Scientific papers have been challenged since the early days of the Acta Eruditorum and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. For hundreds of years, the rules of fair play and transparency dictate that the challenger must seek publication of his/her adverse comments which must be granted pursuant to a favorable peer review conducted by the same journal where the challenged paper had appeared, while the challenged author is given the chance to rebut in the same forum and under the same rules of publication. With the controversy then fully in the open, the readership gets the chance to adjudicate and the editor may act upon the matter, sometimes even enforcing retraction.
Web access surely facilitates this exchange. Unfortunately, it also enables a grotesque distortion in the form of “post publication peer review”, a trigger-happy operation that exploits self-published blogs where angry people are granted willy-nilly the chance to pour hatred-related content into the web without consequences for them (so far). Thus, they cowardly indulge in character assassination as they invoke travesties of justice and Constitutional rights, always under the pretext of seeking scientific transparency. Since one man’s sorrow is another man’s joy, the hatred content of PubPeer and Retraction Watch sells like hot cakes, poisoning the waters of scientific endeavor at a fast pace.
If the PubPeer or Retraction Watch contributors were truly passionate about transparency they would strive to publish their comments in the professional journals where the challenged papers appeared, while alerting the challenged author so he/she gets a chance to rebut in the same forum. Sadly, the haters often cannot even afford to reveal their real names for fear of making a fool of themselves, let along subjecting their hatred-driven pieces to scientific peer review!
Rather than writing hundreds of erratic pages filled with anger and confusion, exploiting the blogs to desperately find their role in society, the PubPeer and Retraction Watch haters should strive to understand the scientific issues they so vehemently attack and, once they feel they have something to contribute, follow the channels of scientific discourse that have been in place for hundreds of years. Of course, that is much much more arduous than commenting on the hate blogs.
Last but not least, universities and research institutes are not without blame in brewing this scientific McCarthyism. Their fear of losing federal funding unless they show enough zeal in prosecuting wrongdoers has often led to witch hunts where due process is not followed. The scientist is often subject to a veritable auto-da-fe with no Constitutional guarantees and is finally coerced by the federal funding agency (NIH, and to a lesser extent NSF) to enter into a nolo contendere agreement that marks the end of the scientific career and sometimes the civil death of the person. Contrary to the uninformed remarks of the Retraction Watch haters, the McCarthyian prosecution of David Baltimore and Thereza Imanishi-Kari (that ended in dismissal of all charges) exposed this draconian process and its ruthless disregard of the rule of law.