This post replaces a brief temporary posting which was previously published here, with the notice that it would be added to at a later date when I had more time. I’m a busy parent who gets paid nothing to write and I have struggled to find the time to give this important matter proper attention. Do not be surprised if you find this post edited or altered.
I’ll get to the point straight away. I believe that I am the victim of plagiarism. At the very least, I believe that I have scientific priority in regard to a group of related scientific ideas or hypotheses, and my priority in regard to two of those ideas has not been recognized, and as a result some ideas which I published at my blog in 2012 have been presented in a journal paper that was published this year as though those ideas were new. The two ideas which were re-published by others in 2013 as though they were their original ideas are the idea that synaesthesia could be caused by unusually low levels of complement (a group of immune system chemicals) and also the idea implied by that idea that synaesthesia could have as its origin some peculiarity in an element of the immune system which plays a dual role in the development of the brain. The complement chemicals are certainly not the only elements of the immune system which are thought to influence the brain. I am not alleging that plagiarism in the form of word-for-word copying of text has happened in regard to the documents cited below. I am alleging that plagiarism of ideas has happened, and even though this type of plagiarism is not easy to prove, I can prove that I published my blog article introducing my ideas over a year before the journal paper by the others was even received as a manuscript by the journal which would eventually publish it.
Below are the details of my blog post published in June 2012 which contains the ideas which I believe have been plagiarized:
Wright, C. Is synaesthesia caused by low levels of complement? Is Benson’s syndrome (PCA) caused by too much complement C3? Could synesthesia and posterior cortical atrophy be considered in some way opposites? Am I a super-recognizer? June 7, 2012.
Below are the details of the published journal paper which includes what I believe is plagiarism of my ideas, or at the very least the re-publication of my ideas without any acknowledgement of me or my writing:
Carmichael, Duncan A. and Simner, Julia The immune hypothesis of synesthesia. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 563.
Published online 2013 September 11. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00563
Received July 31, 2013; Accepted August 23, 2013.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3769635/ (see the “article notes” at this version to view all the dates relevant to publication of this paper.)
Please note the dates cited relating to the process of getting this paper published. There is nothing in those dates that could serve as evidence that these authors independently thought of the ideas in the paper before I published my blog piece. I published my blog piece in June 2012 and the above paper was received by the above journal in July 2013. The authors could have been wildly plagiarizing during the thirteen months or so after I published my piece and before their paper reached the offices of the journal.
I think it is important to point out that I had no contact or communication with either of the authors of the above journal paper about my ideas about synaesthesia and the immune system during the period before their paper was published. I did not inform them about or discuss my ideas on this subject privately and I did not privately grant them permission to use or publish my ideas, and I am not one of the “anonymous reviewers” who made “helpful comments” on the manuscript of the above paper, who were mentioned in the acknowledgements section of the above paper. Shortly before I published my ideas about synaesthesia and the immune system I did have a short and one-sided email correspondence about some of my ideas with a microglia researcher and I also sent a non-specific email off to a local medical specialist. The authors of the above journal paper did not privately inform me about any ideas or theories linking the immune system with synaesthesia before the publication of my blog post on that subject. It is my sincere belief that my ideas in that post were new and original and had not previously been published. I also did not receive any information or “leaks” about the work of the authors of the journal paper from any third party.
If you take a careful look at the details of my blog post you might notice that one of my scientific hypotheses is presented within the internet address of that posting and also within the title of the posting, and the internet address also contains details of the date of publication. Like all of the internet addresses of the posts at this blog, it was automatically generated by WordPress when I published the post. The date of publication is also automatically added to the blog post during publication, as is the name of the author. Unfortunately, the date of blog posts can be altered post-publication, with this alteration reflected in the web address of the post and the situation of the post in the chronological sequence of the blog. While the blog can be altered, one cannot alter blog readers’ memories of my blog posts and any records that they might have kept of them, and this blog has a diverse and steady readership. In situations demanding proof of the date and also the content of a document published on the internet, one free resource on the internet is invaluable; the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. This internet archiving service archived my June 7th 2012 blog article on two different dates in two different forms. The earlier archived record was recorded on June the 21st 2012 with the blog post included in a record of the whole home page of my blog on that date.
