Warda/Han and Well-Hung Tongues

The story so far:

As January gave way to February, several bloggers called attention to a puzzling review article in the journal Proteomics, available online and slated for publication in the paper version. Mohamad Warda and Jin Han’s paper was entitled, “Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul: Proteomic prospective evidence.” As PubMed and Proteomics now note, that paper has been retracted, but not, surprisingly, because it offered no actual evidence for its stated claim — that some grandfalutin’ higher power had been at work inside mitochondria, designing the ways their proteins worked together. Instead, the paper was retracted due to “substantial overlap of the content of this article with previously published articles in other journals” — in plain language, plagiarism.

The story is still unfolding. What concerns the scientific community now is not so much the transparently flawed allegations of Warda and Han themselves, but the sloppy practice of the journal Proteomics in letting those claims get through peer review into publication. Now, nobody expects peer review to be perfect — like any human institution, it’s not going to be — it’s just a procedure for telling, as Cosma Shalizi says, that “a paper is not obviously wrong, not obviously redundant and not obviously boring.” Still, this incident is rather beyond the pale.

While the Warda and Han paper was itself obviously wrong, the developments from it have been far from boring. The Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh picked up the story, and in consequence machine translation gave us the delightful phrase, “OK, the power of science blog!” More recently, Fabienne Gallaire wrote it up in the French publication Rue89. Gallaire’s piece describes how these shenanigans have played out, from the beginning until now. Of particular interest is its accurate description of how the plagiarism was first discovered:

Les internautes, au contraire, ont la langue bien pendue: deux heures après la mise en ligne de cette critique, l’un d’eux remarque que la différence de style entre les parties techniques et celles plus théologiques suggère un plagiat. Encore deux heures, et une première occurrence de plagiat est identifiée: un plein paragraphe, copié mot à mot.

Moins de 24 heures après la publication de l’analyse du professeur Myers, au terme d’une curée d’une redoutable exhaustivité, les commentateurs auront prouvé qu’au moins 20% de cet article de quinze pages est un collage de passages, tirés d’une demi-douzaine d’articles non crédités dans la liste de références.

Des courriers indignés sont envoyés aux auteurs de l’article et aux responsables de la revue, ainsi qu’aux victimes pillées par ces “copier-coller” intempestifs. Le lendemain, Proteomics annonce le retrait de l’article incriminé pour cause de “redondance substantielle de son contenu avec d’autres articles”. Il n’apparaîtra donc pas dans la version papier.

A year in France did my French less good than one might imagine: thanks to American scientific hegemony, several of my classes were in English, and my fellow physics students preferred to practice their Americanese on me rather than being testbeds for my French. Much of the experience I did get came from ordering dinner at the local kebab joints, but for what it’s worth, my translation goes like this:

On the other hand, surfers of the Internet speak easily. Two hours after this critique had been put online, one of them remarked that the difference in style between the technical portions and the more theological portions suggested a plagiarism. Another two hours, and the first instance of plagiarism had been identified: a whole paragraph, copied word-for-word.

Less than 24 hours after the publication of Prof. Myers’s analysis, after a trial of formidable exhaustiveness, commenters showed that at least 20% of the fifteen-page article is a collection of passages pulled from a half-dozen articles not credited in the list of references.

Indignant letters were sent to the authors of the article and the managers of the journal, as well as the victims looted by these inappropriate “copy-and-paste” actions. The next day, Proteomics announced the withdrawal of the incriminated article due to “substantial overlap of the content of this article with previously published articles”. Thus, it will not appear in the paper version.

Warda and Han wrote that a “mighty creator” tinkered with mitochondria; Rue89 translates this phrase as “puissant Créateur.” It is my solemn duty to report that at least two people read this as “pissant Creator.” I, of course, am above such behavior. . . .

Avoir la langue bien pendue” is apparently an idiom meaning to speak with ease or facility; literally, it means to have a well-hung tongue.


4 thoughts on “Warda/Han and Well-Hung Tongues”

  1. I was really hoping that “les internautes” was French for “the internets”. Alas. But the fact that the word for internet users is that close to “internauts” is still pretty awesome.

  2. “One who sails the Internet,” I guess — naut having ultimately the same Latin root as nautical.

    (Oh, I tweaked the translation in a couple places after I first posted this entry, but the sense remains the same.)

  3. Nice coverage and thanks for the French translation. Here is an excerpt out the Hankyorhe article translated by a Korean friend of mine:
    “23rd January was when the review paper of co-authers, Mohamad Warda, a Egyptian professor of Cairo University and Han Jin, a Korean professor of Inje University was published on online of Proteomics. Then many science bloggers was able to reed recent published papers by means of a auto email service as soon as they had been registered in a science library datadase. Atilla Csordas, a master of biotech blog “PIMM”, said on a email message sent to the Hankyorhe that he had received the title and abstract of the paper on 25th January and thought the paper using a non-scientific term “soul” seemed very strange. So, he wrote an article on his blog casting some doubt over the paper’s science. After it, many reply comments came and the paper bacame the talk of his blog. Csordas wrote to PZ Myers, the professor of Minesota University and the master of science blog “Pharyngula” recording one milion visist per month, and said about this paper.
    On 2nd Febrary, Myers wrote an article with the title of “A Baffling Failure of Peer Review” on his blog, and also raised strong doubt saying how the creationist paper could go through peer review of scientific journal. It was AM 10:07. Many reply comments followed soon, and a blogger exposed a evidence of plagiarism of the paper at PM 2:17. Finally, at PM 6:30 John McDonald, a professor of Delaware University opened a comparison table exposing 20 or more paragraphs showing trace of plagiarism. A editorial staff of Proteomics said to the Hankyorhe that “common research papers had to go through strong formal peer review, but this review papar seems to have gone through informal peer review.”

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