their juvenile attempt at making a political statement. What are you people, like 10-years-old?” Anil added: “Dear authors, if you consider you have exercised your ‘freedom of expression’, you are wrong. What you did has absolutely nothing to do with the science you reported. Freedom is ‘whatever I want to do within a sphere of accountability and responsibility'”. And Ron stated: “So you thought it would be cute to add the President’s face to [the] monkey [sample]. Congratulations, because now that’s how this study will be known and not for its content. It also validates the idea that academia is biased and scientific research is being politicized.”
By December 19, 2018, Scientific Reports concluded: “In the original version of this article, there were unusual aspects to the ‘Extract fecal DNA’ illustration in figure 1. These features have been removed.”
Shocking as it might seem to readers, the journal had limited options. Retracting the paper, something suggested on social media, would have been difficult to justify. The science about “single DNA extraction from a mixed-DNA source” was sound. Plus, nowhere else in the article additional dirt was found. In the long run, the journal, and perhaps other periodicals, will have to adjust their guidelines and alert contributors that serious actions shall follow if hidden messages are smuggled into the scientific reporting.
As for the authors, Kenneth L. Chiou and Christina M. Bergey, it remains a mystery what individual roles they played on the prank; Scientific Reports did not offer an explanation. Chiou and Bergey claim affiliation with the Department of Anthropology, Washington University St. Louis; Department of Psychology, University of Washington Seattle; Department of Anthropology, New York University; Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, New York; and Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University. Will these institutions simply rebuke Chiou or Bergey?
After the storm and end-of-the-year calmness, will the authors worry about good standing with their sponsors: the National Science Foundation (federal funding), Leakey Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Geographic Society and NYU University Research Challenge Fund (including the National Institutes of Health, which supports the Genome Technology Center at NYU)? Will the sponsors penalize the authors beyond the glare?
Outrageous acts by scientists cannot simply vanish. The baboon’s DNA tale belongs in history and in our long-term memories. — EvoLiteracy © 2019.
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