This date was only a fortnight after the post was first published and over a year and a month before the others’ journal paper was received as a manuscript by the journal that would later publish it. This proves that my blog post was published on the internet at least before June 21st 2012, a long time before the journal paper was published online or in hardcopy, or was even received by the journal publisher. The content of my blog post as was published then is also documented and can be checked. The blog post was also archived in November 2013 within an archive of a month’s blog posts.
In addition to citing the archived old record of my blog post as evidence, there is other evidence that I can cite to show a long history of me expressing ideas such as those in my blog post, ideas that overlap with ideas presented in the journal paper, and many more novel, original and inter-related ideas besides. The origin and development of the ideas in my blog piece can be traced back a long way in time within my own writing at my blog. I theorized not only that synaesthesia could be caused by low levels of the immune chemical complement, I also theorized that a form of dementia, which to my knowledge has never by anyone else been linked to or contrasted with synaesthesia in scientific discussion, could be caused by excessively high levels of complement. I also theorized that this type of dementia, Benson’s syndrome or PCA, could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia or at least the opposite of the cluster of unusual functional characteristics of my own brain. Implied within this theory is the idea that there is some kind of network within the brain of parts that are especially sensitive to some factor that influences growth or pruning or cell death, because the same mental functions appear to be boosted at least since early childhood in the brains of me and some of my first-degree relatives which decline in Benson’s syndrome. I have no reason to believe that the early specific cognitive enhancements are some unknown facet of Benson’s, because there is no particular history of dementia in my family. I still see the two conditions as opposites, potentially with one common factor (extreme levels of some influential chemical) unlocking the mystery of both. My post published in June 2102 was not the first place where I published my own ideas about Benson’s syndrome being the opposite of synaesthesia. I had first written about this apparently original and new idea in a blog post published in January 2011:
This blog article was archived and recorded by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine in March of 2011:
It is clear that my ideas in my June 2012 blog post were a development of ideas that I had already published at this blog in January 2011, indeed I quoted from my earlier blog post in my latter blog post. My earlier blog post has been archived by a third party and stands with other related blog posts as a record of the direction and date of the development of my ideas, which are very congruent with the many ideas expressed in my June 2012 blog post. In contrast, it appears to me that that the authors of the journal paper which I believe is a plagiarism of ideas in my blog post cannot demonstrate any published and/or archived set of documents that show the development of their ideas towards any theory linking synaesthesia with any element of the immune system. I believe this because I have done a quick check of the lists of past publications of both authors. I have not been able to trace any development of theories about synaesthesia in their work or academic collaboration that might lead them to look at the immune system, and I was not able to find any hint or explanation in the journal paper itself about why these researchers arrived at a theory about the immune system. In my opinion, their theory linking synaesthesia with the immune system appeared “out of the blue” within the context of their own published research and published papers. If anyone can identify any dateable and/or archived document by either of the authors of the journal paper that shows an early development of the idea of linking synaesthesia with the immune system then I would be very interested to see that document, and I request that a comment detailing such document be left at this blog. The apparent absence of evidence of a theoretical progression or development towards “the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia” in the published work of the two authors of the journal paper is one reason why I cannot believe that they conceived of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia independently as a team or as individuals.
The immune hypothesis of synaesthesia would not have been proposed had it not been for the work of researchers who investigate the dual roles of elements of the immune system which also play a role in brain development and neuroplasticity. The authors of the journal paper have primarily cited the work of Assistant Professor Lisa Boulanger who studies MHC Class 1 proteins, while in my blog post I concentrated on the work of Assistant Professor Beth Stevens who studies microglia and complement. It appears to me as though the authors of the journal paper have made a deliberate decision to anchor their theoretical ideas onto a different existing body of research in molecular biology than the body of research that inspired my theories. I believe they had the aim of distancing or differentiating the content of their paper from the content of my blog post. I first learned about the work of Beth Stevens from reading a June 2012 article in New Scientist magazine. Although the authors of the journal paper evidently at some point in time developed an interest in the work of Boulanger and consulted her during the writing of the paper, it is not clear why in 2013 they should be publishing a paper at least in part inspired by her work, because the papers of hers cited were published in the years 2004, 2009 and 2010, hardly the latest news in neuroscience. The most recent items in the journal paper’s references list relating to the immune system and the brain are a 2012 paper by Elmer and McAllister and a 2012 paper by Beth Stevens and two other authors. Boulanger does molecular biology at Princeton University in the United States while the authors of the journal paper do psychology and psychiatry at Edinburgh University in the UK, so it seems unlikely that the three by chance swapped ideas over lunch.
