Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Corruption of peer review is harming scientific credibility”
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A Wall Street Journal op-ed warning emphatically about problems with scientific peer review begins by summarizing an especially extensive case of scientific fraud (also outlined in a Physics Today Online News Pick):
Academic publishing was rocked by the news on July 8 that a company called Sage Publications is retracting 60 papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control, about the science of acoustics. The company said a researcher in Taiwan and others had exploited peer review so that certain papers were sure to get a positive review for placement in the journal. In one case, a paper's author gave glowing reviews to his own work using phony names.
The op-ed appeared a few days after the New York Times ran the commentary “Crack down on scientific fraudsters” by the cofounders of the blog Retraction Watch, which had brought the 60-retractions scandal into wide public view. Citing other cases, that piece argued that the penalties for scientific fraud are generally insufficient, with too little repayment of misused funding, with too little professional ostracism of offenders, and with resignations forced—and criminal charges filed—too rarely.
The WSJ op-ed’s author, Hank Campbell, condemns the “absence at many journals” of “sound peer-review practices” and cautions that some “errors can have serious consequences if bad science leads to bad policy.” Linking peer-review problems to the problem of irreproducibility (nonreplicability) of research results, he invokes the authority of National Institutes of Health leaders Francis Collins and Lawrence Tabak. They began a January Nature commentary by reporting that a “growing chorus of concern, from scientists and laypeople, contends that the complex system for ensuring the reproducibility of biomedical research is failing and is in need of restructuring.” They agree with that chorus and declare that recent evidence showing this “irreproducibility of significant numbers of biomedical-research publications demands immediate and substantive action.”
Collins and Tabak stipulate, “Let's be clear: with rare exceptions, we have no evidence to suggest that irreproducibility is caused by scientific misconduct.” But they also observe that science “has long been regarded as ‘self-correcting,’ given that it is founded on the replication of earlier work.” They add, “Over the long term, that principle remains true. In the shorter term, however, the checks and balances that once ensured scientific fidelity have been hobbled.” Collins and Tabak outline, and Campbell summarizes, measures to improve replicability of research results.
Collins and Tabak also cite the October 2013 Economist article “Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab,” which asserted, “Peer review’s multiple failings would matter less if science’s self-correction mechanism—replication—was in working order.” That piece carried the thumbnail summary “Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.” It also contained this paragraph:
Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong. But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think.
It’s important to note that as the founder of the website Science 2.0, Campbell has a distinct view of scientific publishing. The site says of itself that it “was created in 2006 to modernize science communication, publishing, collaboration and public participation.” In supporting creation of “an open publishing model,” the site says:
The old model of subscriptions is no longer viable, since government has taken control of academic research—taxpayers have paid for the research so they should be allowed to read it without paying. Open access, where the cost burden is shifted to scientists instead, is a good first step but Science 2.0 embraces a true open publishing model, where readers do not have to pay to read and scientists do not have to pay to publish.
That perspective shows in Campbell’s WSJ ending, which mentions the ardent open-access enthusiast Michael Eisen:
Fixing peer review won't be easy, although exposing its weaknesses is a good place to start. Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley, is a co-founder of the Public Library of Science, one of the world's largest nonprofit science publishers. He told me in an email that, “We need to get away from the notion, proven wrong on a daily basis, that peer review of any kind at any journal means that a work of science is correct. What it means is that a few (1-4) people read it over and didn’t see any major problems. That’s a very low bar in even the best of circumstances.”
But even the most rigorous peer review can be effective only if authors provide the data they used to reach their results, something that many still won’t do and that few journals require for publication. Some publishers have begun to mandate open data. In March the Public Library of Science began requiring that study data be publicly available. That means anyone with the ability to check should be able to reproduce, validate and understand the findings in a published paper. This should also ensure that there is much better scrutiny of flawed claims . . . before they appear on every news station in America.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.