Subscribe using your preferred service
About this episode
#49 — In this episode, we talk to Elisabeth Bik, former microbiome researcher turned scientific integrity consultant.
Following her successful scientific career in the lab, a stolen sentence she authored led her to become a scientific sleuth—combing the literature for cases of misconduct from plagiarism to image manipulations. We also chat about how these cases of misconduct might be detected in future through the help of software—but that the human eye is still our best tool for doing this.
We chat about the cultural differences between the USA, where she is currently based, and The Netherlands where she is from originally—and how this may help her in her current work! We also hear about Elisabeth’s love of gardening, and the issues of gardening in California.
This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.
Peter O’Toole (00:00:14):
Today on The Microscopists, I’m joined by Elizabeth Bik former microbiome researcher who’s turned her attention to scientific integrity as she searches her base on literature and looking for duplicated or falsified images. And she discusses theses on her Twitter feed @MicrobiomDigest with a hashtag image forensics.
Elizabeth Bik (00:00:36):
So I played a game, so it’s called image forensics. That’s the hashtag I’m using. So, yeah, so there, there are photos from scientific papers that have been published and within each challenge, there is a duplication. So there’s either two panels that are the same,
Peter O’Toole (00:00:52):
However, this important work is not without its problems.
Elizabeth Bik (00:00:57):
So I had, I did shut down my Twitter a couple of times because it becomes very, yeah, depressing. If you only get it tweets like that,
Peter O’Toole (00:01:05):
We speculate on what the reasons are behind. Some of the shocking fabrications and falsifications of science might be.
Elizabeth Bik (00:01:12):
I mean, the most common scenario is that all of our scientists feel some pressure to publish. Like when we’re a postdoc or a graduate student, we sort of need to produce positive outcome.
Peter O’Toole (00:01:25):
And we also discussed a cultural differences between living in the USA where she’s currently based and the Netherland where she’s originally from.
Elizabeth Bik (00:01:32):
So from the very Dutch directness and perhaps rudeness to the super American politeness and, and indirectness, that was a big change. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (00:01:43):
All in this episode of The Microscopists. Hi, I’m Peter O’Toole of the University of York. And today on The Microscopists, I’m joined by Elizabeth Bik of the Science Integrity Digest. Elizabeth, how are you today?
Elizabeth Bik (00:02:02):
I’m doing well. How are you?
Peter O’Toole (00:02:04):
No, I’m really good. Thank you. And thank you for joining me today. This is for those just tuning in, this is gonna be slightly different because this, this has shown another career direction. And for reasons that I think will be really interesting to learn about how Elizabeth has moved her career into a completely different, still very much science, but no longer in primary research. I think that would be right, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Bik (00:02:27):
Yeah, that’s right. I I’m a microbiologist by training. I did my PhD in the Netherlands on microbiology. Then I worked in academia. I’ve worked in in a hospital. Then I moved to the US, worked in academia, again, worked 15 years at Stanford. Then I worked two years in industry. And then in the meantime, I got really interested in science integrity, specifically plagiarism and manipulation of photos. And I realized I really enjoyed that. So I quit in 2019. I quit my job and I am now a full-time consultant making my money by working for, for publishers or for universities. And I really enjoyed it, but it’s a, it’s a interesting career change. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (00:03:16):
Yeah. So J just to go back, if you, if you’d, haven’t seen Elizabeth on Twitter do so, because if you like oh gosh. Wordall or Sudokus mm-hmm
Elizabeth Bik (00:03:45):
Peter O’Toole (00:04:43):
Elizabeth Bik (00:05:08):
It’s, it’s difficult for several reasons. So, so first of all, I don’t do a lot of consulting. So I actually get most of my income through patron, which is like a site where people can donate small amounts of money monthly to support an artist or a writer or somebody like me, who, who fights the good cause. And, and so people support that. But I do occasionally consulting work. So that might, for example, be either a university or a publisher who has received allegations of misconduct and wants to have an expert look at that case. So I specialize in images in photos. So for example, that university, or that publisher might have gotten, might have written to the authors and might have gotten original photos and then needs to compare those photos, which are of often heavily cropped for a scientific publication. So they need a person to look at the cropped images versus the original images and see if they are the same. And so I can do that. I see these duplications by eye and sometimes authors send in photos that are not original in a, in a, maybe an effort to mislead the journal or the, the publisher. And so I yeah, I work then on an occasional basis, but of course, if I’ve found images myself and, and wrote to the, to the publisher, I cannot be the second opinion on my own cases. I can only take cases that have were brought in by other people.
Peter O’Toole (00:06:38):
I I’m just thinking about the popularity of this, because obviously this is, you’re now doing these forensic detective work for the do, is this blind when you are doing it for the journals, are the people aware of who’s looking at it or is it just in confidence at that point?
Elizabeth Bik (00:06:54):
Sometimes it’s in confidence. I’ll leave that up to the, the journals. I’m usually fine if my name is brought out sometimes that actually lends more credibility to a case. But I usually make a report and I ask, do you want my name on it or not? And I’ll leave that up to, to the customer, the client.
Peter O’Toole (00:07:13):
And I I’m, I’m just trying to think about it. If your name’s out there, has it ever gone into a court of law that this evidence has been brought up that you’re having to, you know, say, no, no, this is, this is wrong. This is false. Has actually actually stood up and said, no, no, no, you are wrong. I haven’t falsified my data
Elizabeth Bik (00:07:32):
I haven’t been in court yet.
Peter O’Toole (00:09:38):
I find it the bit that puzzles me for universities behind him, I presume this is the uni the Institute I presume the Institute is supporting his, this process is going through, but surely they would’ve looked at the data. And if, if it said that they will know it’s not accurate at that point.