I have noticed an absence of mention of or enthusiasm for the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia in 2012 and 2013 media coverage and conference presentations featuring either of the authors of the journal paper, and I find this curious. It appears that they deliberately kept quiet about the hypothesis before it made it into publication. Why?
One of the authors, Duncan Carmichael, was interviewed for the British radio show The Naked Scientists on October 7th 2012, and his research on synaesthesia was the subject of the discussion:
Even though this interview was conducted roughly nine months before Carmichael’s and Simner’s journal paper about synaesthesia was received by the journal as a manuscript, no evidence of a conception of the idea of an immune hypothesis of synaesthesia can be found within Carmichael’s answers in this interview. He spoke about a genetic study, but said not a thing about the immune system. I find it hard to believe that a researcher who gave such an ordinary account of the contemporary state of knowledge and research on synaesthesia was a member of the team who generated one of the most original ideas in synaesthesia research for a long time. Wouldn’t he have been barely able to contain his excitement about the novel scientific theory? I know that is how I felt about it when I thought of it.
This is a university web page outlining the work of Duncan Carmichael:
I cannot find evidence of originality in thinking or the development of ideas about the immune system in the work detailed at this page. It looks like some standard ideas about synaesthesia explored by a PhD student whose background in psychology and psychiatry is pretty standard for synaesthesia researchers.
An abstract of a conference presentation delivered and co-authored by Duncan Carmichael can be found at the below link and a link to what appears to be the slide images used in that talk can also be accessed at the below link:
This conference was the Tenth Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association held in Canada May 31 through June 2, 2013, roughly two months before the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia paper was received by the journal as a manuscript. I looked at the abstract and also the slide show and I found a spelling error and some questionable unexplained assumptions in the slide presentation but I found no hint of the development of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. I find it remarkable that Carmichael could have co-written and submitted a publishable a paper containing some highly original and paradigm-shifting ideas barely a couple of months after giving talks at a conference about the same general area of research which gave no clue about the intellectual development of the novel ideas. When I look at the highly conventional and ideas about synaesthesia in Carmichael’s written work, media appearance and May-June 2013 conference presentation I find it impossible to believe that he is a part of the team that theoretically wed synaesthesia with the immune system for the first time based on their own ideas. One could argue that Carmichael was deliberately keeping the new theory a secret, but what can account for the contrast between the conventionality of his other work and the originality of the immune theory?
Perhaps the originality of the novel idea was the contribution of the other author? I’ll happily admit that Dr Julia Simner’s work on synaesthesia has consistently been interesting and she has made important and fairly novel contributions, but I could likewise find nothing in her work or in her academic background to indicate a curiosity about or knowledge of the immune system. Dr Simner categorizes herself as a cognitive neuropsychologist, and her academic background is in “psychology, languages and linguistics”.
This is a link to her university web page in which Carmichael is listed as a student supervised by Simner:
Two 2013 media appearances are listed at the above page. One was at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. These are pages related to an August 2013 talk by Dr Simner at that festival:
Unfortunately a recording of that talk appears to be no longer available. The talk was presented while the immune theory paper was in the process of being published but I found no hint of the paper’s theme in the page about Dr Simner’s talk.
This is the page about an appearance that Dr Simner made at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on April 1st 2013:
A PDF of the festival’s 2013 programme can be accessed here:
There’s nothing related to the immune system to be found in info about that appearance.
