08 November 2010

Breach of etiquette

The role of anonymity in the scientific process continues to interest me. Last week, Nature reported about emails lobbing accusations of scientific misconduct by stem cell researchers.

The point that these are anonymous is brought up several times, always negatively.

Critics argue that Stem Cell Watch is not following scientific etiquette, which says that concerns should be addressed directly and openly to the authors of a paper. (Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts) says he received a message, addressed only to him, from the group earlier this year. The e-mail accused another stem-cell researcher of misconduct, but because it was anonymous, Melton simply deleted it.

Enmphasis added to the next one:

“We appreciate any opportunity to respond to critique or concerns raised about our work,” (Johan Ericson and Thomas Perlmann at the Karolinska Institute) said in a written statement. “However, we regret that these serious accusations were made anonymously, as we strongly believe in the concept of an open and transparent communication about suspected errors in published data.”

I wonder if Ericson and Perlmann insisted on signed peer review. Probably not, as most of the “top” journals still use anonymous peer review. Like, oh, maybe... Nature?

“We wouldn’t encourage anonymous accusations, least of all those broadcast indiscriminately,” says Philip Campbell, Nature’s editor-in-chief.

I can’t wait for these people to discover The Third Reviewer website. They will be shocked and possibly appalled.

Or, for that matter, I can’t wait for these people to realize that there are hundreds of science bloggers out there, writing about stem cells... and many of them aren’t using their real names! (Yes, I know most of those are pseudonymous rather than anonymous. Where that falls on the continuum of anonymous to transparent is complicated.)

It seems to me that there’s an interesting double standard on anonymity here. People reject anonymity, except when they’ve come to expect it. Or it’s convenient to them personally.

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