Science is undeniably hard. First you come to grips with failure in the lab and when you finally believe you got it right, another front opens up: the quest to pass peer review and get your findings published in a good journal. These days, a new cloud looms over the embattled researcher right at the end of the publication pipeline: Post publication peer review (PPPR). PPPR has become the new way to challenge publications, at least that is what the self-published blog “Retraction Watch” by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky would like us to believe as they relentlessly report retractions and other sins and ruin reputations right and left. Calling PPPR peer review is of course a misnomer, since no real established peers are known to be involved, or enable their credentials to be checked, and no serious editorial participation of peers is involved at this post publication stage. PPPR is, for all we know and from what we have seen, a trigger-happy operation, conducted by a horde mostly hiding in anonymity and driven by anger and rage, seeking to get their easy share of fame.
In essence, the McCarthyian agenda of PPPR is drawn by journalists (it takes all kinds) and by angry people who, often emboldended by anonymity, comment in Retraction Watch (one of them signs “Hater Jonny”) and in other aberrations, as they hysterically seek to find a place in history by vilifying scientists. Marcus, Oransky and the hatred troupe are a very diverse bunch: while “Hater Jonny” writes only seldom, other haters like “JATdS” or “Neuroskeptic” contribute abundantly, writing veritable essays as they keep sending scientists to the scaffolds.
What motivates Marcus, Oransky and the post-publication transparency champions to embark in their retraction watchdog crusade? Not the quest for transparency, of course, otherwise they would play by the rules of science and demand that the post-publication challengers submit their comments to the incumbent journals seeking publication which would be granted provided, of course, that their comments successfully pass peer review. Transparency or fair play would then dictate that the author who has presumably sinned be given the chance to retort within the same forum and subject to the same rules of publication.
The motivation of the post-publication transparency champions is likely to be very different. Doing great science is hard, and yet there are easier routes to fame and one such route is to “bring down the phonies”, to paraphrase the novel “The Catcher in the Rye”. The frame of mind of the transparency champions is more akin to “I cannot do great science (or anything creative for that matter) so those who can surely must be phonies, right?” Wrong!
If this sounds familiar it is simply because it fits into an ancient psychological pattern (“sour grapes”), first illustrated by Aesop and probably as old as human civilization. It took a grotesque and tragic turn in the John Lennon assassination at the hands of Mark David Chapman, a criminal obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye” and the “anti-phoniness” message.
Let us hope the science journals recover their lost ground and drive away the angry hordes as they regain the transparency territory. Scientific McCarthyism will only come to an end when the scientific establishment tightens up peer review.