A Word document of Dr Simner’s CV can be downloaded from Simner’s university page:
Simner’s CV includes a quite up-to-date list of the publications. I searched her CV and found only one mention of any word that I can think of that is related to the immune system, and it was in the title of the paper under dispute. I couldn’t even find one example of use of the words “synapse”, “synaptic”, “plasticity”, “pruning” or “neuronal” in Simner’s CV, which I take as an indication that Simner’s research on synaesthesia could hardly be described as “biomedical”, except for that one paper which stands out like dog’s balls within the contexts of the other work by Simner and by Carmichael.
Here are some other links to information about Dr Simner:
I have argued that the originality of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia stands in contrast with the conventionality of Carmichael’s other work and also stands in contrast with the lack of medical or molecular biology focus in Simner’s other work. I could also argue that the originality and the molecular biology of the immune hypothesis stands in contrast with synaesthesia research in general. Stale old models of synaesthesia proposing hyper-connectivity in the brain, inhibition of the process of neuronal pruning or disinhibited or hyper-excitable neurons have been doing the rounds forever. Researchers seem to be satisfied with explaining the biological basis of these theorized neurological peculiarities by suggesting that there are genes for these features, as though that is any explanation at all. The traditional models of synaesthesia seem to owe a lot to a layman’s understanding of simplistic models of psychiatric illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders (endless guff about neurotransmitters and brain “wiring”) or owe a lot to a superficial resemblance between synaesthesia and hallucinogenic drugged states of mind. There have been genetic studies of synaesthesia and there have been brain scan studies as well, but I don’t think you will find a lot of molecular biology in pre-2013 synaesthesia research.
If the authors of the journal paper read my blog post and took my ideas in that post and used them in their journal paper without acknowledging me, could they have any possible excuse? It is perhaps worth noting that at my blog my name as the author of the posts (my blog is not a collaborative one and only has one author) is not shown on posts at the main page of the blog, but the author’s name in blog posts is displayed when individual posts are selected for viewing, along with any comments about the post. There is no information about me (the author) at the main page of my blog, so I guess it is not inconceivable that a reader might assume my blog is an anonymous publication. Nevertheless, if one wanted to properly cite any of the posts at my blog or the blog itself the title of the blog could be cited. It is a standard practice to cite the first few words in the title of a book or other type of document instead of the author’s name if the author is unknown, and if the author is known to be anonymous they should be cited as “Anonymous”. There is no technical or formal reason why any of the pieces of writing at my blog can’t or could not have been cited.
I can see one possible objection to my claim of having scientific priority regarding the idea of linking synaesthesia with complement and the immune system. It could be argued that my idea was never properly published as my idea, because it was published at a blog and was not published as my idea in a paper or some other document in a scientific journal. Such an objection would be based on the assumption that scientific publication can only happen within a select and specialized type of publication that is widely recognized as a scientific publication, and cannot legitimately be self-published or published in a print publication or internet web site which is not specifically devoted to the publication of scientific research and scientific theories. My answer to this objection is that it is snobbery and it is also at odds with the current realities of our online world. Such an idea seems to be based on the belief that science is an enterprise that legitimately operates like a closed society in which membership is only open to those who have particular credentials or those who have jobs in particular types of institutions (universities or research institutes for example) or those who have the resources and social connections to be able to successfully submit a full-length paper for publication in a peer-reviewed science journal. But the history of science is peppered with examples of scientists who done important work outside of universities, of amateur scientists and gentlemen scientists who have made very important contributions, and of scientists who have offered interesting and respected theories outside of the fields in which they are qualified. There are also plenty of examples of crackpots who present themselves as legitimate scientists and of researchers who have made laughable blunders while straying outside of their areas of specialization. There are also too many examples of scientists who have made serious blunders because they apparently did not know about important and relevant facts or knowledge from areas of science beyond their limited field or from beyond the world of academia. I can also think of some great examples of scientists who have only been able to make important discoveries once they have had the courage to question accepted scientific or medical knowledge. My point is that science is not a neat, closed and orderly enterprise. It can and it should be informed by non-scientists who have specialized expertise and amateur scientists. Science can be seriously failed by academics who are blinkered or who over-reach the limits of their knowledge or who engage in scientific misconduct. If science was a perfect and orderly enterprise we would call it The Church of Science and lecture theatres would be places of worship. Science belongs to everyone; everyone benefits from it and anyone who has good ideas and a respect for evidence can play a part, and should be given due credit.
