October 29, 2011
“I was one of the few women who went out to the first protest in Tripoli on 22 February, and shortly after that I joined 17 February Youth Coalition, a rebel group. We had a medical section, a communications section and later, of course, a military cell,” says Mounia Al Saghir. She is 22, veiled, soft-spoken and fearless – a student, NGO worker and now a revolutionary.
We speak on 20 October, the evening of Muammar Gaddafi’s death. Mounia says she is “overwhelmed”, but she speaks calmly and steadily to describe her work for the Youth Coalition. She began on a guerrilla propaganda campaign, organising high-risk publicity stunts designed to prove that despite the bloody suppression of Tripoli’s February uprising, the opposition movement was alive and unrepentant. Red, black and green balloons were released over Tripoli’s skyline, opposition flags unfurled from high buildings and Gaddafi posters set alight in crowded public spaces.
When the military cell formed, the group’s attention shifted. One female member helped organise a failed assassination attempt on Saif al Islam Gaddafi in July. She was later arrested, imprisoned and mercifully released, but not without suffering appalling abuse. “They electrocuted her, they beat her, she had 16 broken bones. She didn’t drink, she didn’t eat anything,” Mounia says quietly.
Mounia too had a narrow escape after smuggling videos and instruction manuals abroad. When a police car pulled up outside her home, she was forced to spend a month in hiding while her father was repeatedly interrogated by secret services. “I was terrified, I thought they would beat or torture him,” she says.
Her voice only falters once, when she describes why she joined the rebels. Her friend Ahmed had told her about the initial anti-government protests planned for the 17 February, but on the 11 February Ahmed was arrested. He died in prison. Only one of the thirty men in his cell survived to confirm the deaths. “So I joined because I had to,” she explains. “For my friends who were killed, for me, for everyone who wanted to and didn’t know how.”
Mounia is a close friend. I met her in late 2008 when I first moved to Libya to work for the United Nations Development Programme, and until the uprising we met often, for dinner or coffee on sunny seaside terraces when Tripoli was still a sleepy Mediterranean town. Although she had spoken vaguely of her previous political work, I was unprepared for her stories. But war changes everything, a point that is boringly self-evident when considered in the abstract and yet takes on new meaning when, as I did, you watch unhappily and guiltily from the side-lines as your former home is ripped apart by brutal conflict.
Gaddafi’s gory, televised death marked more than the removal of a figurehead, or even the dismantling of a political system: it tore through the fabric of Libyan society. In the coming months and years, Libyans will not only be renegotiating the relationship between citizens and the state, but also their relationships with each other. And women like Mounia, who worked alongside men in the anti-Gaddafi struggle, do not want to relinquish their new found freedom, power, and respect.
Politically, Libyan women had not fared too badly compared to other Arab states, in the sense that in his complete denial of any meaningful form of popular political expression, Gaddafi treated both sexes with equanimity. Women were not barred from any professions, female employment and education was slowly improving, forced marriage had been outlawed, and female divorce rights marginally strengthened. A handful of women even made it to high office, but figures like Huda ‘the executioner’ Ben Amer, who first earned Gaddafi’s favour by tugging at the legs of a hanging dissident, had limited appeal as a role model for ambitious young women. In general, social conservatism proved a greater constraint on women than the legal system.
It was even okay to care about women’s rights — provided you adhered to Gaddafi’s state-sponsored feminism. When Alaa Murabit formed a women’s development NGO last year, things went “really well for the first month and a half”, she says. She was excited when Watassemu, the charity headed by Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, got in touch. “We thought we were going to get money,” she explains, but instead they forced her to shut the organisation down.
Alaa’s NGO, The Voice of Libyan Women, co-founded with her close friend Safiya El Harezi, now has around 60 signed-up members and a network of 1,500 volunteers. It developed from her activities during the revolution, when she began calling on the women of her hometown of Zawiya to help her smuggle medical supplies for her makeshift field clinic. This network of smugglers formed their initial membership base.
“To ask for rights, women have to do something,” Alaa explains. “And during the revolution they did that, they did everything a man could do, so now no-one can say ‘you don’t deserve this, you can’t handle this.’ We saw an opportunity in that.”
For every woman smuggling weapons, information or medicines, planning bomb attacks or fighting alongside rebels, there were countless other women taking up vital, sometimes equally dangerous, support roles. Women stitched opposition flags and operated safe-houses and the famous ‘mothers for all rebel fighters’ cooked for hundreds of soldiers. With the men at war, women broke widely-accepted social rules against driving, grocery shopping and running the household without male oversight.
