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Chemistry group throws out election results after fears of vote rigging

Members of the Society of Biological Inorganic Chemistry (SBIC) are reacting with puzzlement and shock after learning that the results of a recent online leadership election have been thrown out because of voting irregularities—raising concerns over possible manipulation.  

Counting revealed far more votes than there are members of the organization, according to an internal newsletter sent to SBIC members last week. One candidate received four times the number of votes as there are members of the group, it noted. (SBIC’s total membership was not available as this item went to press.)

The cause of the flawed voting isn’t clear, but “the results appear to have been manipulated,” Michael Hannon, president-elect of SBIC and the chair of chemical biology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, wrote in the 9 August newsletter.  “As you might imagine we are all quite shocked by this,” and the “executive officers have concluded (with a heavy heart) that since we can have no confidence in the ‘results’ there will have to be another ballot.”

SBIC has asked the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which carried out the elections on behalf of the society, to arrange a new election that is run in a “more secure” fashion. “Voting will be tied to a unique link identifier that has a single voting opportunity and FASEB assure[s] us that this should enable a fair election,” Hannon wrote. Both organizations are based in Bethesda, Maryland.

SBIC, originally established in 1995, has published the Journal of Biological Inorganic Chemistry since 1996. On 22 July, the society sent out an email about the election with a link to a SurveyMonkey tool that members could use to vote for eight candidates for SBIC leadership positions. SBIC has not released the results of the vote, and it is not clear whether FASEB or SBIC took measures to prevent deliberate gaming of the voting system. (Stefan Bradham, FASEB’s deputy director of society management services and marketing, says the group can’t comment on the case because of confidentiality provisions in its contract with SBIC.)

In meantime, some SBIC members are puzzled—or suspicious.

“I do not know what happened,” says Ana Maria da Costa Ferreira, one of the eight nominated candidates in the SBIC elections and a bioinorganic chemist at the University of São Paulo, São Paulo, in Brazil. “I prefer to believe that it was just mistakes in the process of counting votes, rather than a deliberate fraud.”

Fraser Armstrong, a chemist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who served as the president of SBIC from 2004 to 2006, also thinks “the mistake is most likely to be a technical error and is highly unlikely to have any mischievous motive.”

But Oliver Einsle, another electoral candidate and a structural biologist at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg in Germany, fears that someone tried to rig the election. “Due to the way the voting was set up through FASEB” it must have somehow been possible for “a given individual to cast several votes,” he says. This, he says, “must have been intentional.”

Later this month, the society’s council is due to meet at the 13th European Biological Inorganic Chemistry Conference in Budapest, where they plan to discuss how to conduct future elections.

This article is produced under a collaboration between Retraction Watch and the News staff of Science.