Elizabeth Bik (00:09:57):
Well, this person is the director of that Institute. And he is, he’s a very powerful person. He puts his name in every paper that comes out from the Institute, which is not according to the rules of scientific authorship. You should be, have been actively involved in, in, in, in, and writing the paper and stuff like that. And I think he just puts his name out there, but he’s, yeah, he’s like a very powerful person at that institution. So basically he’s been approving this legal case for himself, I assume. And he’s also there were also many issues with ethical approval in his papers where, for example, the, you know, there’s strict rules about doing research on humans. You have to have ethical approval and in France, you cannot, your own institution cannot give that approval. And I think that’s a very good rule because of course he’s approving his own research, but there are independent institutions in France that should approve these things. And many of his papers don’t have the, the ethical approval from that independent institution, just from his own institution. So he’s, he’s sort of playing by his own rules and not following the official rules of ethical research on humans in France. And and that’s one of the criticism I had. And I think that’s a very legit criticism, but yeah, he’s just threatening me with a, with a lawsuit.
Peter O’Toole (00:11:17):
Right. I was just gonna say same in the UK, you have to have a human tissue, right. Agreement, license to work with it. And that comes from an external essentially government body to work,
Elizabeth Bik (00:11:29):
Right? Yeah. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:11:30):
That’s collaborating with someone to get it at the moment. We, one of our biggest difficulties is getting human tissues to come into our lab, to use some technology we have and then pass straight back to the user. Still the paperwork involved is quite long and certainly our local university must know about it cuz they have to have full oversized, but also it has to go through the other site as well. So there are lots of things in place. How is, are you finding this? Cause I, I would be really even if, you know, you’ve got the, you know, the, the, the, the, you can evidence everything, so everything should be okay, but it must be very stressful though.
Elizabeth Bik (00:12:06):
It is stressful. Yeah. I mean, I I’ve had many sleepless nights
Peter O’Toole (00:13:35):
Do you regret going into this, this, this direction of work, you had a very successful research career going do, did you, is it, is it a moment you thought, gosh, I wish I’d just stayed in research, pure Research.
Elizabeth Bik (00:13:48):
No, no, no, no. I, I, I really enjoy what I’m doing now. So I love doing research. And then, you know, as you get older, you’re sort of moving away from the bench. I think that’s a normal thing because these, these tubes get, you know, the letters become smaller, right? Almost like
Peter O’Toole (00:15:28):
I, I’ve got to say that must have been a, a giant step, because again, the funding isn’t sound, it’s not safe. It’s not secure. I guess now the, the patronage that was called the, the, the format,
Elizabeth Bik (00:15:39):
The patron. Yeah, the patron. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:15:41):
I guess de-risks it. If you’ve got lots and lots, then I guess it it’s, it’s not solely dependent on, on any one individual or any one funder as it were, but that’s a giant step.
Elizabeth Bik (00:15:52):
It is. And yeah. But, but having worked in industry, I also had a little bit of a financial buffer, so I knew I could quit my job and have about, let’s say a year, you know, where I wouldn’t have to worry financially. And so and then in the meantime, the consultancy work picked up and the, the patron support picked up. And so, yeah, right now it’s completely sustainable. So it’s yeah, I earn enough. I also ask money when I give a talk when I get an invitation. So usually the organizing committee, the, the, the, yeah, the, the symposium or, or the university that wants me to give a talk about science, integrity will pay for that. So, so I get honoraria and, and reimbursement for money for travel. So it all works out well, but yeah, it was a bit of a risk, but yeah, having worked in industry that, you know, like you don’t earn much in academia, but in industry, at least I had a, a nice income for, for three years in total. So I had build up a little bit of a buffer to, to do that.
Peter O’Toole (00:16:54):
I I’m just thinking it’d be great to have as a seminar speaker actually, because just, just what you can learn from it all. So I’m gonna, I’m just gonna go back in time and come back to science integrity side. What got you interested in science to start with?
Elizabeth Bik (00:17:10):
I, I just love when I was eight or nine or so. I, I don’t know. I just was, had an interest in biology that was, you know, you, you sort of are at that age, like learning a little bit about the world. And I, I enjoyed biology classes in, in elementary school, you know, very rudimentary, but I enjoy watching birds in my backyard. So with, with the binoculars, I watched birds. So at that age already, I sort of felt I wanna become a biologist had of course, no idea what that really meant, but that sounded really cool. Not, not particularly interested in science, but just biology, like, like the, the, the wonder of life, like, what is life? What is a live form? Like how, how are we alive? How are birds alive? How are animals and plants alive? And I think that was just, and, and still is a mystery to me. Like, what is, what is life in its pure form? What defines that? And so I yeah, I, I, at around eight years old, I wanted to become a biologist and I sort of was interested in birds, but as I really started college, I realized I didn’t really care a much about birds anymore, but I really thought that microbiology was cool. And of course all these things depend not just on your own interest, but also teachers. I feel that if you have a particular teacher or even in college, like a particular professor who who’s, who’s really good at their, you know, teaching that could spark your interest. And I happen to have a wonderful microbiology teacher, and I enjoyed those classes. I enjoyed the, the practical things, like being in the lab and pouring Petri dishes and like the smell of bacteria, which gross a lot of people out, but it sort of thought this is really cool. Like, we, we cannot see these little tiny organisms, but we can still see them by doing molecular biology and, and looking on the microscope and molecular biology was on the rise and DNA, and it was just all wonderful. And so you sort of roll into it. I didn’t really have a, a good plan to become a scientist, but I, I, I enjoyed the lab work at that time really a lot. And yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:19:16):
So when, so you went to university, did I presume in the Netherlands, you undergraduate
Elizabeth Bik (00:19:22):
Yeah. Utrecht University. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:19:25):
I was meant to be new that’s where I was meant to be a couple of weeks ago was over in Utrecht. I couldn’t get there.
Elizabeth Bik (00:19:32):
It was microbiology, so it was on cholera. So cholera obviously is a, a nasty disease that develops in usually like bad hygienic circumstances. So, you know, like refugee camps, for example, there’s, there’s can be often cholera outbreak. So it gets transmitted through the fecal oral roots. You know, you ingest a couple of cholera bacteria and that can make a person really sick and they can die within 24 hours basically of massive diarrhea. And so there was a new outbreak in Bangladesh that was caused by a cholera strain. That was a very novel strain that nobody had heard of. And so I did some genetic analysis of that. And this was in, you know, 90, 95, 96, when molecular biology was still starting. Like, you couldn’t do very big sequencing project. Everything was like manual with radioactive stuff and films. And things went much slower than they, they would do today. But yeah, still, it was exciting time. So we, we did genetic analysis of this new strain and compared it to old strains, things like that. So it was yeah, that was that was my PhD. And then I sort of yeah. Kept on working in micro biology since,
Peter O’Toole (00:20:48):
And then you headed to the states.
