PLoS started with a simple mission - giving voice to researchers with ideas different from mainstream. The journal seems to have failed miserably on its first real test. It abruptly pulled out a peer-reviewed blog post (available here) by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife defending scrutiny of science, following criticism from professors at high places backing GMO. Retraction watch reports -
Community blog PLOS Biology has pulled a post by journalists Charles Seife and Paul Thacker that argued in favor of public scrutiny of scientists behavior (including emails), following heavy criticism, including from a group and scientist mentioned in the post.
Their reasoning: The post was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines.
Later on in the post, Retraction Watch reports that there was more than just ‘spirit and intent of our community guidelines’. The PLoS blog post was strongly criticized by the University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, who threatened to pull out his papers from PLoS and asked others to do so.
At the bottom of the post, Folta explains his response to PLOS, and suggests scientists pause before publishing in one of their journals:
“I contacted PLoS and requested equal space to refute Thacker and Seifes false statements. PLoS refused to provide equal space. Their representative said, Respond in the comments section.
I have published in PLoS journals. I reviewed for PLoS journals. and have a paper in review there now that Im strongly considering pulling. While PLoS blogs has a disclaimer that they do not control content, they do offer a visible, reputable brand to host this fact-challenged attack on a public scientist.
Researchers should consider this event when deliberating publication or reviewing with PLoS journals.”
Who is Kevin Folta and what is he up to? You need to read this alternet report to get to the heart of the story (emphasis ours).
The Monsanto public relations machine has done a stellar job in recent years of reducing the GMO debate to one that pits pro-science advocates against anti-science climate-denier types with Monsanto portrayed as being squarely planted in the pro-science camp.
But that well-oiled machine may be starting to sputter.
Turns out that Monsanto executive solicited pro-GMO articles from university researchers, and passed the research off as independent science which the biotech giant then used to prop up its image and further its agenda.
USRTK, a nonprofit funded almost entirely by the Organic Consumers Association, launched an investigation into the collusion between Big Food, its front groups, and university faculty and staff to deliver industry PR to the public.
As part of its ongoing investigation, the group filed FOIA requests to obtain the emails and documents from 43 public university faculty and staff. The requested documents included records from scientists, economists, law professors, extension specialists and communicators all of whom, as the group points out, were conducting work in public institutions, all funded by taxpayers.
On its website, the group says, “We believe the public deserves to know more about the flow of money and level of coordination between public university scientists and other academics, and the agrichemical and food companies whose interests they promote.”
And now we do. And we know exactly how the latest plan to deceive, involving a paid PR firm posing as an independent third party, was hatched.
According to Mother Jones, in an August 2013 email to nine prominent academics, Monsanto’s strategic engagement lead Eric Sachs broached a plan: that the group would pen “short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena,” chosen “because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation, and consumer acceptance.”
Sachs assured the professors that the project would be handled discreetly. “I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected,” he wrote. Two outside entities an industry-funded group called the American Council on Science and Health and a PR outfit called CMA would “manage the process of producing the policy briefs,” “coordinate website posting and promotion,” and “merchandize” the briefs by helping turn them into “op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc.” This third-party management is “an important element,” the Monsanto exec added, “because Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without involvement by Monsanto.”
The explanation outlined by Mother Jones followed an articles by mainstream news outlets, including Bloomberg and the New York Times. Heres a partial roundup of the coverage generated so far by USRTKs investigation.
New York Times: helped produce important payoffs
In a September 5 article, New York Times reporter Eric Lipton credited USRTK with obtaining thousands of pages of emails, many of which the Times then requested on its own.
After reviewing the documents, and describing some of the email exchanges between Monsantos PR firm and academics who were solicited to write articles, Lipton concluded that Monsantos strategy was effective:
The efforts have helped produce important payoffs, including the approval by federal regulators of new genetically modified seeds after academic experts intervened with the United States Department of Agriculture on the industrys behalf, the emails show.
Lipton singled out, among others, Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. Monsanto recruited Folta, Lipton wrote, to help with biotechnology outreach and to travel around the country to defend genetically modified foods.
The evolving GMO scandal exposes the dishonesty of US geneticists at various government-funded universities. These people try to turn a complex social issue to 140 letter or less ‘GMO is safe and do not listen to non-geneticists’ slogan. One aspect of this corruption is that they do not see anything wrong with California seed law AB 2470, which blocks farmers from sending regular seeds to each other beyond an arbitrary 3 miles distance. What had been common practice for over thousands of years is now illegal, because ‘those farmers do not understand genetics unlike us University professors’. Here is a video of Neil Young distributing seeds to people in Berkeley in protest against this law.
Farmers and consumers should be angry. AB2470 is dangerous law, warns California Grange President Bob McFarland.
AB2470 is disguised as a weed abatement measure. But in black & white, the bill goes far beyond that purpose and puts more onerous regulations on the backs of small farmers already struggling to make a living and preserve their unadulterated heirloom seeds. This unjust bill does little more to prevent the spread of weeds, but it certainly exterminates beneficial seed sharing traditions that have been practiced by humankind for more than 10,000 years.
AB2470 makes it illegal for a farmer to offer for sale, expose for sale, possess for sale, exchange, barter or trade their seeds beyond an arbitrary three mile limit from their farm to neighbors, unless they adhere to a strict and onerous packaging process. Under this law a farmer is not allowed to share seeds at a swap meet over three miles from their farm, or exchange seeds with a friend who lives more than three miles down the road, without jumping through the same regulatory hoops designed for giant commercial seed retailers, like Monsanto. AB2470 creates unfair competition and threatens the distribution of organic seeds, favoring genetically modified (GMO) seeds. Farmers are crying FOUL!
Another ominous provision under AB2470 provides that any ordinance adopted by a county or municipality after January 1, 2015 that would restrict the production of GMO crops is subject to a veto by the California Secretary of Agriculture. Even though representatives of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) have hinted that Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross will make administrative regulations promising this authority will not be exercised, the language of the bill remains unchanged. Farmers are rightfully concerned that any future Secretary of Agriculture may not be as lenient. The solution is to change the language of the law or repeal it.
My suspicion is that PLoS Biology has chosen the wrong side in this social issue and will end up discrediting scientific organizations in the process. The journal itself is way past its expiry date and is showing many symptoms of age.