Sunday, 15 September 2019

Cyber-bully Klaas van Dijk vs the Omar F. Al-Sheikhly - a cautionary tale to anyone corresponding with Van Dijk about Basra Reed Warbler research

Cyber-bully Klaas van Dijk vs the Omar F. Al-Sheikhly - a cautionary tale to anyone corresponding with Van Dijk about Basra Reed Warbler research

I must admit have my flaws. I generally go through life believing in the best in people. So, as editor of Ostrich, Journal of African Ornithology, when I received an article titled “TnF facilitating research fraud” I was genuinely interested, and believed I was receiving an article from a rational, decent human being. Turns out not to be the case; after only a few weeks I was also being accused of being complicit in fraud, and if you dare disagree with Mr van Dijk, then you will be too. Possibly also your neighbour, even if they haven’t even heard of a Basra Reed Warbler and the journal called Zoology in the Middle East. Certainly, Klaas van Dijk appears to me to resemble a jihadist with the sole purpose in life of getting papers published by Al-Sheikhly retracted.

So why as editor of Ostrich was I interested in the van Dijk article? At the time, with no background other than the article written by Mr van Dijk, I took him at his word: the article had quotations of support from many big names in science, and I presumed the article was novel and would be interesting to readers of the journal: we could demonstrate that we are willing to consider all sorts of articles, and have the publisher respond to the allegation. A sort of click bait saga. As such, I informed Mr van Dijk that I was interested and would pursue the matter further with TnF.
However, it soon became clear that this had already been done: Mr van Dijk (VD for short) has a project on ResearchGate and a wiki page where he documents his correspondence with everyone. The article he finds offensive has been commented on, examined, cross examined to the point of boredom. TnF had already issued various statements on the matter.... So - not exactly the novel, controversial story it appeared to be after all, and certainly nothing pertaining to research in Africa, although the species does occur here to some extent, I have learnt. And by the way, a common theme in his documentation of communications is that people stop communicating with him. It was starting to seem a bit like Ostrich was being used to fulfil a personal agenda.  Meanwhile, considering this to be old news, I declined the story.
From here, things went downhill rather fast, and I suspect if you are a semi rational reader, you will begin to understand why the communication with VD soon stops. Firstly he writes this to me:
The views and the statements in your e-mail of 18 May 2019 reveal that you reject that Al-Sheikhly et al. (2013, 2015) is based on fraud.  
WHHAT!? No-way! In fact, I have no opinion on if the Al-Sheikly story is fraudulent or not, I am not interested in it, not qualified to comment, and in fact wrote to VD that I saw his point of view. It could be bad science, fraud, good science, I honestly do not know. I am being forced to form an opinion on a species I have never seen, written by people I have never met, in a country I have never been to. Should it have been retracted? Sure: it would have made everybody’s life easier, but at this stage while the article is advisedly poor science, actual fraud has yet to be proven. VD further wrote:
This implies that it is mandatory for you to ensure that I, Richard Porter, and all co-authors of Porter et al. (2015..... get full and unlimited access to the full set of raw research data of Al-Sheikhly et al. (2013), and before the end of week 21 (Sunday 26 May 2019).
WHHAT!? That is about as reasonable a request as "Mr VD, please go to the moon and live out the rest of your days there". I do not have the data, I do not know the authors nor have any authority to comply with this demand. 
Alternatively, I propose you start with working together with me, with Richard Porter, with all co-authors of Porter et al. (2015a&b), and with lots and lots and lots etc. of other conservationalists and ornithologists, to ensure that the fraudulent study on the breeding biology of the Basra Reed Warbler (Al-Sheikhly et al. 2013, 2015) gets retracted.
Ok - so I am offered a choice of the impossible, or to join ranks with the lynch mob. To me, this is a threat, and as we shall see, it was no idle threat. In fact, I wonder how many others have been either tricked or coerced into supporting his position. I indicated to VD that I found his email threatening and would not be corresponding further, and engaged a filter to archive all email from him. Damn, if only it had been that easy to end this saga.
VD then embarked on a personal slander attack directed at me, with this email titled about Alan Lee and research misconduct and issues at Ostrich to Peter Ryan, director of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute:
One week ago I have informed you and some others at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology that your subordinate Alan Lee is currently involved in covering up a clear case of scientific misconduct. You and others at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology have until now not informed me that these allegations are unfounded and/or incorrect.