Elizabeth Bik (00:20:50):
Yeah, I, I moved to the states in 2001. I just, after September 11, another strange time to be moving, but my, my husband basically had been offered a job there and I moved with him and I found a job at Stanford university and worked there for 15 years, still microbiology, but not working on the bacteria that make us sick, but the bacteria that live inside our bodies, the, the human microbiome. So we’re home to all these communities of little invisible creatures. And they help us digest our food and, and, and play roles in our health that are still, you know, many years later, not quite well understood, but these huge communities that live inside of us are, are just fascinating to study. And so we, we spend a lot of time on that. And then later I studied dolphin microbiomes, which was also very cool because who doesn’t love dolphins. Right.
Peter O’Toole (00:22:38):
So thinking about moving over from, to the US, how did you find the, the, the change, the challenge of going from the Utrecht over to Stanford over to US?
Elizabeth Bik (00:22:49):
Yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s, you know, that it’s a big change, like just moving to a different country is already you know, there’s a lot of things you need to do, like get your driver’s license again and, and social security number and open bank accounts and get new phones and, and yeah, all this buy a house, you know, a lot of change, but of course also a change in, in culture. Like there’s the way people interact with each other in, in the US is, is quite different. Like they do a lot of these small talk and they’re very polite. And you have to, in the beginning, I had no idea if you go to supermarket and you, you were, you know, checking out and the, the cashier would say something like, Hey, how are you today? And I had just no idea, like, are they interested in my wellbeing? Like, that seemed very weird. Like when you have to sort of learn how to respond back to that and know it’s, you know, it’s like polite little exchange, and then it’s also over, like, you don’t really connect with people, but it’s, it still leaves a smile on your face. If you say something nice back and forth. And and in the lab, it was also very different. It felt much more individualistic. People were more working for themselves and not helping a newcomer like me in the lab that much, it was more like, okay, here’s your bench. You know, here’s your project. Enjoy it. And I tried to install little Dutch things like coffee break at 10 o’clock. I tried to install that and was sometimes successful in sort of building up a little bit of a social community. But then yeah, I was always regarded slightly strange to have a coffee break at a set time with a big group of people, but that was really a Dutch thing, but I tried to install that and it worked for a couple of years.
Peter O’Toole (00:24:33):
Okay. I gotta say, no, my facility, they, they definitely, my, the larger facility definitely used to be known for their coffee breaks. I’m not sure that was a bad thing at times. That’s for sure. It’s certainly good for the team as building aspect.
Elizabeth Bik (00:24:46):
Yes, yes. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:24:47):
And yeah, I think small talk is very popular in the UK. Certainly outside of London, if you walked into a shop you’d say morning or hello, you know? Right. That’s the time of day, but you’re right. I, I spend a lot of holidays in the Netherlands and it is far more abrupt. Direct. Yes.
Elizabeth Bik (00:25:03):
Direct direct. Yeah. I know. Yeah. Dutch people are very blunt and potentially considered rude. And so, yeah, so, so from the very Dutch directness and perhaps rudeness to the super American politeness and, and indirectness, that was a big change. Yeah. So I I think my Dutch background also makes me very good in criticizing other people’s work because that’s sort of what Dutch people love to do. And, and now that I’ve lived more than 20 years in the US, and I go back to the Netherlands, I have to get used again to the, to the, yeah. Almost rudeness where people say, oh, you, you gained like 20 pounds. Oh, that like, you would not really say that in.
Peter O’Toole (00:25:59):
No, I, I remember why I, I got a really good Dutch friend or couple now actually got married recently. And I remember when they came over to visit us for the first time my wife hadn’t met them properly. And it was like, you know, it was like, make me a coffee now.
Elizabeth Bik (00:26:16):
Right. Exactly. Yeah. The work please is don’t always included in our standard, in our, for vocabulary. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (00:26:22):
She, she was just taking aback. She was like this, but yeah, but she does bend to bits once she realized just the language that you absolutely love them to bits. It’s just getting to understand that cultural difference as you say. And you know, when it goes best, realize they’re not really interesting. I guess it’s a Starbucks thing. Isn’t it. You give your name over or give your Starbucks name at the
Elizabeth Bik (00:26:43):
Start. I know I was shocked. Like, like why, why does they, why do they need to know my name?
Peter O’Toole (00:27:00):
Was about to ask. What is your is your starbucks name?
Elizabeth Bik (00:27:02):
It’s Liz. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:27:06):
Yeah, no, I, I, no, I just stick to Pete. If I gave a different name, I’d forget. And I wouldn’t know it’s for me.
Elizabeth Bik (00:27:15):
I know. I was like, oh, Gerald.
Peter O’Toole (00:27:19):
So you just going back to, so what, what got you into the science integrity?
Elizabeth Bik (00:27:26):
Well, it’s sort of a long story, but at one day, and I quite, I don’t quite remember what the exact thing was, but I was reading or, or hearing a podcast or something about plagiarism and, and science integrity. And I’m like, oh, plagiarism. That’s not good. Obviously. I wonder if somebody ever stole a sentence. I had written. So I had written a couple of years previously, I’d written this review paper. I’m like, okay, about the human microbiome. So I thought, okay, let’s just take a sentence that, that I had written between quotes and, and put it into Google scholar. And only my own paper should come up, but it didn’t like another paper came up, actually two other papers, but written by the same persons. And so somebody had stolen my sentence a couple of years after I had published my paper. And that made me mad.
Peter O’Toole (00:30:37):
Out of the 100 random ones that you picked out. How many had problems.
Elizabeth Bik (00:30:44):
I don’t remember that.
Peter O’Toole (00:30:58):
Elizabeth Bik (00:31:00):
So one in 25, 1 in 25, this is of papers that had photographic images. So I did a specific textual search for the term Western blot, which will bring up papers that are have molecular biology technique. So it might also, they might also contain microscopy photos or photos of a mouse or, or protein blots or DNA gels and things like that. But they had to have at least one photo. So I didn’t, I specified in specifically looked for for photographic images. And that was one in 24 that had problems. And this was over a range of 40 different journals and 20,000 different papers.
