Does ocean acidification alter fish behavior? Fraud allegations create a sea of doubt

Orange clownfish are among the tropical species studied in 22 papers now facing scrutiny. FREDRIK JUTFELT

A group of whistleblowers has asked three funding agencies for a misconduct investigation into a series of 22 research papers, many of them on the effects of ocean acidification on fish behavior and ecology. The request, which they shared with a Science reporter, rests on what they say is evidence of manipulation in publicly available raw data files for two papers, one published in Science, the other in Nature Climate Change, combined with remarkably large and “statistically impossible” behavioral effects from carbon dioxide reported in many of the other papers. The papers’ two main authors emphatically deny making up data, and James Cook University, Townsville, in Australia has dismissed the fabrication allegations against one of them after a preliminary investigation. But multiple independent scientists and data experts who reviewed the case flagged what they said were serious problems in the two data sets, as well as in two additional ones co-authored by one of the accused scientists. The case isn’t just about data and the future of the oceans. It highlights issues in the sociology, psychology, and politics of science, including pressure on researchers to publish in top-tier journals, the journals’ thirst for eye-catching and alarming findings, and the risks involved in whistleblowing.

This story was supported by the Science Fund for Investigative Reporting.

Enserink M., 2021. Sea of doubts. Science 372(6542): 560-565. doi: 10.1126/science.372.6542.560

Martin Enserink, AAAS, 6 May 2021. Full article.

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