Even if there were no plagiarism in the journal paper by Simner and Carmichael there are still plenty of things in that paper which I find objectionable. As a synaesthete I am personally offended by the frequent use of negative language in reference to synaesthesia in the paper. Here’s a list of words and phrases from the paper: “neurological condition”, “excess cortical connectivity”, “excess connectivity”, “excessive connectivity is indeed a feature of the synesthetic brain”, “failing to supress non-relevant activation”, “excessive activity of excitatory neurons”, “aberrant connectivity”, and ”misregulated feedback mechanisms”. This repeated use of terminology with negative connotations regarding synaesthesia is certainly not typical of scientific or popular literature on the subject. It is rather amusing when one reflects that these authors are being so negative about the type of mind which I believe provided them with the central idea of their journal paper. Talk about biting the hand that feeds! Even more offensive and stupid is the authors’ described quest to find a link between developmental synaesthesia and the degenerative nervous system disease multiple sclerosis (MS). They aren’t even being as bold as researching a link between diagnosed cases of MS and synaesthesia, they are only looking at “people with the radiological profile of multiple sclerosis”, whatever that means. Developmental synaesthesia is a generally stable inherited neuropsychological variation characterized by white matter in the brain that has been described as having greater volume, greater connectivity or being “more coherent”. It is not considered to be an illness or a disorder, and it appears to be associated with superiority in memory. Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease typically with an onset in adulthood which damages the myelin covers of nerves in the brain and in the spinal cord. While there are some genetic risk factors it is not considered to be a hereditary disease. Vitamin D deficiency and infectious agents have been suggested as causes or triggers. MS causes a wide range of mental and physical problems and disability and substantially reduces life expectancy. It is not known whether is caused by an autoimmune process or a failure of the myelin-producing cells. The only apparent commonality between MS and synaesthesia appears to be that they both feature white matter that differs from the average state, but those differences would appear to be opposites, not any similarity. Simner and Carmichael’s idea that synaesthesia might be more common in those who look like MS cases strikes me as at best bizarre, but apparently they have submitted a paper on this subject. I think I know where that paper might belong.
To offend in so many ways certainly takes some doing, and I do acknowledge that there is a large difference between the amount of effort that went into the writing of my blog post and the amount of work that would have gone into writing and obtaining publication of the journal paper, but I believe that it is also true that the guts of that paper was an idea of mine, and I believe there would have been no paper to work on without my idea.
If I accept the proposition that this apparent case of plagiarism was really a case of two different parties reaching the same conclusion independently and within a year or so of each other, with the others being unaware of the existence of my prior publication, and then they innocently published their own paper as the first to introduce these ideas to the world, then I must ask why they were not aware of the existence of my blog post. Did they think they only had to search the traditional scientific literature to check whether their ideas were truly novel and original? I find that hard to believe, in this online, open-access world. Before I published these ideas at my blog I searched the internet and bibliographic databases to check whether my ideas were really as novel as I thought they were. I found nothing comparable. I am completely sure that my blog post would have been retrieved within the first page of a results display from a simple Google search on the terms “immune” and “synaesthesia” or “synaesthesia” performed in the months and year after I published my blog post. My blog has always done very well in Google searches.
I believe that the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia is the product of a synaesthete brain, my synaesthete brain. If anyone can show evidence that counters this, please let me know by leaving a comment. I have demonstrated that I was the first to publish the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. I believe that I should have been acknowledged as the creator of this idea by the authors of the journal paper. I’m not pleased with what has happened. I do want my ideas which I have published at my blog to be read, considered and developed by other people. I am not a hoarder of ideas and I’m not out to make trouble. I just want to be contacted, asked and acknowledged, and properly acknowledged in print in the conventional manner if my original ideas are used or referred to in someone else’s work. I don’t think that is too much to ask.