Maintaining Integrity in Science: An Interview with Dr. Elisabeth Bik

Why did you choose to enter the field of microbiology?

When I did my undergraduate, I really liked the microbiology classes. A lot of people didn’t like it because it was smelly. You have all these Petri dishes that are incubating and you would enter the classroom and it would just smell. I thought it smelled like chicken broth, but I wasn’t too grossed out by it. We had a fantastic teacher.I think a lot of choices we make, which profession are we going to take, I feel are based on good teachers we had because you just like the subject more. He later became my PhD advisor also.

What’s your favorite microbe?

There’s so many. I’ve worked on Vibrio cholerae.  It’s not my favorite in terms of what it can do, because. ikt causes cholera, but that’s what I did my PhD thesis on, because I feel that the disease it causes is so devastating and deadly and it’s just amazing. I feel like I’m just in awe of what it can do. It’s just this tiny bacterium that secretes this toxin and then you get, it’s a bit gross, but you get massive diarrhea and you can die of it and it’s just terrifying what it can do and it still causes huge outbreaks all over in the world. It turns out it has two chromosomes, which I never knew when I did my PhD work on it. So I guess the topic you do your PhD on that stays close to your heart.

Who would you say were your greatest mentors along the path to where you are now?

I had two PhD advisors. We had difficult discussions and I think at the time I didn’t realize it, but my closest PhD advisor is a very good friend now and I guess he taught me to really write carefully.

He taught me to really do careful research – to dig deep, write carefully, and be very thorough. 

Before I did my PhD, I worked for a year in a lab and there I had a mentor who was only a couple of years older than I was.  He was doing his PhD, and I was helping him as a research assistant and he was super enthusiastic. He lit this fire of being curious and of loving your work and piecing together different pieces. He inspired me to stay in that lab and do my PhD.

Later I’ve also worked at a startup company and my supervisor there was a woman with a lot of experience in big companies, and she told me a lot about the switch from research and academia to biotech and what to do. And she left at some point the company because as I heard later she was suspicious about what was going on there and behind the scenes in the leadership. And then I later I also found out and I left the company and later the company got raided by the FBI and so there was a big stink about it and the founders are being charged and they’re fugitives for the US government, so it’s a whole story. She was amazing in that she taught me a lot about how as a scientist, you want to disclose what you do, but as a company you cannot all disclose your secret sources. She was just an amazing mentor and I’m not an easy person to supervise or manage because I’m so convinced that I’m right, so she was able to handle me.

In a 2020 nature article, you were called a super spotter as you’re known for being able to detect the presence or lack of scientific integrity in published papers. What motivated you to delve into this field?

The super spotter actually refers not just to spotting a lack of science integrity, but it’s to spot duplicates in images, which is what I do. I look at photos and compare them. I started doing plagiarism because I just grabbed the sentence that I had written in a review paper, put it in Google Scholar between quotes, and found that somebody had plagiarized that sentence that I had written. Later I switched from detecting plagiarized text to images because also by accident I discovered a duplicated image in a science article. It was the same photo, but just turned upside down and I recognized it.

Then I realized I have this super spotter talent, which I think about half of the population has, and I just decided to make this into my hobby and scan papers to look for these duplications. But I think the initial anger of that plagiarized article just made me angry because as scientists we spend a lot of time carefully writing and doing research and then if somebody just steals your results or runs away with it, my sense of justice was not very happy with that.

Based on all your experience working in this field, do you have any tips for ways that any member of the scientific community or even the non-scientific community can become more adept at recognizing the lack of scientific integrity in published research?

I recognize particular problems and I feel those are easy for me to recognize. I guess also because I have experience and I’m specifically looking out for them, but just reading an article again with the idea of “could this be fraud” helps. We scan our emails, thinking about whether this a scam or not. And I think just being aware that fake papers exist, paper mills exist and fake authors exist, that makes you less naive, and being able to recognize fraud. 

So I focus on images, but you can look up many different things on the ethical side.

If there are animal experiments, are the tumors very big? Is that ethical or not? If people write that they do the experiments in nude rats or nude mice and you see a photo of a mouse with hair, that’s weird, that’s unexpected. I’ve seen all these things. I’ve seen papers with prostate cancer in which half of the patients were women and it’s very unexpected. These are obviously extreme cases, but I think if you just read the paper from the different perspective of it possibly being fraudulent, then you might be more able to recognize it.

