Authors from the German authority BfR are guilty of “serious scientific misconduct” in copy-pasting a Monsanto report without giving citations or distinguishing between Monsanto’s and their own assessments
An Austrian expert on plagiarism, Dr Stefan Weber, has analyzed the report on glyphosate prepared by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which concluded that the chemical did not pose a carcinogenic risk.
In a report commissioned by the Austrian NGO GLOBAL 2000, Dr Weber compared BfR’s report with the application for the renewal of glyphosate’s approval, submitted by Monsanto on behalf of the Glyphosate Task Force, a coalition of pesticide companies. He found that BfR had heavily plagiarised Monsanto’s text, uncritically and without giving citations, leading to a situation where it was not possible to distinguish Monsanto’s interpretation of the data from BfR’s.
Dr Weber points out that this violates guidance from the EU Commission, which clearly states that the comments and conclusions of the national rapporteur – in this case, BfR on behalf of Germany – need to be clearly differentiated from the conclusions of the authors of any relevant studies and the industry applicant.
Dr Weber’s findings add weight to the concern of NGOs and MEPs that Monsanto heavily influenced the EU assessment of glyphosate. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) followed BfR in concluding that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. Their conclusion is at odds with the view of the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency IARC, which classifies glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen and adds that evidence for its genotoxicity (ability to damage DNA) is strong.
Dr Weber was given three questions to answer:
1) Are the rules of good scientific practice applicable to these types of texts – the industry application and BfR’s assessment report?
2) If so, have the rules of good scientific practice been properly applied or not?
3) If not, does this constitute scientific misconduct in the form of plagiarism?
Dr Weber found that “The rules of good scientific practice are applicable in this case. Scientific misconduct was found. It was possible to identify significant fragments of text which should be classified as plagiarised text.”
Dr Weber writes that in BfR’s section on genotoxicity, the institute had copied large sections of text written by Monsanto consultant Larry D. Kier, but had not mentioned his name, even though he was properly cited in Monsanto’s application. The BfR authors not only failed to consult the original experimental studies cited by Kier, but also offered assessments of the studies that Kier assessed, without stating that these were Kier’s judgments. Dr Weber calls this plagiarism.
In one case, Dr Weber writes, “[Kier’s] statements are simply adopted verbatim, without identifying them as such and with no source citation, as if this were the assessment of the BfR. As a result, it is not clear whether the BfR had conducted its own assessments which had delivered exactly the same result as Kier’s assessment.”
BfR copy-pasted sections from Monsanto’s application
On carcinogenicity, too, Dr Weber found that “Summaries and assessments in this subsection were also taken verbatim from the [Monsanto’s] application.” Regarding evidence of reproductive toxicity in the epidemiology studies on glyphosate and its commercial formulations, Dr Weber said, “the same practice of copy and paste is evident”.
Dr Weber tracks the process of “adopted evaluations” from Monsanto to BfR as follows:
* Kier adopts parts of Williams et al. 2000, a Monsanto-supported paper concluding that “Roundup herbicide does not pose a health risk to humans”;
* Kier himself assesses the studies published after 2000;
* The Task Force adopts Kier’s evaluations word-for-word;
* The BfR adopts Kier from the Monsanto/Task Force report uncritically and almost word-for-word, but without citation.
Dr Weber shows that BfR adopts the value judgements of Monsanto-linked authors as a result of word-for-word plagiarism.
BfR’s and EFSA’s excuses demolished
Dr Weber demolishes four excuses given by BfR and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for their plagiarism. He also anticipates and responds to another three potential excuses. A short summary of Dr Weber’s reasoning on the four actual excuses is as follows.
Excuse no. 1): The citation requirement is lifted when cross-referencing the status of research.
Dr Weber responds that it is not only the status of research that has been cross-referenced, but numerous evaluation/classifications have also been adopted, without citations.
Excuse no. 2) There was a critical examination of all the details.
The BfR claims that “In Europe and worldwide, it is standard practice and recognised that in assessment procedures, not only for pesticides, after critical examination the assessing authority also integrates relevant passages from submitted documents in its assessment report.” But Dr Weber says that this integration does not free the authorities of their duty to provide citations and to distinguish between their own ideas and those of third parties.
Excuse no. 3) A ‘re-write’ had not been necessary because the data were correct.
BfR argued: “Whenever the applicant correctly cites studies and interprets them in the relevant summaries in a correct manner, both in terms of the science and the methodology, in the past the European assessment authorities have had no reason to re-write such statements…”
Dr Weber responds: “It is astonishing that the BfR even considers the option of a ‘re-write’, as if this would constitute good scientific practice at best. However, this is not
about paraphrasing or ‘leaving’ the original text, but about failing to cite sources and about failing to identify texts written by other authors – also in the sense of optical highlighting.”
Dr Weber adds, “In the end it is all about the reader’s understanding of the text: in the incriminating passages the reader has no doubt that the BfR is describing its own literature research – including presenting its methodology – and giving its own judgments, while in reality these are the judgments either of the ‘Glyphosate Task Force’ or of Dr Kier.”
Excuse no. 4) When agreeing with the content it is permissible, and even standard practice, to adopt the text verbatim.
EFSA states: “If the RMS agrees with a particular summary or evaluation it may incorporate the text directly into the draft assessment report.” But Dr Weber responds: “The approach described here seems unusual: The review criteria are neither transparent, nor can the reader discern which passages come from the applicant and which from the authority. Once more it is important to stress that incorporating text passages from the application is consistent with good scientific practice only when the text passages are marked as such, i.e. visually highlighted (indentation, different font or font size, or a combination of all three, etc.) or by using quotation marks. Deviating from this norm, however, leads to the (un)culture of copy & paste and a lack of transparency.”
Principles of good scientific practice
Dr Weber sums up his findings as follows: “It is absolutely correct to call this plagiarism in the sense of scientific misconduct because the presumed author, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), is committed to the same principles of good scientific practice as universities, and defines the concept of plagiarism in the same way. The systematic omission of 1) indications and 2) source references over several pages can only be interpreted as deliberately concealing the origin of the text.”
Regarding the motivations for the plagiarism, Dr Weber says we can only speculate, but possible reasons range from simple time saving to understaffing and insufficient skills on the part of BfR.
He adds that “In a currently sensitive and scientifically highly controversial research area such as this, it is vital to work with extreme diligence and to locate and cite the original sources without exception.”
Significant scientific misconduct
In a damning indictment of BfR’s scientific independence, Dr Weber concludes: “All in all, the writers of the [BfR] report must be accused of significant scientific misconduct and of fulfilling all the definitional criteria of text plagiarism in the sense of conscious deception about the true authorship. That the rules of good scientific practice were not adhered to means that, in this case, the BfR obviously did not conduct its own assessment of the cited studies.”
This is relevant, he points out, because EU regulation requires that an independent, objective and transparent assessment be conducted. Furthermore, State Secretary Peter Bleser of the German Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food claimed that the BfR had undertaken its own assessment.
Dr Weber’s analysis raises serious question marks over claims of BfR’s independence and scientific objectivity.
Report by Claire Robinson
1. The German authority BfR provided this report to the EU authorities because Germany is the rapporteur member state for glyphosate, responsible for liaising between industry and the EU authorities and member states during the re-authorization process.