It is widely felt that peer review in scientific publishing is failing and it seems journal editors and academic authorities have only themselves to blame. Nature started a debate on the subject but it is felt that the point was not made somehow. Every time a journal publishes an alert note or an expression of concern, or a retraction, in case of invalid data, the journal damages its own reputation by showing that its own peer review system has failed. The journal is exposing its inability to find competent reviewers that should have spotted the problems in the first place. Worse, in their confusion, some journal editors have even fallen prey to post-publication peer review, a rogue tank for indiscriminate assault run by the unqualified blogs PubPeer and Retraction Watch.
PubPeers are in effect nobody’s peers! (see our comment in Science Magazine) Their scientific credentials have not been screened, their competence has not been checked and, not surprisingly, the majority of the PubPeer accusations (over 85% by our own estimation) proved to be either false or frivolous, with vagaries like “these statistics look weird”, “these gel bands look similar”, and the like. On the other hand, most Retraction Watchers resort to sock puppetry (Clare Francis, etc.) to launch their attacks so, it is hard to tell how many personal attacks are actually taken seriously. Like its sister blog Retraction Watch, which feeds on PubPeer, these indiscriminate sites serve as vehicles for anyone to say whatever they like and harass individuals, journals and institutions. Shrouded in anonymity, these angry people comfortably take shots at working scientists, with their attacks frequently driven by jealousy or envy.
But we are not being completely fair here. There are instances when honest contributors to PubPeer or Retraction Watch/Clare Francis have done a good job at helping journals spot fraudulent work. Unfortunately, the blogs are ill conceived and so they become flooded with nonsense or, worse, become subservient to hatred-driven attacks. That may be why Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man by the Swiss Radio and Television (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft).
The sad thing is that there are journal editors (and even academic administrators) stupid enough to take these blogs seriously. The defamation lawsuit by Wayne State University Professor Fazlul Sarkar already covered by Science Transparency may mark a turning point (don’t count on it yet), inspiring editors and university authorities to finally follow science’s centuries-old way of dealing with challenges to published work. Pasted below is the protocol to deal with challenges to scientific reports that has been in place for centuries, basically since the Acta Eruditorum and Philosophical Transactions came into existence in the 17th century:
In the interest of fair play, when an honest person wishes to challenge a published scientific result, the person sends his/her findings to the same journal where the work was published and the challenge is subject to peer review subject to the same standards that applied to the peer review of the original work. This process is kept confidential and if and only if the challenge itself passes peer review, then the journal offers the authors under scrutiny the chance to respond. At this point, the journal goes public and publishes back-to-back the challenge and the response by the authors and takes appropriate action, which may be stern in case of invalid data (presumably a retraction notice).