What ways do your degrees and experience working in science inform your perspective and your work in science integrity?

I did my PhD in microbiology, and most of the papers in microbiology nowadays do not have images. They have figures of line graphs and ordination plots, but those are actually quite easy to fake if you really want to, because there’s nothing visible that could lead you to wonder if it might’ve been falsified or fabricated. But also, within microbiology, I have a background in molecular biology, which include techniques like western blots, gels, sequencing and  I have some general idea on how these things work and how they should look like. And that helps me recognize things that are wrong.

But also in general, I feel as a scientist, you get taught how to design a good experiment and how to recognize a flawed experiment. If you do an experiment where you have some magic cure for COVID-19 and you give five patients who are sick already for a week your magic drug and another week later they’re all better, that experiment doesn’t necessarily prove that your drug is working. They might’ve gotten better if they ate chocolate pudding, which is usually what I say, but you have to have a control group and you cannot just test one group and say my thing works. I think a lot of people who are not scientists make that error, even though it seems very logical to me to have a control group.

So my background as a scientist gives me some of the tools that I need to look at the methodology of papers and see flaws in them

What has being a scientist has taught you?

To be curious, to be honest, and to be diligent in how you report the results and cite others, give other credits. I feel that science is about reporting the truth. You are curious about how things work. So you do some experiments, and you get some results. Hopefully they tell you something, and they’re conclusive, so you’ve discovered something. And even though it might be a tiny part of science, as scientists we also build on each other’s work. So we report our findings and we add to the growing body of knowledge of science, but you also have to give credit to the people before you on whose work you based your work. So I feel those are essential traits that could transfer to real life. If a person helps you, you should thank them or give them credit and if you’ve done something wrong, you apologize. You don’t lie, you stick to the facts. So I’m not sure if science taught me that or if I was attracted to science because maybe these are values I already had before I became a scientist, but it definitely appealed to me.

What advice do you have for scientists who are just starting their career in science?

Find a good lab to do your research, especially if you’re starting your PhD. Of course, in the US we already have a fantastic system of rotation, so you’ll have two or three labs that you can rotate through and can pick your lab, but ask around. Don’t just interview the professor, also interview with a couple of grad students and perhaps postdocs who work there. So you want to have a lab where the supervisor, the professor, is around a lot. I worked in a lab, and I was already a experienced postdoc, and so I was experienced and I did not need a lot of daily supervision. But our PhD advisor of the whole group, the professor was always on the road. It seemed like he was in the lab one day a week,

and he only was there for a couple of hours and then everybody wanted to ask him questions and he was just not very available for the young researchers.

And I felt sorry for them. We as more senior people try to help them and give them advice, but sometimes our advice would be different from the advice they finally got from the professors, which is confusing. As scientists, we all have our own opinions, so we might sometimes differ. So search for a lab that has a good leader, somebody who’s there, who’s actually mentoring, not just only available when you have a paper ready. You do want a little bit more supervision and mentoring at the start of your career. And also 

choose a person who’s not a bully because if you have a bully or a very demanding person. Of course as scientists we need to be demanding and you perhaps cannot always stick to the 9-5 rule. You’ll probably need to put in a couple more hours.

But I’ve also seen people also seen labs where the researchers were expected to come in also on Saturday and Sunday. And I feel that’s just not a good balance. You need a work-life balance. And occasionally I’ve come in on the weekend because my cells didn’t grow or the machine I wanted was finally available, and so I just did it then. But I do feel if the person who is supposed to be your mentor is more worried about the hours that you make, than the quality of your results,  then I feel it’s the wrong lab for you. So you need to interview people and make sure that you find the good balance of a person who is able to lead a lab and get good results and get good grants and all that stuff. Don’t stare blind in the lab that has 10 Nature papers because that’s just output. And maybe that means that the professor is a bully or very demanding and maybe just not even mentoring. Also, I feel if a lab is more than 20 people, or especially if most of them are graduate students, that there’s just not a lot of attention for everybody.

What qualities do you believe make a good mentor in science?