This has changed women’s self-perception, says Issraa Murabit, a 19 year old medical student and citizen journalist. “Women are starting to realise that their importance doesn’t rely on the men in their lives,” she observes. Mounia agrees the biggest transformation has been internal: “Now, if a man talks to a woman on the street she speaks back clearly, she’s confident and not scared anymore. Women were shot or raped, they saw all sorts of things, so they are not frightened anymore.”
The women I speak to all reject the ‘MTV model’ of female liberation that has made such a profound, often confused, impression on the Arab world. They are more interested in choice and education than in sexual liberation, more concerned with freedom than with imposing any particular lifestyle on women. “I want to be clear that everyone’s model of liberation is different. We’re not telling anyone to go out and work if they don’t want to, we’re just saying ‘know that you have a choice’,” says Alaa. “My parents were very strict about going to friends’ houses or parties, but if I’d said ‘I have to go to the moon to get educated’ they would have said ‘fine’. And that’s the kind of model we’re pushing for. I’m not saying let your daughter go out partying all night, I’m just saying ‘let them have an education, give them the same opportunities as your son’…”
October 29, 2011
A surge in withdrawn papers is highlighting weaknesses in the system for handling them.
This week, some 27,000 freshly published research articles will pour into the Web of Science, Thomson Reuters’ vast online database of scientific publications. Almost all of these papers will stay there forever, a fixed contribution to the research literature. But 200 or so will eventually be flagged with a note of alteration such as a correction. And a handful — maybe five or six — will one day receive science’s ultimate post-publication punishment: retraction, the official declaration that a paper is so flawed that it must be withdrawn from the literature.
It is reassuring that retractions are so rare, for behind at least half of them lies some shocking tale of scientific misconduct — plagiarism, altered images or faked data — and the other half are admissions of embarrassing mistakes. But retraction notices are increasing rapidly. In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 (see ’Rise of the retractions’) — even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44% over the past decade.
Perhaps surprisingly, scientists and editors broadly welcome the trend. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re detecting more fraud, and that systems are more responsive to misconduct. It’s become more acceptable for journals to step in,” says Nicholas Steneck, a research ethicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But as retractions become more commonplace, stresses that have always existed in the system are starting to show more vividly.
When the UK-based Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) surveyed editors’ attitudes to retraction two years ago, it found huge inconsistencies in policies and practices between journals, says Elizabeth Wager, a medical writer in Princes Risborough, UK, who is chair of COPE. That survey led to retraction guidelines that COPE published in 2009. But it’s still the case, says Wager, that “editors often have to be pushed to retract”.
Other frustrations include opaque retraction notices that don’t explain why a paper has been withdrawn, a tendency for authors to keep citing retracted papers long after they’ve been red-flagged (see’Withdrawn papers live on’) and the fact that many scientists hear ‘retraction’ and immediately think ‘misconduct’ — a stigma that may keep researchers from coming forward to admit honest errors.
Perfection may be too much to expect from any system that has to deal with human error in all its messiness. As one journal editor told Wager, each retraction is “painfully unique”.
But as more retractions hit the headlines, some researchers are calling for ways to improve their handling. Suggested reforms include better systems for linking papers to their retraction notices or revisions, more responsibility on the part of journal editors and, most of all, greater transparency and clarity about mistakes in research.
The reasons behind the rise in retractions are still unclear. “I don’t think that there is suddenly a boom in the production of fraudulent or erroneous work,” says John Ioannidis, a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who has spent much of his career tracking how medical science produces flawed results.
In surveys, around 1–2% of scientists admit to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE4, e5738; 2009). But over the past decade, retraction notices for published papers have increased from 0.001% of the total to only about 0.02%. And, Ioannidis says, that subset of papers is “the tip of the iceberg” — too small and fragmentary for any useful conclusions to be drawn about the overall rates of sloppiness or misconduct.
Instead, it is more probable that the growth in retractions has come from an increased awareness of research misconduct, says Steneck. That’s thanks in part to the setting up of regulatory bodies such as the US Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services. These ensure greater accountability for the research institutions, which, along with researchers, are responsible for detecting mistakes.
The growth also owes a lot to the emergence of software for easily detecting plagiarism and image manipulation, combined with the greater number of readers that the Internet brings to research papers. In the future, wider use of such software could cause the rate of retraction notices to dip as fast as it spiked, simply because more of the problematic papers will be screened out before they reach publication. On the other hand, editors’ newfound comfort with talking about retraction may lead to notices coming at an even greater rate.
“Norms are changing all the time,” says Steven Shafer, editor-in-chief of the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, who has participated in two major misconduct investigations — one of which involved 11 journals and led to the retraction of some 90 papers…
October 29, 2011
There was only one way scientists could unlock the mystery of the famous Iceman. Take away his ice.
