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Anonymous peer review is fine, while anonymous post-publication review is not

When a scientist submits a paper for publication to a journal, he entrusts the journal editor with the task of finding peers would be able to review the paper and are knowledgeable enough to assess its scientific merit. The names of the reviewers are typically concealed to the author. The intent is to grant the reviewer complete freedom in his candid assessment without fear of retaliation. The system is imperfect, very much so, but during the last three centuries scientists have not managed to come up with anything better.

Post-publication peer review (PPPR), on the other hand, cannot be said to be imperfect. It is not even wrong. It is a grotesque aberration. PPPR is usually anonymous but in this case we have absolutely no assurance that the reviewer of the paper is a peer of the author, that is, someone capable of passing serious judgment, or rather someone with an ax to grind launching his or her personal attack. There is simply no editor that arbitrates PPPR, just reporters or science outsiders, like Ivan Oransky, who typically know nothing of the scientific subject of the paper and who merely reproduce a note in a journal or a piece of gossip or an opinion without adding any value. The consequences of this lack of leadership are dire for science: about 90% of the attacks launched by Oransky’s blog Retraction Watch under the pseudonym Clare Francis are either false or lacking merit, even if they manage to elicit an “expression of concern” (an illegality stigmatizing a person presumed innocent unless proven guilty). If US president Donald Trump branded reporters as a pathetic dishonest bunch, just imagine what he would have to say about blogs like Retraction Watch, where the founding reporters usually know nothing about the science related to their mini-scandals.



This atmosphere of dishonesty provides a fertile soil for PPPR, where a few snipers like Joshua L. Cherry (NIH/NCBI?) strive. As readers may recall, Joshua L. Cherry has been identified by Science Transparency. Cherry is truly obsessed (read Cherry’s exchange with Prof. John Ioannidis), but unfortunately not with producing good science. When he launches personal attacks, Cherry disguises under multiple pseudonyms and e-mails, he cowardly shoots from the shadows, yet his style remains unmistakable: He obsessively insists in performing statistical analysis of large datasets with no scientific understanding of the data, or obsessively tries to reproduce data in a field he knows nothing about, failing miserably. Unfortunately, Joshua L. Cherry is the kind of byproduct that Retraction Watch and other such blogs generate. Were it not for the lack of leadership in PPPR, Cherry would have probably remained a scientist perhaps not incapable of generating interesting ideas. Yet, like many at Retraction Watch, he got trapped in futile battles against windmills.

As the Romans used to say: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor ( I see the best and verify it, but I follow the worst). Tragic, tragic…

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TOP: How Science magazine plans to deal with the intrusion of social media

Not long ago Science Editor Marcia McNutt published an appalling editorial entitled “Due process in the twitter age“, where she claimed that social media created an anxiety and added a sense of urgency to the post-publication peer review (PPPR) of reported scientific research. In a post at Science Transparency, we swiftly retorted that if the scientific establishment kept paying attention to blogs like Retraction Watch to conduct their business, they will only have themselves to blame for the current crisis. In our post we felt compelled to quote a Londoner from the Daily Mail (UK) who described the intrusion of social media in the most eloquent terms:

Social Media has turned us all into the baying masses of the medieval witch hunts, with no mediators of our hysterical views, and with the loudest, most ignorant and angry up at the front with their burning tweeting torches.

It would seem that Science magazine has decided to review their own position regarding how they intend to deal with the piracy of PPPR by social media. Marcia McNutt now claims that Science magazine will spearhead the implementation of TOP (Transparency and Openness Promotion), a set of new standards of transparency and reproducibility for the publication of scientific research. This initiative is inspired by the policy forum piece “Promoting an Open Research Culture” published in Science nearly an year ago. In fact, at Science Transparency we argued in support of this policy.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Brooks, Henry Jamyn (1865-1925); The Royal Institution, London, UK.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas) by Brooks, Henry Jamyn (1865-1925); The Royal Institution, London, UK.

Transparency, availability of raw data, and full disclosure of all tools required by a person skilled in the art to reproduce the work is surely all that is needed to ensure the validity of reported research. This is true today as it was three centuries ago, when scientists were asked to perform their experiments in front of an audience at the Royal Institution. At Science Transparency we welcome the implementation of these TOP protocols as the best route to do away with corruption in science and to end the current hysteria promoted by social media in regards to the reproducibility crisis, real or perceived.