How publisher can destroy public trust in science

by Alexey Bersenev on August 16, 2014 · 1 comment

in notes, open science

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One side of whole STAP story was poorly discussed in media and among scientists – the role of Nature magazine. Some of us, including myself, thought that publisher (namely Nature Publishing Group) should make a decision to release STAP papers peer reviewers comments and editorial correspondence. We believed that it will benefit the process of scientific publishing and science in general by learning from mistakes. Apparently, Nature’s editorial noticed this request and editor-in-chief Philip Campbell replied:

Some say that the journal should publish reviewers’ comments to clarify the process. Campbell says that the publication of referees’ comments has been considered, but that the disadvantages — which include potential misinterpretations and the desire of many referees to keep their comments confidential — have prevented the journal from embracing this.

Yesterday, open science advocate, professor Stephen Curry wrote an excellent piece on this topic in Guardian. He wrote (emphases mine):

The decision not to reveal the referees’ comments likely reflects the confidentiality that they were promised by the standing policy of the journal but, given the widespread attention that the now infamous case has attracted — a known risk in the high-stakes game that prestige journals play — I think this refusal is a mis-step. The journal’s fear of ‘misinterpretation’ might be rooted in the legitimate concerns of the publisher but are likely to rub off on the rest of the scientific community. The danger is that it looks as if we are closing our doors to the world outside, hoping they will be satisfied with scientists’ reassurance that “we know best”.

Arguably in this case transparency should trump the journal’s prerogative but there exists no authoritative scientific body or procedure that could oblige Nature — the publication of a private company — to release the referees’ reports. This strikes me as a potentially serious weakness in the conduct of scientific research, much of which depends on public funding, and which in turn depends on public trust.

Very well said! Next, he said that solution to fix it is not easy. Yes, it is not easy to make (scientific enterprise is very heavy rigid machine with many components), but solution is very simple – just officially prohibit “closed peer review” and declare completely “open/ transparent peer review”!

I think (and exactly as Curry pointed out), that lack of transparency and openness can destroy public trust in science. And by “public” I mean both – general (lay) public and scientific community. Instead of taking serious immediate actions, Nature says in STAP retraction editorial:

We have concluded that we and the referees could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers. The referees’ rigorous reports quite rightly took on trust what was presented in the papers.

To me, based on STAP lesson, Nature should change editorial policy and implement “open peer review” as option (in case of investigations) or as a mandate for all. STAP case could serve as good trigger for this important move in science. Unfortunately, corporate nature of company (in our case NPG) is not about encouraging the openness and improving science. It’s against it! Taking in account recent retractions (6 in half of year), closed access (even decade after publication!), closed flawed peer review, shameless promotion of its impact factor (while everybody knows that IF is a joke), absence of feedback and dialogue with peers… you can see how “frontier of scientific publishing” losing its credibility and trust.

The rapidity with which the STAP papers unravelled despite the rigour that Nature claims for its review procedures may be an embarrassment for the journal but also shows the value of access for improving the scrutiny of science.

Yes, it’s not just about Nature, but most commercial publishers. Yes, it’s just a small part of biggest problem – broken academic scholarity system. But we should start from something! Something small, but now. If you in charge of your manuscript –

  • make a decision to publish it in open access journal and under open peer review (example: F1000 Research)
  • boycott “glamour magazines” and big commercial publishers
  • don’t review for closed access journals
  • promote openness and transparency in science!

Become open science advocate now or go to worship 42.351!

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