'I think the paper is fraudulent. The presence of the 'wormy corn' sign is crucial data and failure to include it in the paper constitutes falsification - in this case falsification through omission.' - Dr. Richard C Jennings, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge
Of wormy corn and websites
Who pulled the plug on the GM Watch website?
The Ecologist, December 2007-January 2008 issue (published November 30 2007)
Campaign group GM Watch had the plug pulled on its website recently, following a complaint of defamation from a Canadian Government bureaucrat. Shane Morris expressed outrage at the choice of 'Award for a Fraud' as the headline for an article about an award-winning scientific paper he'd helped co-author.
GM Watch agreed to change the title to get back online, but the row didn't stop there. As Morris continued to pepper its web host with legal threats about 'defamatory untruths', GM Watch brought forward new evidence and won powerful expert support.
The controversy began in 2003 with the publication by the British Food Journal of a paper entitled 'Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweetcorn', by Doug Powell, Shane Morris and two other authors. The paper reported on research at a Canadian farm store in late summer 2000, involving shoppers being offered a choice between GM and non-GM sweetcorn. The research showed they chose the GM corn by a factor of three to two.
In 2004, the journal honoured the paper with its Award for Excellence for Most Outstanding Paper. But questions began to be asked in April 2006 when the GM Watch website published a photograph taken at the farm store. It showed a handwritten sign above the non-GM crop that asked shoppers, 'Would you eat wormy sweetcorn?'. The sign above the GM corn, by contrast, referred to 'quality sweetcorn'. GM Watch pointed out that the award-winning paper made no reference to either sign.
After this was flagged up, New Scientist reported that Dr Richard Jennings, a leading expert in scientific ethics at the University of Cambridge, was calling for the research to be retracted. The editor of the British Food Journal refused to do so, but did agree to publish a letter from Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, demanding the research and award be withdrawn. Prof Cummins wrote, 'the cornerstone of science is full and honest reporting, and this experiment and its controls do not appear to have been reported either fully or honestly.'
In his reply, Doug Powell - the study's lead author - conceded that the 'wormy corn' sign had been present on 30 August 2000 (the day the sales research started), but claimed, 'The handwritten signs were changed the following week'. On his blog, Shane Morris also claimed the sign had quickly come down, and that well before he himself had first gone to the farm store on 27 September 2000. He also posted two photographs he said conclusively proved the sign had been removed. One of the pictures - dated 27 September 2000 - also showed a Greenpeace campaigner, Michael Khoo, whom Morris claimed could confirm there was no 'wormy corn' sign on display.
After GM Watch had its site disabled, it contacted Khoo to ask him to confirm Morris's claim. 'I could have seen [the sign] when I was there,' Khoo revealed, but he couldn't say for certain because 'it's a little while ago'. With him at the store that day was Toronto-based independent food policy consultant Dr Rod MacRae, however, who told GM Watch that he had seen the sign. 'I can state categorically that the sign was there the day Michael and I attended,' he said. Dr MacRae also confirmed the date: 27 September 2000.
Shane Morris responded by suggesting GM Watch had 'bought lies in Canada', but by now the controversy had attracted the interest of a computer scientist at the University of New South Wales, Dr Tim Lambert, who undertook a meticulous examination of the two low-resolution images Morris had posted on his blog. Lambert was able to establish that a hard-to-read sign visible in both pictures was none other than the 'wormy corn' sign.
According to Lambert, science would have been served better if Morris and Powell had acknowledged the flaws in their study, 'rather than making untrue statements about the 'wormy corn' sign being removed.'
Dr Richard Jennings, an ethics expert, has commented that the 'Award for a Fraud' title is justified: 'I think the paper is fraudulent,' he said. 'The presence of the 'wormy corn' sign is crucial data and failure to include it in the paper constitutes falsification - in this case falsification through omission.'