Clarification: I am not a subordinate of anyone, I am an independent researcher, with an affiliation to the Fitz. And if I was trying to cover it up - oops, I am a bit late for that too by about 4 or 5 years.
You and others at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology have also not provided me comments from reviewers / experts (together with their names and e-mail accounts) on reports which are published at ....
I have therefore concluded that there are 0 (zero, nul, nada, niente) experts / reviewers at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology who have been able to refute / rebut any of the findings of the reports which have been published at ....
I have thus also concluded that these allegations against Alan Lee are founded and that I am allowed to make public statements that your subordinate Alan Lee is currently involved in covering up a clear case of scientific misconduct. This all implies that the Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Ostrich is embroiled in covering up a clear case of scientific misconduct. It goes without saying that such an acting by your subordinate Alan Lee is disasterous for the good name of Ostrich.
I recall that you and others the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and Alan Lee and others (etc.) have not responded on the >1,000,000,000,000,000,000 times repeated requests to provide me and Richard Porter and all co-autors of Porter et al. (2015 a&b), see and , full and unlimited access to the full set of raw research data of Al-Sheikhly et al. (2013).
This acting by you and by others at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and by Alan Lee on this formal request implies that I am correct by stating that publisher Taylor & Francis has ordered you that it is not allowed to communicate with me about this request.
WWHAAAT!? Do I even need to get into the lunacy? Apparently, VD is someone who believes the end justifies the means. This is a clear case of malicious slander. Ostrich is co-published by TnF - but I actually had permission from them to publish the VD letter should I wish. I do not wish - it would be giving into bullying. VD is quick to wave a copy of the COPE publishing code of conduct at everyone, but does not seem to abide by it himself (in fact appears complicit in attacking it when it suits him  
Unfortunately for me, the email to Peter Ryan has not get me fired by BirdLife South Africa. Apparently according to Mark Anderson, I am doing a great job. I wish I could get fired. Then I could get back to life in the mountains. Anyone want the editor position? You only have to deal with VD type issues about once a year. No takers? Damn. When Peter Ryan did not give into VD demands (to have me fired), VD laid a complaint of misconduct against him with the university: to waste the time of our highly ranked scientists in this way is inexcusable, frivolous behaviour.
By the way, to keep this all digestible, I have left out an entire page of demands that cannot be met, by me or anyone, such as 5 reviews and reviewer details of the information on his wiki page. I am sure VD will publish that email soon enough, bore yourself on his research page in the meantime.
And of course, anyone associated with Ostrich is now taking bullets from VD. Here an extract of an email to the director of NISC: .....the Managing Director of NISC, agrees with us that this full set of raw research data does not exist. You have unilaterally decided not to communicate with me about this crucial topic. I am therefore forced to communicate with you about this topic through the concept of 'tacit approval within a fixed period of time'. To put it in other words, you formally agree with us that this full set of raw research data of Al-Sheikhly et al. (2013) does not exist when there is no response within 24 hours from now. OK?
From this I further must infer that all supposed statements of support for his cause are coerced, taken out of context, or simply people who no longer wanted to respond to his impossible emails. VD is also a lone agent: when I contacted Richard Porter (who originally pointed out the unlikely data presented in the Al-Sheikhly paper), he wanted nothing to do with VD.
VD also embarked on a mission to coerce statements from members of BirdLife South Africa, copying in most staff for whom he could get an email address. By this stage, we had received legal council to not respond to any emails. VD then subsequently published on his Researchgate site a statement saying that BirdLife South Africa agreed with his position, which is a lie, because no such position exists.   
So, if you arrived here as an editor doing background research on Klaas van Dijk - my commiserations, you are in for a tough ride. My stance - say NO to cyber bullying, use the correct procedure for requesting a retraction, and make better use of your time by not engaging with people like VD.   

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