Peter O’Toole (00:31:42):
Do, do the journals now have better software for picking this out?
Elizabeth Bik (00:31:48):
Some do some starting to, to test this by, by software. So most journals will use plagiarism detection. So that’s for textual similarities. So basically that software will check a manuscripts test and text and compare to all other papers that have ever been written. And so to do that for images is, is computationally much more in much more difficult than for text as you can imagine. And so it’s, there is software being developed and there are a couple of packages I don’t have access to almost yeah. All of these packages. So I, I can only have access to one, but publishers are getting interested more and more in testing these software and yeah, calling out image duplication, but it’s it still needs human interpretation. So I detect these things mainly by eye that set of 20,000. I detected all of them by eye so I found yeah, 800 papers in that set. But I’m starting to use one particular image package more and more. And that is pretty good in, in finding duplications. But sometimes it completely misses them. You need still need a human to interpret the results. There’s some false positives, for example, in microscopy images, you, you, you sometimes have, you know, in a confocal microscopy, you, you might have, you know, a red signal, a green signal, which is like a different antibody and then a merge body, and then emerged image to show if these things are at the same position in the cell, for example, and those things. Yeah. Those, so the merged image usually contains, or does contain elements of, of both of these channels. And so the software will, will, will call those duplicates. But’re false positives, like, like as a human, I can ignore them. I know these are supposed to be the same but the software will not really know that. And so that those are all like improvements we need to make in the next generation of the software, but it’s you still need a human to disregard those similarities.
Peter O’Toole (00:33:53):
Now I can imagine for microscopy images if you not just to rotate, but to actually flip and rotate, right. It, it would make the, the challenge of identifying it much more challenging,
Elizabeth Bik (00:34:03):
Peter O’Toole (00:34:04):
The anomalies, oh, well actually if you reinterpret it as well, so then your pick pixels are reinvented. That would also make it more challenging. Cause even your outliers are taken slightly different form and shape.
Elizabeth Bik (00:34:15):
Right. Right. And, and yeah, like sometimes I’ve seen images that are very similar, but they have, for example, different focal plane and then images can look quite different if you like, that’s usually not picked up by the software, but I, I just see it. And then it’s hard because I see it, then people say, but the software didn’t pick it up. So you’re, you’re incorrect. I’m like, wow, my eyes pick it up. And you know, I
Peter O’Toole (00:34:48):
Yeah. I, I, yeah, it’s, it’s just incredible that, that it, that it, that it happens. So I, I, I know I give one lecture for a lot of the courses that we teach on the, to, for both confocal microscopy and flow cytometry and it, and it highlights fraudulent data. And that was picked out some years ago, not to show don’t, don’t do it, but to teach them what might have been the motivation to, to remind them the quality of the data and record keeping is really important. But it’d be good to hear what your thought. Yeah. What, what do you think are the main drivers in many of these cases, why people have actually gone to the effort to be fraudulent or not gone to the effort to do the experiment? What, I’m not sure. Yeah. Go on you. You, what, what are your thoughts on this front?
Elizabeth Bik (00:35:37):
Yeah, so I have a couple of scenarios in mind. So, so I mean the most common scenario is that all of our scientists feel some pressure to publish. Like when we’re a postdoc or a graduate student, we sort of need to produce positive outcomes and a negative outcome, unfortunately is still not regarded as a publishable unit in in, you know, general scientific world. It, it should be different, but that’s, that’s the way it is. And, and so if we, if we don’t get positive results and we have a certain hypothesis, it is tempting to produce some result or fabricate or, or, or, you know, enhance our data a little bit to make it look better. So that’s sort of a general scenario and I feel a lot of us are, are you know, feel that pressure, but, but it’s only a couple of people, hopefully that will then actually start to cheat. But in some countries there’s very strong pressure to publish. And I’m specifically mentioning Russia and China, which are two countries that have a, have very strong monetary and career incentives that are much more stronger than in European countries or, or Northern American countries. So for example, in China, when you’re a medical doctor, you need to publish a paper in order to get a position at a clinical hospital, which is, you know, your next phase of career when you finish medical school. But medical doctors are not necessarily researchers. And, and most of them are interested in curing patients, helping patients, treating patients, but not doing research. And so if you ask those folks over, if you require those folks to do a research paper, they just have no, no clue. They don’t have time. They, you know, work long shifts and stuff, and they don’t work in a research facility. And so what they’ll do is they will buy a paper that is offered to them. They will buy an authorship, they will invest some money. And these papers are fabricated. We believe these are. So we call these paper mills. They’re, they’re sort of organizations that sell fake papers to the authors who need them. And these papers are probably completely made up. The authors don’t really care. They don’t care about science and the pollution of science with these things. So they, they buy an authorship. And so that’s, that’s a big current threat, but there’s also individual cases. So another scenario that I’m thinking sometimes of is that of a very successful early career scientists, like a graduate student or a postdoc who has made a beautiful discovery and published in nature signs or won an award won, you know, was on national television or radio and talked about the research and they, they tasted this success and we know that success is addictive and, and now this person moves on to maybe become a professor and has a slightly different career focus. And, and the research doesn’t work as well. And I feel once you have tasted this success, you wanna fulfill, you know, all the, the, the, yeah. The, the requirements that you, yeah, you sort of wanna keep up your, your game. And so you might be tempted then to tweak your results a little bit. And the third scenario or fourth scenario is that of a person who is early career scientist and who works in a lab with a bully as a professor, like a professor who has very strong feelings of how the results should be, but also has a lot of power over that graduate students. And we all feel this hierarchy, of course, in academia, we’re very dependent on, on the senior persons to give us our letter of recommendation. This is for example, very strong in the US. And if this person, this young person is on a visa on a work permit, then if in the US, for example, if you get fired by a professor, that means your, your visa immediately ends like you don’t have a sponsor anymore, and you have to leave the us within five days. And that’s a big, especially if you have you come to the us and do research, and you have a family, a young family, you suddenly have to move out out of the country, back to your home country. You can feel that’s a huge threat. If the professor not, might not specifically ask you know, Photoshop this image to get this result, but might say, I want these results by Friday. Otherwise I’ll find another graduate or another postdoc. That’s a big threat. And so I feel this, this power play is, is a very important scenario that can lead people to do misconduct, even though they don’t didn’t really want to, but they, they feel they need to.
