Anonymous Commenter, Clare Francis, Defamation lawsuit, First Amendment, Joshua Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, Nature, NCBI, NIH, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, PubPeer, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Scientific corruption

The Travesty of Post Publication Peer Review

 It is well known that Chinese people have a practical and pragmatic bent. I recall having asked a successful professor what it would take to publish in Nature. He replied:

“You need to do very good work, make a lot of friends in your field and, above all, make sure to befriend the editors. To secure publications in good journals it is always best to start a courtship with the editors, find out what gets them excited. This approach often bears fruit.”

The whole publishing game seemed quite cynical to me at the time. Eventually, that conversation lead me to quit science altogether.

An untold truth in science is that success rests primarily on who you know, rather than on the merits of your work. Not surprisingly, the mechanism to protect the integrity of research reporting, the peer review (PR) system, has turned into a true scam, corrupt to the marrow. The anonymity of the PR process, implemented originally to guarantee freedom of opinion, in practice has become a vehicle for reviewers to promote their self-serving agenda, encouraging ax-grinding by the author’s competitors and complacency by the author’s friends. Editors contribute substantively to the scam by cherry-picking reviewers for the authors they like and rejecting papers without even sending them out for review (often to reduce their workload) whenever the author is not perceived as influential enough to bring them some benefit by treating him well.

If PR is a scam, post-publication peer review (PPPR) is a travesty to a grotesque degree. Here we don’t even know if the reviewers are the actual peers of scientists or simply angry frustrated people trying to bring down the authors. Our own polls conducted on 11 scientific publishers reveal that over 90% of anonymous PPPR is not pursued by the journals after it is found to be frivolous.  At least in PR, the journal editors are entrusted by the scientific establishment with picking reviewers who are supposed to be the author’s peers. But with PPPR, anything goes, as people with no verifiable credentials are allowed to hide in their anonymity to take comfortable shots at whoever they pick as their target.  At Science Transparency we have identified one such sniper: Joshua L. Cherry, the NIH/NCBI contractor still on the loose.

PPPR has thus turned into a farce where anyone gets to say anything, no matter how crass his views are. The channel for these people is the internet, the vast repository where angry people get to pour their vitriol and get the feeling that they are being heard. This matter is admirably described in an article entitled “Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?” that seeks to identify the psychological root of the problem.

Of course, the root of the PPPR phenomenon and the anger it promotes can be found in the internet. “These days, online comments have become extraordinarily aggressive without resolving anything,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.  Yet, the possibility of an anonymous attack offers a vehicle of self-realization for the frustrated scientist, and the internet enables this possibility and enables the person to be heard, finally! This emboldens him and fuels his anger.

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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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