The importance of blogs (and web 2.0) in exposing failings in peer review

Posted: November 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

blogs peer review

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Giulia Forsythe http://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Events over the summer have led to various popular chemistry blogs (particularly chembark and chemistry-blog) calling out  fairly outrageous examples (e.g. here, herehere and here) of potential research misconduct. Primarily because of this, journal editors have been driven to act and also to justify their actions in the public forum (e.g. here, in addition to the previous links). This has given rise to an interesting debate about who is best placed to act as the custodians of science. Should it be the (paid) editors of the journals, who are generally researchers with a long established reputation in their field, or the (generally unpaid) blog writers and their commentators, who come from a variety of different backgrounds?

This now long-running debate recently intensified, with an Editorial appearing in ACS Nano, authored by all of the editors of that journal. They argue that research misconduct cases should be dealt with in-house and privately, away from the potential for collective public hysteria. The argument seems to be that careers can be ruined by bloggers who misrepresent fraud and raise unfounded accusations. While this is clearly a valid point that any blogger should bear in mind before revealing something untoward, the editors failed to provide the evidence to back up their argument. The excuse for not providing this evidence would appear to be that ACS Nano has a policy of not citing evidence from blogs, which could perhaps be seen to be all too convenient. Thankfully, many thoughtful bloggers and others (including some senior journal editors) responded to this with a certain amount of disdain (e.g. here). Others, presumably backing the points made in the editorial, or perhaps just using it as a good excuse, took this as an opportunity to launch personal attacks on bloggers and commentators as time wasters and slackers. Obviously, the strategy of “play the man, not the ball” has long been used in politics to draw attention away from the debate in hand.

In these times of “Web 2.0“, it is simply ridiculous that established institutions try to silence on-line debate. It has been shown in many recent political happenings (for example, celebrity superinjunctions or even in the NSA/GCHQ files issue, which is of course ongoing) that such attempts to do so are misguided and usually end up backfiring spectacularly. Cutting through much of the noise on the topic of “Bloggers vs. Editors” was a recent Nature editorial that seems to directly contradict the editors of ACS Nano. While I’m not interested in encouraging any “journal vs. journal” rivalry, I would highlight the following point made by Nature:

It is better to ask that debate be civil, responsible and courteous, than that it not appear on-line at all.” 

By definition, science in its purest form always allows for challenges to the status quo, in the form of new theories which are tested to destruction and adopted if found to provide a better solution to the problem in hand. It is therefore my opinion that the prevalence of blogs, twitter and comments sections full of discussion is exactly the right way to bring about necessary changes to the imperfect peer review system responsible for missing these examples of misconduct, provided the discussion satisfies the terms above. Alienating the blogging community in the way that the editors of ACS Nano seem to have done (whatever their intention) seems to work against this. Many bloggers (myself included) are qualified early career scientists who hope to have long careers and who perhaps deserve to have a role in sculpting an improved system. It is not their privilege, but their right to do so. It should be noted perhaps that the topic of peer review has been debated at length elsewhere (hereherehere, and here – as a short example), with interesting contributions from everyone in the community. Long may this continue!

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