Peter O’Toole (00:40:12):
I, I, I would add to that. I think the two, two others that certainly I’ve considered for one of the cases I highlight was perhaps that the, the, the, the boss of the lab at the time, right, when they published a paperwork or put submitted it, the referees may have come back asking for evidence of one of the tables that they submitted. And when they look back at the data to find the raw data, they couldn’t because postoc had left,
Elizabeth Bik (00:40:40):
Peter O’Toole (00:40:41):
That’s what they could documented records, which means they had to repeat the data mm-hmm
Elizabeth Bik (00:40:51):
Peter O’Toole (00:40:51):
Because the reagents cost a lot of money or getting the actual cells to culture, or the, the human cells can be difficult, actually getting two data sets could, and not all the controls cause they know what it’s gonna be. And then massage the controls from the control data, cuz it would, should have looked the same in the original expense. I wonder if that’s a motivation, do a bad record keeping, right. Or even the quality of the data that the postdoc or PhD did in the original case. It’s good enough to analyze mm-hmm
Elizabeth Bik (00:41:23):
Right? A bit messy, like a, a crack or a yes. Thing. Yeah, no, I think those are, are very valid scenarios. And the, the three I usually that I just gave, those are the, the three I gave of my talk, but they’re just scenarios. And there, there’s probably many reasons that can drive people to, to either fabricate or, or falsify their results. And, and I think it’s important to have these scenarios in mind because it’s very easy to point fingers and say, you do misconduct and you know, that paper you’re guilty. You know, you should be fired. But it’s, it’s very often not quite clear, which of the authors was responsible for the Photoshopping or the fabrication or whatever. And, and I want to be respectful for all of the authors. I’m not respectful for the, for Photoshopping. But I don’t wanna, I usually don’t call out people. I call out the figures when I play this game on Twitter, I try to remove labels. I I’m sometimes a little bit lazy, but I, I don’t say which paper, I don’t say which author it is. I do make some exceptions. Sometimes it’s just too, too horrible. And it’s very clear because it’s a set of papers who, who the, you know, where, where the problem lies, but it’s yeah, it, it, it’s often the, the senior person I feel who has the most responsibility, but there’s a human sad story behind each one of these cases. And, and that is something to, it’s really important to keep that in mind to remain polite and to remain, you know, worried about the, the, the problems, but not pointing fingers too much at particular persons.
Peter O’Toole (00:42:59):
Yeah. And so you’re right. I think the pressure, I think the, the pressure to succeed, even as a PhD, you know, if you want to go and do your postdoc, you need a good publication. If you’re gonna be a postdoc or lectureship, you need those good publications to go from lecture to press, you need even more higher impact in publications. It does put pressure to get this stellar data that maybe just very difficult to come out. No, it’s crazy. I, I think there is a lot of luck in some people’s science career. There is not just skills. There is a lot of luck also needy, which makes it a difficult world to live in. You, you mentioned that you put it on Twitter and you get your detractors. I, I think you mentioned before we started that you get not hate mails, probably not the right word, but certainly a lot of hate abuse over Twitter. How do you deal with that?
Elizabeth Bik (00:43:53):
Yeah. I mean, you sort of develop a thicker skin. I don’t, didn’t don’t really have a thick skin to, to start with, but yeah. I mean the, the, the unkind messages I, as I usually call them, get worse and worse, but you also develop some yeah. Immunity to it. And again, like it’s, when I, when I get these things, it means there’s no real answers by the authors and, and some authors just have a large group of fans. So the French professor, I mentioned earlier has million, a million followers on Twitter. Wow. And everyone of his YouTube videos in which he sometimes has called out me by name, he you know, sort of, he has millions of views within hours of posting these videos. And so when he specifically mentions me and say that I am harassing him, it’s basically an invitation to his followers to then harass me. So he doesn’t harass me myself, but like then after one of those videos after several of these videos, I had to put my Twitter to private because I was just getting, you know, every second pretty much a hate or, or an unkind message saying like you’re a fraud, you belong in jail. Images of, of people in jail you know, the striped suit will, will suit you well. Or like, you look horrible, you are ugly, you’re a fat pig. You know, stuff like that.
Peter O’Toole (00:45:23):
It’s not very, it’s not ,
Elizabeth Bik (00:45:25):
Isn’t it. Yeah. But you know, there’s no scientific argument here. So yeah. It’s it’s so I had, I did shut down my Twitter a couple of times because it becomes very, yeah. Depressing if you only get images, tweets like that. And I might have, you know, a lot of followers, but they usually don’t really you know, attack my attackers. They, they, they sort of take a step back and might send me a direct message of support. But yeah, there there’s, there’s sometimes little support from my Twitter followers, unfortunately, but it that’s how Twitter is. Obviously I could easily avoid it by not being on Twitter, but
Peter O’Toole (00:47:08):
It, it it’s really difficult to comprehend. I, I think when you get people saying something on Twitter, it it’s, you know, you know, it’s not personal, they don’t know you personally, it’s just, just, you know, dust it off. I’m very much that sort of, person’s like, you know, names, but you don’t know me. It’s not, if you did know me, but no, I think that as you say, it gets much more difficult with the volume and the, and the, the breadth of ways that they’re attacking. Mm-Hmm
Elizabeth Bik (00:47:42):
No, luckily not. I mean, luckily there’s you know, there’s sometimes an ocean between me and those, those people, so that’s good, but it’s no, it’s not personal. I mean, these are just, I guess, you know, unpolite people on Twitter who follow their leader. But yeah, I’m worried sometimes about my personal safety. So I have become a little bit less open on where I live and I’ve been docked some, so, you know, you, one could look up my home address obviously, and, and post that, but that has happened. And yeah, so I have been worried about my personal safety and taken some precautions about that. But it’s, yeah, I’m just worried that somebody indeed will come up to me and I don’t know, throw something in my face and I hope it’s a cake, but not you know, a rock
Peter O’Toole (00:48:57):
I guess that sums up the, the science community though, is, you know, as you said, you get the direct messages of support because mm-hmm,
Elizabeth Bik (00:49:03):
Peter O’Toole (00:49:04):
You know, we, we go online. Certainly my Twitter account is more about the science. It’s not about personal opinions. You know, if you look at your site, it’s, you’re putting in information, you’re not necessarily putting opinions on there. You’re just putting information. Mm-Hmm
Elizabeth Bik (00:49:39):
Peter O’Toole (00:49:52):
And tastes good at the same time. Yeah. But please, I’m not encouraging that at all.