You want your professor to be around and to mentor you in terms of the research questions you’re going to tackle, and in terms of connecting you to people who can help you with the more practical things. And sometimes mentors might just be another graduate student who has been in the lab for a little bit longer and knows how to operate the machine that you need or so and will help you. And I’ve seen labs where people are super helpful, and I’ve also seen labs where people are very protective. You might not get a lot of help from other people.

I’ve tried to be helpful for incoming people, like the first week, just take them out for lunch, stuff like that and say, “This is how that machine works”, or “I’ll give you some of my buffers so you can get your experiments starting or just tag along with me and I’ll just show you how I do a DNA extraction.” And so you learn where everything in the lab is in that first week, and I feel you need to find not just a professor, but also some other people in the lab who can help you and who are willing to share some of their time with you.

You need to have people who help you learn how to do science, how to deal with troubleshooting. They need to be people who give you space to repeat experiments.You also need to be taught how to work in a lab environment, and if there are conflicts between people, which eventually there are, you need a professor who can actually also deal with that.

Tell us more about your work integrity and what specifically you focus on.

So I specifically focus on photos. I look for duplicates and signs of tampering of photos. The first duplication that I might find is just a direct duplication where the same photo is used twice to represent two different experiments. The second type of duplication is where two photos overlap. So you can see they have a couple of cells in common or a couple of lanes of a gel or so. The third one is where within a photo you see elements of duplication. So you see parts of a tissue being stamped, maybe to hide something or maybe to make it look like there’s more of a specific feature or cell or coloring in that photo. And sometimes photos can be rotated, stretched, mirrored, things like that.

Occasionally that could just be an honest error. If you do a lot of Western blots, a lot of these Western blots look very similar. They’re basically grey backgrounds with black stripes, and so somebody might’ve grabbed the wrong photo, but if it happens over and over again, that might be a sign of misconduct. So that’s my specific focus. And I am using software nowadays to help me find these things. The software I’m using is Image Twin, and it also has a library of images that have been previously published, and occasionally it’ll find something amazing. 

And I also give talks about this work, and I’m in a lot of meetings where we deal with how to deal with retractions and people’s papers being cited even though they have been retracted. And so I am very active on Twitter showing also the lack of response from some of the journals about these things. And I have a fairly large following on Twitter, so I’m tempted to go to Blue Sky, but because I don’t like Twitter anymore, but it’s hard to build up a new social media audience on different platforms. So those are some of my focuses.

How did you go about building a following on Twitter previously and now at Blue Sky?

I was first just a microbiologist tweeting about microbiome papers, that’s also my handle Microbiome Digest. And I think I built up a small-ish audience of around 2000 people within maybe a couple of years. But then when I started to tweet about science integrity, I announced that I was going to take a year off of my work and do this unpaid and see how it works. And it worked out. I can actually make some of a living with Patreon donations and giving talks and being reimbursed for that. My Twitter following started to build up even more. I was clearly tapping not just into the microbiologists anymore, but also into other scientists’ interests. 

I post  challenges on Twitter, “Here’s a photo, what is wrong with it?” And I think people love that. Then they get an emoji award. So you have to sort of know how to engage with your audience, and you have to be able to say something that makes people think. I’m a little bit controversial because I have called out science editors of big-name journals and said they did not handle this correctly. And I think you have to be kicking against the establishment every now and then.

I try to be very polite and objective and don’t call people names. I think you have to be very respectful for not pushing people down. If I were to say, ‘Oh, if here’s the Twitter handle of an editor who incorrectly handled this and it’s a person with 200 followers”, I feel that will be kicking down or pushing down. But I feel when a person has a Wikipedia page, they’re famous enough to be sturdy enough to be able to be criticized publicly. 

Occasionally when it’s really, really bad, I will give a link to the paper, but I don’t want my followers to harass particular people if they are on Twitter. So I keep an eye out for that. But you have to be very responsible. And there are other more nasty people on Twitter who will send all their followers, all their fans, to harass one person. And I feel that is just not how I want to operate. So I want to be responsible, respectful,  and also thank people. If people send me a tip, I will thank them. And I’m sure I make mistakes, but I try to do my best.

See the full interview with Dr. Bik here:

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Maintaining Integrity in Science: An Interview with Dr. Elisabeth Bik
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