03 July 2014

Taking responsibility for peer review, STAP edition

I have both hearts and darts for Nature in the wake of its retraction of two stem cell papers from earlier this year, now known as the “STAP” (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) papers.

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.

Related posts

Sharing responsibility for bad papers

External links

STAP retracted
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.


Mike Taylor said...

"Then what is the point of peer review?"

I've argued before that the main value of peer-review is as a hazing ritual. It doesn’t exist because of any intrinsic value it has, and it certainly isn’t there for the benefit of the recipient. It’s basically a way to draw a line between In and Out. Something for the inductee to endure as a way of proving he’s made of the Right Stuff.

So: the principle value of peer-review is that it provides an opportunity for authors to demonstrate that they are prepared to undergo peer-review.

(To be clear, I don't think that's a trivial value.)

Barry Schwartz said...

I was under the impression the point of peer review was often to review the list of peers appearing under the paper’s title.