Elizabeth Bik (00:49:57):
I like Marzipan I like Marzipan
Peter O’Toole (00:49:59):
The cake and take it box is a gift.
Elizabeth Bik (00:50:03):
A way of actually showing no, just send it to me. Don’t throw it in my face, please. Yeah. Yes. It’s just a ways of a mock cake.
Peter O’Toole (00:50:09):
So thinking of these difficult dresses, what do you do outside of work to relax?
Elizabeth Bik (00:50:14):
I love gardening, so and not, not like the, the little gardening I love, like, you know, pruning trees and, and climbing in ladders, putting in sprinklers, digging holes, stuff like that. So I have a, you know, backyard and it is difficult actually to, to garden in California because there’s always, you know, we we’re in a drought situation, so you cannot water as much as you want. And so I’m sort of shifting towards plants that use less water, because if you only can water twice twice a week as we are now, that’s the current restrictions. So we can only run our sprinklers twice a week. That means that, you know, a lot of plants cannot handle that. So coming from Europe, I try to plan hydrorange and rotor Dendron and stuff like that. And but yeah, they don’t really do well in this climate. So you have to sort of switch your gardening skills to a very different set of of plants. And so you know, I’m now into succulents and love that. So and then I love to swim and I so try to swim twice a week, three times a week, and I do Bollywood cardio fitness, which is sort of Zumba. Yeah. So it’s basically dancing, sweating out on music, but it’s Bollywood music. So from Indian Indian movies, and it’s, it’s a lot of fun, a lot of good movements and a fun group of people. And they don’t really care about what you wear because I know some, some cardio fitness groups are really into Lu Lulu lemon you know, whatever clothing, like, it’s very important that you wear the latest colors. And, but yeah, no, this is fine. You can just do it in a, in a t-shirt and old comfy pants. And then yeah, you’re, you’re good to go. So it’s a lot of sweating, a lot of fun and yelling and yeah, I love it.
Peter O’Toole (00:52:00):
That, that, that does sound actually like really good fun. I gotta say that would be sound that would tempt me into that type of exercise and swimming. How far do you swim?
Elizabeth Bik (00:52:09):
Well, I’m not a good swim. I do like like 80 laps in an hour or so back and forth is two laps then, but yeah,
Peter O’Toole (00:52:20):
There must be 25 meter, not 50 meter at that.
Elizabeth Bik (00:52:22):
It’s a 25 meter 25 yard pool. Yes. So it’s, it’s a little bit it’s I think 25 yard ish. I don’t know. Is it like 23 meters
Peter O’Toole (00:52:33):
84 Meters. Ish.
Elizabeth Bik (00:52:34):
Peter O’Toole (00:52:35):
Yeah, just, just over 20.
Elizabeth Bik (00:52:36):
I think I do one kilometer, I think per hour.
Peter O’Toole (00:52:44):
It’s about criticized the fact that you are all using Imperial, obviously you’re born up in metrics. You’re now using Imperial, but actually I then running miles and I swim in meters until I get to the mile mark
Elizabeth Bik (00:52:56):
Peter O’Toole (00:53:19):
No, no, I, I fully understand that problem. I’ve I’ve got some quick prior questions. Would you say you were an early bird or a night owl?
Elizabeth Bik (00:53:26):
Oh, a night owl, for sure.
Peter O’Toole (00:53:28):
Yeah. Okay. PC or Mac?
Elizabeth Bik (00:53:33):
Peter O’Toole (00:53:34):
Oh, McDonald’s or burger king.
Elizabeth Bik (00:53:37):
Oh, well, I’m not, not a fan, I would say in an out burger, but that’s not the habits. No, none of them. I see my, yeah, no, neither of them are my favorite.
Peter O’Toole (00:53:47):
What about if you were to eat out, what would be your favorite type of place to eat out?
Elizabeth Bik (00:53:52):
Like a little restaurant, like a little bit upscale with some romantic music and table clothes and you know, some, some good selection of things you would normally not eat. I really enjoy that, you know, two or three times a year, but I also love Vietnamese fo soup. You know, more like the, the casual dining. That’s like Asian, a lot of Asian foods. I, I really enjoy. And there’s lots of choices here in the bay area where I live.
Peter O’Toole (00:54:25):
Okay. If you were to go on conference what would be your food heaven? What, what, what food would you most love to have put in front of you
Elizabeth Bik (00:54:34):
During a conference? Like a lunch or something?
Peter O’Toole (00:54:36):
Well, at a conference. Okay. You you’ve been invited speaker somewhere, right. And quite often you’ll get taken out for an evening. You you don’t get a choice of where you are going. You get put down quite often. They’ll have pre-selected the menu.
Elizabeth Bik (00:54:48):
Peter O’Toole (00:54:48):
What would be the ideal food to put down? You think? Brilliant.
Elizabeth Bik (00:54:54):
No, I eat, I eat a lot, so I love vegetables. Occasionally some meat. No, I’m, I’m, I’m an easy eater, so okay. If, if the host takes me out for dinner, I just already enjoy that. That’s just always lovely.
Peter O’Toole (00:55:08):
And what about the the opposite to that? Is there any particular food that was putting in front thinking, oh, really? I eat it. I’ve gotta eat it really. I wasn’t eating it.
Elizabeth Bik (00:55:18):
Like, I mean, I wouldn’t really like to eat a brain or so, but or eyeballs or so, but yeah, no, I think most of food you would get in a, in a, any restaurant. I would, I would enjoy eating.
Peter O’Toole (00:55:29):
Okay. Anything as long as it’s not too awful then?