Shortly after 6 p.m. on a drizzling, dreary November day in 2010, two men dressed in green surgical scrubs opened the door of the Iceman’s chamber in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. They slid the frozen body onto a stainless steel gurney. One of the men was a young scientist named Marco Samadelli. Normally, it was his job to keep the famous Neolithic mummy frozen under the precise conditions that had preserved it for 5,300 years, following an attack that had left the Iceman dead, high on a nearby mountain. On this day, however, Samadelli had raised the temperature in the museum’s tiny laboratory room to 18°C—64°F.
With Samadelli was a local pathologist with a trim mustache named Eduard Egarter Vigl, known informally as the Iceman’s “family doctor.” While Egarter Vigl poked and prodded the body with knowing, sometimes brusque familiarity, a handful of other scientists and doctors gathered around in the cramped space, preparing to do the unthinkable: defrost the Iceman. The next day, in a burst of hurried surgical interventions as urgent as any operation on a living person, they would perform the first full-scale autopsy on the thawed body, hoping to shed new light on the mystery of who the Iceman really was and how he had died such a violent death.
Egarter Vigl and Samadelli carefully transferred the body to a custom-made box lined with sterilized aluminum foil. In its frozen state, the Iceman’s deep caramel skin had a dignified luster, reminiscent of a medieval figure painted in egg tempera. With the agonized reach of his rigid left arm and the crucifixate tilt of his crossed feet, the defrosting mummy struck a pose that wouldn’t look out of place in a 14th-century altarpiece. Within moments, beads of water, like anxious sweat, began to form on his body. One droplet trickled down his chin with the slow inevitability of a tear.
This was not the first time that the Iceman had been subject to intense scientific scrutiny. After Austrian authorities first recovered the mummy in 1991, scientists in Innsbruck cut a large gash across his lower torso as part of their initial investigation, along with other incisions in his back, at the top of the skull, and on his legs. It was later determined that the shallow conch of gray rock where he had been found was on the Italian side of the border with Austria, so the body and the artifacts surrounding it were relocated to Bolzano. Over the years, numerous less invasive explorations of the remains were conducted there, including x-ray and CT scan imaging studies and an analysis of the mummy’s mitochondrial DNA. The most astonishing revelation came in 2001, when a local radiologist named Paul Gostner noticed a detail that had been overlooked in the images: an arrowhead buried in the Iceman’s left shoulder, indicating that he had been shot from behind. Later work by Gostner and his colleagues with more powerful CT imaging devices revealed that the arrow had pierced a major artery in the thoracic cavity, causing a hemorrhage that would have been almost immediately fatal. The oldest accidentally preserved human ever found was the victim of a brutally efficient murder.
Other scientists filled in biographical details. Analysis of chemical traces in his bones and teeth indicated that Ötzi, as he is also called, grew up northeast of Bolzano, possibly in the Isarco River Valley, and spent his adulthood in the Venosta Valley. Pollen found in his body placed his final hours in the springtime, and his last hike probably along a path up the Senales Valley toward an alpine pass just west of the Similaun Glacier. Close examination of his hand revealed a partially healed injury, suggestive of a defensive wound from an earlier fight. DNA analysis of food remnants found in his intestines—his stomach appeared to be empty—indicated that sometime before he met his demise, he had eaten red meat and some sort of wheat. Putting these facts together, scientists theorized that adversaries had an altercation with the Iceman in the valley south of the pass, chased him, and caught up with him on the mountain, where the body was discovered more than 5,000 years later.
It was a good story that fit the evidence—until Gostner took a closer look at the Iceman’s guts. Though he had retired, the radiologist kept studying the CT scans at home as a kind of hobby, and in 2009 he became convinced that scientists had mistaken the Iceman’s empty colon for his stomach, which had been pushed up under his rib cage and appeared to Gostner to be full. If he was right, it meant the Iceman had eaten a large, and presumably leisurely, meal minutes before his death—not the sort of thing someone being chased by armed enemies would likely do.
“Gostner came over and told us he thought the stomach was full,” said Albert Zink, director of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, who oversaw the autopsy last November. “And we thought, OK, then we have to go inside and sample the stomach.” After further thought, Zink and his colleagues drew up a more ambitious plan: a head-to-toe investigation involving seven separate teams of surgeons, pathologists, microbiologists, and technicians. Perhaps most remarkable, this choreographed intervention would be accomplished without making any new incisions in the Iceman’s body. Instead, the scientists would enter the body through the “Austrian windows”—their name for the overenthusiastic cuts made by the initial investigators.
“This will happen once,” Zink said, “and then never again for many, many years…”