Hyped Nature paper & author knighthood 2 days later raise red flags

Was an intensely hyped Nature paper connected to the subsequent knighthood for one of the authors just two days after publication?

It’s hard to imagine there isn’t a connection and such a link is bad news for biomedical science.

Professor Doug Turnbull and fellow UK authors published a Nature paper a few days ago that reinforced a safety concern about 3-person IVF/mitochondrial replacement. The same safety issue had also been raised by an earlier paper by a different team. However, some of the authors of the new study, the press in the UK, and the sponsoring Wellcome Trust foundation all spun this new paper as being good news and hyped it.

doug turnbull

The main meme pushed forward in the hype was that the study proved that 3-person IVF would lead to safe pregnancies. If you focus on the actual data in the paper by the team led by Mary Herbert, it pointed to the opposite conclusion in the form of continuing safety concerns. For many of us in the broader scientific community the intensity of the hype surrounding this paper and the misleading narrative about safety was concerning.

Why was there such a coordinated effort to spin this paper as good news?

On Friday only two days after the publication of this new paper, the BBC reported that Turnbull received a knighthood.

Could this be part of the answer for the hype fest? What’s the scoop here?

In reporting the news on the knighthood the BBC used the same meme noting incorrectly that the research by Turnbull and the others on the team had proven safety: “…recent study results showed the technique was safe.” The inaccurate text was bolded in the BBC article on the knighthood.

Turnbull has a long career in science that might justify a knighthood and I’m not questioning that here, but the press on his knighthood focused squarely on mitochondrial replacement and the new paper was a central point.

This hyped paper and the knighthood raise many difficult questions.

Did the intense hype about this paper have anything to do with the impending announcement of the knighthood? Was the decision on the knighthood influenced by a misleadingly upbeat interpretation of the coming paper?

Was the timing of the Nature paper’s publication coordinated with the knighthood announcement? In other words, did the editors of the UK-based Nature follow a certain timeline created by the UK government? It’s interesting that Nature itself as best I could tell did not do a news story on this new paper, which is unusual. Outside the UK this paper was not covered much and I did not see the same “feel good” label attached to it in the press that did pop up.

What was the motivation for the hype? What impact does this kind of playing politics have on science? Does it encourage the wider life sciences community to engage in hype as well?

The bottom line is that 3-person IVF/mitochondrial replacement has taken on a self-sustaining life of its own as a technology beyond strictly adhering to the goal of helping people. This top billing for the technology itself poses real risks for those people in medical need and for science more generally.

4 thoughts on “Hyped Nature paper & author knighthood 2 days later raise red flags”

  1. Dear Paul
    Thank you for trying to understand our arcane systems, and for your ‘partial’ mea culpa. However, let us be clear about the facts; UK honours are awarded only twice a year on fixed dates; New Year Honours on the 1st Jan, and the sovereign’s official birthday in June. However important you might feel a paper in Nature might be, these dates would not be altered to comply with events and I am certain that Nature would not alter publication in case someone might be awarded and Knighthood. Coincidences do happen.

    So please can we put an end to this nonsense of conspiracy and concentrate on the important information contained in the two papers to which you refer.


  2. Paul, I think your headline is unfair and shows a lack of understanding of the UK honours system. Any recommendations for a knighthood for Douglass would have been initiated well over a year ago and could have been done by colleagues, peers and most importantly public and patients who feel what he had done in a lifetime’s work has been worthwhile and sufficiently meritorious. The recommendation is scrutinised by a special panel who seek further information over that year or so and then decide on the level of that award – Knight, Commander, Officer or Member of the Order of the British Empire or other. Antiquated it may be, but it will not have been linked to the paper, which no one knew about ahead. The award of a knighthood would have been known by Douglass alone and he would have been asked to keep it secret until announced formally. This is not conspiracy but cockup of interpretation.

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thanks for your comment. You make some good points & some of this info I didn’t know. A partial mea culpa on the headline may be in order. I’m going to try to learn more.
      I still don’t quite get how the Knighthood announcement came 2 days after the paper came out.That can’t be by accident. For instance, it wouldn’t have worked out well for the knighthood announcement to arrive 2 days before the paper. The BBC press on the announcement also mentioned the safety claim from the paper. I don’t know if there was an official PR on the knighthood and if that mentioned the exaggerated safety claim from the spin on the paper from some quarters.
      Anyhow, as I said in the article, Doug’s knighthood even regardless of the mito paper could well have been entirely justified. Some of my post on the knighthood may have been too strongly worded too. Paul

  3. An anonymous commenter raised concerns about this Herbert/Turnbull Nature paper on PubPeer:
    Generally, I suggest caution with anonymous PPPR comments, the route is occasionally used for trolling close competitors. I hope a scientist from this field might have a look as well and offer a signed PPPR here.
    Here the comment by Unregistered Submission: ( June 10th, 2016 1:16pm UTC ):
    “The right-most panel of Fig 2b in Hyslop et al presents data on blastocyst grades (quality, from A high to F low) for three groups of blastocysts from series II – (1) unmanipulated control, (2) autologous ePNT and (3) heterologous ePNT – collected on two days (day 5 and day 6).

    In the Figure 2 legend the authors say: “Blastocyst quality is similar between the three groups (not significant; Fisher’s exact test).”. In the main text the authors state: “blastocyst formation and quality did not differ between unmanipulated controls and technical controls (Fig. 2a, b). Similarly, heterologous ePNT, which involved reciprocal transfers between zygotes from fresh and vitrified oocytes, had no detectable effect on blastocyst quality (Fig. 2b, c).”

    The source data is provided online: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/source_data/nature18303-f2.xlsx

    Analysis of this data using fisher exact test (implemented in R using the fisher.test command) shows that while the day 6 data shows no evidence of quality differences between the treatments (p-value = 0.4279), day 5 data does (p-value = 0.03535) – with 78% of heterologous ePNT blastocysts having a quality score E”.

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