Elizabeth Bik (00:55:32):
Yeah. Not, not too, not too recognizable, like, like things like lobster. I would also have basically, I have no idea how to get any, anything edible out of that. And
Peter O’Toole (00:55:58):
Elizabeth Bik (00:55:59):
I would, I would be too embarrassed to eat anything very messy.
Peter O’Toole (00:56:04):
I’ll keep this simple though. Tea or coffee.
Elizabeth Bik (00:56:08):
That depends on the day, time of day, but coffee. Yeah. For in the morning for sure. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (00:56:13):
Okay. Beer, wine,
Elizabeth Bik (00:56:14):
Peter O’Toole (00:56:16):
Red or white.
Elizabeth Bik (00:56:17):
That would depend on the temperature, but usually red.
Peter O’Toole (00:56:21):
Okay. Chocolate or cheese to with it.
Elizabeth Bik (00:56:24):
Oh for wine that will be cheese.
Peter O’Toole (00:56:27):
Okay. And book or TV?
Elizabeth Bik (00:56:32):
Hmm, TV. Ah, I don’t read. I, I barely read no I’m similar, but I also barely watch TV, like like, like I watch like one show binge watch one show a year or so. So I just sit behind my computer and do look at images. And I really enjoy that.
Peter O’Toole (00:56:47):
I, I remember talking to Richard Henderson asking what his TV vice was and he scratched his head and he, he, he came out with WOBA and, and then to about the whole series. So I’ve actually had to watch quite a bit to that now, just, just to, cause I said I would, what about yourself though? What do you have a, a TV that you’ve got to confess now? What is your TV show that you shouldn’t really watch? Really quite like?
Elizabeth Bik (00:57:12):
Well I just watched the apple TV series Severance and I thought I was brilliant and I was just so unlike anything I’d ever seen and yeah, I really enjoyed that. I watched it in the, in the plane, but yeah, so it’s that was just good, but I think, yeah, because we have an apple TV, subscription we’re all like Mac people. So we, we you know, we, you watch what you, you pay for or what you get. And so I think a lot of the apple TV series are brilliant and enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed Game of Thrones. So I did watch binge for that. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (00:57:43):
I, I think that can count as advice more than anything else with Game of Thrones.
Elizabeth Bik (00:57:52):
Oh gosh. Oh, you got me there. Have nothing that pops up. Okay.
Peter O’Toole (00:58:00):
Maybe Christmas film then.
Elizabeth Bik (00:58:02):
Oh, that’s we’ll know that
Peter O’Toole (00:58:14):
Yeah. How many years you’ve been in the US
Elizabeth Bik (00:58:16):
Now? 20. Yeah. No, but we’re still very Dutch
Peter O’Toole (00:58:52):
Be a Christmas one, I guess it’s
Speaker 3 (00:58:53):
A, that’s a Christmas one for sure. That was a good, that was funny. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (00:58:56):
Elizabeth Bik (00:58:57):
Those. I forgotten name,
Peter O’Toole (00:58:59):
Recalling anything, counter films. I’m really bad at
Elizabeth Bik (00:59:13):
Oh, I love like the faint or like, like electro pop type of music. Fisher Spooner, like, like those are probably, you have never heard of that’s like super electro pop S slash alternative loud music.
Peter O’Toole (00:59:30):
Elizabeth Bik (00:59:32):
Peter O’Toole (00:59:33):
Oh, good choice.
Elizabeth Bik (00:59:34):
Peter O’Toole (00:59:35):
USA or Netherlands.
Elizabeth Bik (00:59:37):
Oh, I’m both. I’m both. I’m like a Dutch. I cannot, I cannot choose. I see the good things of the US and I see the good things of the Netherlands and I can switch back and forth between them. I don’t know if I had to choose, like now I would be living in the US. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (00:59:55):
I was gonna say it was a trick question, cuz obviously you said the Netherlands, you being kicked out. If you just USA, you’d never have been that back
Elizabeth Bik (01:00:03):
Into the no, no, no. I actually have two passports so I can prove that I’m you know, a citizen of both countries. Yes
Peter O’Toole (01:00:09):
Is that difficult to have now in the Netherlands two passports?
Elizabeth Bik (01:00:12):
That is very difficult actually. So there’s, there’s you know, there’s some exception rules that I applied to and but in principle, the Netherlands doesn’t allow dual citizenship. Yeah. I know the UK does and the, and the US also does, but in principle, if I, once I turned the us citizen, you lose your Dutch citizenship unless you’re married to a US citizen. So what we did is that my husband turned the US citizen first and I was still married to the same guy, but then I could apply for the exception rule. And, and so I do have two, two passports now. Okay. So I’m literally at the, you know, entering the Netherlands, like which one do you wanna see? I have two and they’re always looking like that, but yeah, that’s totally fine.
Peter O’Toole (01:00:53):
So it’s going, going back into career wise. I, the science integrity digest, but you you set up your baby but you also did the microbiome project digest. Sorry. Microbiome digest. Was that also yours from inception?
Elizabeth Bik (01:01:10):
Yes, that was so I, I started microbiome digest much earlier, so that was when I was still in microbiology and that’s also my handle on, on Twitter without the E. But yeah, so I set that up. So I, I was doing this microbiome literature email first, weekly, and then later daily to my coworkers, like, oh, here’s some cool papers. I think this is a cool paper for you, Tom, or this is a cool paper for, for you Anne, and sending those around. And then people said, oh, this is you’re, you’re really picking up good papers. So maybe you should turn that into a blog and, and have other people see that too. So I sort of, there were so many papers on the microbiome field coming out at that time. You needed somebody to curate that and sort of group it like this is for plant by a microbiologist or this is for soil microbiologist. So I did this sort of send around a daily or made it into a blog and I bought microbiome digest.com and set up a WordPress blog was all very easy and did that on a daily basis, but it was starting to cost more and more time. So now it’s being run by a team of volunteers which is getting smaller and smaller. So I think the, the blog will probably you know, phase out at some point because I, I cannot pay these people, but they’re, they’re doing wonderful job, but, you know, as with any group of volunteers, it’s, it’s not gonna last forever. And there’s other people who can curate papers as well. So but it’s been running for, yeah, I don’t know, seven years or so eight years.
