Clare Francis, Defamation lawsuit, Expression of concern, Fazlul Sarkar, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, PubPeer, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific journal, Sock puppetry

The demise of peer review in scientific publication

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).

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3 thoughts on “The demise of peer review in scientific publication

  1. Ridgway Scott says:

    Perhaps part of the problem in peer review lies in allowing conflicts of interest, like having close collaborators review your papers. When those reviewers do not do their due diligence to ensure that results are legitimate, retractions and expressions of concern become necessary. In essence, the problem may not lie with a lack of competent and informed reviewers but rather “confirmation bias” among people who have something to gain from promoting the work of their collaborators.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember that years ago all the submitted papers were reviewed anonymously. In the past 15 years (more or less) the reviewers know the authors, but the opposite is usually not the same. As a reviewer, I feel embarrassed when I must evaluate the paper of a friend, and maybe I’m reluctant to express criticisms. As an Author, I’ve seen some of my papers rejected by some journals which accepted papers on the same topic (sent by famous institutions) and I could realize that the evaluation criteria were much different (i.e. if I have 150 cases, the number is too small; if the big institution has 100 cases, they are enough). And the referee comments sometimes are so meaningless (some reviewers asked explanations about things very well described in the methods) that it is evident a hostile attitude. But, as far as I cannot know the name of the reviewers, I have no defense.

    Like

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