I have many more darts for Nature than hearts, particularly for this astonishing statement:
We have concluded that we and the referees could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers.
Then what is the point of peer review? Sure, I accept that detecting problems may be difficult in practice, but I would feel a lot better if Nature at least acknowledged that it was at least possible that they could have caught the mistakes. It seems strange to claim that nobody could have done better after reviewing this timeline from the PubPeer blog:
(L)ess than a week after publication, an anonymous comment on PubPeer pointed out that a gel showed signs of having a lane spliced in (http://imgur.com/1nBfKTr). ... (A)n unannounced splice was potentially deceptive and probably caused people to examine the papers with a more critical eye. Over the following weeks, quite a number of comments highlighting small (inconsistent scale bars) and potentially serious (possible figure duplications) problems were posted.
Nature barely mentions the role post-publication peer review played in this story in either its editorial (noted by Retraction Watch and Paul Knoepfler), although its news piece on research integrity links out to PubPeer.
This is another example of a journal seemingly trying to absolve itself when peer review fails. Come on, Nature. Why not just say you made a mistake?
On to hearts.
Earlier this year, in an article on post-publication peer review, I wrote that when faced with criticism through post-publication peer viewer, about the tendency of journals to “cheerlead for (pre-publication) peer review.”
Even when faced with cases in which peer review failed to detect a highly problematic paper, editors rarely change their journal’s policies to improve the peer review process.
Consequently, I want to congratulate Nature for trying to improve their review processes.
(O)ur approach to policing (image manipulation) was never to do more than to check a small proportion of accepted papers. We are now reviewing our practices to increase such checking greatly, and we will announce our policies when the review is completed.
We will see if this change alone is enough, or whether journals need to go further in upadting peer review. Publishing peer reviews is mentioned in the news article, and that might be a good step to consider.
Sharing responsibility for bad papers
STAP stem cell papers officially retracted as Nature argues peer review couldn’t have detected fatal problems
Science self-corrects – instantly
The rise and fall of STAP
Interview with Nature on their editorial process in wake of STAP
Photo by Giovanni on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.