Peter O’Toole (01:02:42):
I think it’s impressive that, you know, you have ideas, but you don’t just have the ideas you then make you bring ’em to fruition. Yeah. That that’s a real skill.
Elizabeth Bik (01:02:52):
Well, it also helps to have a Twitter account with, you know, a nice amount of followers. So when I needed, when I realized I couldn’t do this anymore by myself, because it was taking three hours of my time every day, I thought, okay, I need a team of people. And I just posted this on Twitter. Like, Hey, if you are interested in a, in a career of, let’s say science communication, or you just wanna have this as a sort of resume builder, or you wanna also write blog post and learn that like, I have a platform I’ll have 500 views every day. So it it’s a small group, but it’s, it’s, it’s a, you know, every day. Yeah. That’s, that’s still good. And so those, those volunteers join because of Twitter, I just basically hired them, them all. And, but unfortunately none of them has, or almost none of them has ever written a blog post. I thought it was also good for their career to, you know, offer them a platform that people would be reading their blog posts, because people who are interested in science communication might use that as a, yeah. A jumping platform to, to practice your writing skills. You mean you will all have to learn that. And and it’s, it’s, it would be a nice environment. I, you know, was happy to offer feedback, but not many people actually took up on that. And they so they, they, they post the, the, well, it’s supposed to be a daily post, but it’s, I think now once or twice a week. So I, I think at some point it’s, I, I would have to decide to, you know, to, to stop it, but we’ll, we’ll see how long it goes. I think it’s still being watched five on the times a day.
Peter O’Toole (01:04:26):
Maybe everything ha has a time, a moment in time, but right,
Elizabeth Bik (01:04:29):
Peter O’Toole (01:04:30):
I think, you know, you’ve had the ideas and you said, yeah, thanks to your Twitter followers. You did it, but you, but you generally, you had the product to gain the Twitter following mm-hmm,
Elizabeth Bik (01:04:53):
Peter O’Toole (01:04:53):
Interest and people do follow. Cause what you’re saying, what you’re putting out there is relevant. It’s informative, it’s important. I think, I think it’s a really good lesson for people, certainly in the, the earliest starts their career fact, even in the Twilight of their career, I would say there’s still an opportunity to have to develop your career through this type of work. Right. And supporting either there, or if they see a different niche that isn’t addressed, mm-hmm
Elizabeth Bik (01:05:29):
To some of course. Yeah. Right. And, and social media are just a wonderful platform for that, of course, with all the caveats of the haters and the unkind tweets. But, but it is, it’s a unique way of of forming a group or finding your, your you know, people who think like you of of community and quickly spreading news or ideas or creating a hashtag that suddenly has an impact. Like we’ve seen that with the me too movement where social media is just a, a great place where these movements start and in the, the olden days we, we couldn’t expose any type of misconduct or, or behavior that we don’t approve of. That was just, you know, silently people were silently looking the other way, but with social media that allows people to, to unite and to take a stance against that. And, and I hope I have contributed a little bit with, you know, the lack of responses of journals and institutions to, to look at these cases. And and we’ve also seen it, it was I don’t know, people doing weird things in airplanes where just other people start filming it. And it’s like, yeah, that, that guy is hitting a flight attendant or, or that woman is, is shouting. And like, I don’t know, spitting on another person, like, like seeing these things in video and share, having that shared on social media makes such more impact than just reading a line about it and has helped people to realize that there’s a problem. We need to deal with that. And so I hope I do that with science misconduct.
Peter O’Toole (01:07:07):
I, I have one more quote. We are actually, I think up to the hour, but I have, I do have one more question, which is what was the best what’s been the best sort of year in your career to date what’s been the most fun time that you most enjoyed?
Elizabeth Bik (01:07:24):
Probably the first year that I, I quit my job and I could look at images almost full time without having to worry about doing stuff for my paid job. Because I had all the freedom to work on whatever I want. I think nowadays with conferences started, that’s also wonderful to talk about my work at conferences, but sometimes I feel it takes away from really what I do, what I love best, which is looking at scientific papers and reporting them massively. So yeah, so far 2019
Peter O’Toole (01:07:57):
Right. I, I hope it carries on being a huge success. I hope it grows. And maybe even people start to join in and help and assist
Elizabeth Bik (01:08:03):
They do. They do. Yeah. I I think those little challenges that I play on Twitter are secretly telling other people how to find these things by themselves. And they, they start to find them by themselves.
Peter O’Toole (01:08:15):
And, and I will shamelessly now say to anyone who’s watched or listened to this, actually do the unscientific thing can actually like it. So it’s not all the bad press, please
Elizabeth Bik (01:08:25):
Peter O’Toole (01:08:26):
Comment. And so what is the, your Twitter handle?
Elizabeth Bik (01:08:31):
It’s microbiome digest. So it’s like microbiome digest with the E, but I had to drop the E in the middle. Yeah. Because Twitter only has, what is it? 10 letters or so, so, but if you search for my name, Elizabeth with an S B B, I K you would find me as well, there’s only one person with my name or there should be
Peter O’Toole (01:08:55):
And so, and, and again, you know, words of support are, are very welcomed. And I think it is yes,
Elizabeth Bik (01:09:01):
Peter O’Toole (01:09:01):
Often we’re quite private individuals. We don’t like to say things out publicly, but maybe sometimes we should say things, some support publicly. Yes. Not to get involved in any of this Twitter spa or anything else don’t do that. Anyone listening, but just, you know, if there’s a bit of support, put it out there, let others follow suit as well. Elizabeth, I think what you’re doing is brilliant. You are so easy to talk to, and I cannot wait for the next conference we both have. And I remember it’s red wine and a chocolate mocha cake.
Elizabeth Bik (01:09:31):
Yes. Oh, thank you so much. That will be much appreciated. It was lovely talking to you to you, Peter. I very much enjoyed it,
Peter O’Toole (01:09:38):
Elizabeth. Thank you.
Elizabeth Bik (01:09:40):
Thank you so much.
Speaker 1 (01:09:42):
Thank you for listening to The Microscopists, a Bitesizebio podcast sponsored by Zeiss microscopy to view all audio and video recordings from this series, please visit bitesizebio.com/themicroscopist