Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Stretching the "peer reviewed" brand until it snaps

The very first post to this blog, seven-and-a-half years and 265 posts ago, was based on an NSF/JISC workshop on scholarly communication. I expressed skepticism about the value added by peer review, following Don Waters by quoting work from Diane Harley et al:
They suggest that "the quality of peer review may be declining" with "a growing tendency to rely on secondary measures", "difficult[y] for reviewers in standard fields to judge submissions from compound disciplines", "difficulty in finding reviewers who are qualified, neutral and objective in a fairly closed academic community", "increasing reliance ... placed on the prestige of publication rather than ... actual content", and that "the proliferation of journals has resulted in the possibility of getting almost anything published somewhere" thus diluting "peer-reviewed" as a brand.
My prediction was:
The big problem will be a more advanced version of the problems currently plaguing blogs, such as spam, abusive behavior, and deliberate subversion.
Since then, I've returned to the theme at intervals, pointing out that reviewers for top-ranked journals fail to perform even basic checks, that the peer-reviewed research on peer review shows that the value even top-ranked journals add is barely detectable, even before allowing for the value subtracted by their higher rate of retraction, and that any ranking system for journals is fundamentally counter-productive. As recently as 2013 Nature published a special issue on scientific publishing that refused to face these issues by failing to cite the relevant research. Ensuring relevant citation is supposed to be part of the value top-ranked journals add.

Recently, a series of incidents has made it harder for journals to ignore these problems. Below the fold, I look at some of them.

In November, Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch reported that BioMed Central (owned by Springer) recently found about 50 papers in their editorial process whose reviewers were sock-puppets, part of a trend:
Journals have retracted more than 100 papers in the past two years for fake peer reviews, many of which were written by the authors themselves.
Many of the sock-puppets were suggested by the authors themselves, functionality in the submission process that clearly indicates the publisher's lack of value-add. Nature published an overview of this vulnerability of peer review by Cat Ferguson, Adam Marcus and Oransky entitled Publishing: The peer-review scam that included jaw-dropping security lapses in major publisher's systems:
[Elsevier's] Editorial Manager's main issue is the way it manages passwords. When users forget their password, the system sends it to them by e-mail, in plain text. For PLOS ONE, it actually sends out a password, without prompting, whenever it asks a user to sign in, for example to review a new manuscript.
In December, Oransky pointed to a study published in PNAS by Kyle Silera, Kirby Leeb and Lisa Bero entitled Measuring the effectiveness of scientific gatekeeping. They tracked 1008 manuscripts submitted to three elite medical journals:
Of the 808 eventually published articles in our dataset, our three focal journals rejected many highly cited manuscripts, including the 14 most popular; roughly the top 2 percent. Of those 14 articles, 12 were desk-rejected. This finding raises concerns regarding whether peer review is ill-suited to recognize and gestate the most impactful ideas and research.
Desk-rejected papers never even made it to review by peers. Its fair to say that Silera et al conclude:
Despite this finding, results show that in our case studies, on the whole, there was value added in peer review.
These were elite journals, so a small net positive value add matches earlier research. But again, the fact that it was difficult to impossible for important, ground-breaking results to receive timely publication in elite journals is actually subtracting value. And, as Oransky says:
Perhaps next up, the authors will look at why so many “breakthrough” papers are still published in top journals — only to be retracted. As Retraction Watch readers may recall, high-impact journals tend to have more retractions.
Also in December, via Yves Smith, I found Scholarly Mad Libs and Peer-less Reviews in which Marjorie Lazoff comments on the important article For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal from December's Scientific American (owned by Nature Publishing). In it Charles Seife investigates sites such as:
MedChina, which offers dozens of scientific "topics for sale" and scientific journal "article transfer" agreements.
Among other services, these sites offer "authorship for pay" on articles already accepted by journals. He also found suspicious similarities in wording among papers, including:
"Begger's funnel plot" gets dozens of hits, all from China.“Beggers funnel plot” is particularly revealing. There is no such thing as a Beggers funnel plot. ... "It's difficult to imagine that 28 people independently would invent the name of a statistical test,"
Some of the similarities may be due to authors with limited English using earlier papers as templates when reporting valid research, but some such as the Begger's funnel plot papers are likely the result of "mad libs" style fraud. And Lazoff points out they likely used sockpuppet reviewers:
Last month, Retraction Watch published an article describing a known and partially-related problem: fake peer reviews, in this case involving 50 BioMed Central papers. In the above-described article, Seife referred to this BioMed Central discovery; he was able to examine 6 of these titles and found that all were from Chinese authors, and shared style and subject matter to other “paper mill-written” meta-analyses. 
Lazoff concludes:
Research fraud is particularly destructive given traditional publishing’s ongoing struggle to survive the transformational Electronic Age; the pervasive if not perverse marketing of pharma, medical device companies, and self-promoting individuals and institutions using “unbiased” research; and today’s bizarrely anti-science culture.  
but goes on to say:
Without ongoing attention and support from the entire medical and science communities, we risk the progressive erosion of our essential, venerable research database, until it finally becomes too contaminated for even our most talented editors to heal.
I'm much less optimistic. These recent examples, while egregious, are merely a continuation of a trend publishers themselves started many years ago of stretching the "peer reviewed" brand by proliferating journals. If your role is to act as a gatekeeper for the literature database, you better be good at being a gatekeeper. Opening the gate so wide that anything can get published somewhere is not being a good gatekeeper.

The fact that even major publishers like Nature Publishing are finally facing up to problems with their method of publishing that the scholars who research such methods have been pointing out for more than seven years might be seen as hopeful. But even if their elite journals could improve their ability to gatekeep, the fundamental problem remains. An environment where anything will get published, the only question is where (and the answer is often in lower-ranked journals from the same publishers), renders even good gatekeeping futile. What is needed is better mechanisms for sorting the sheep from the goats after the animals are published. Two key parts of such mechanisms will be annotations, and reputation systems.


Marjorie Lazoff, MD said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments to my December 22 Health Care Renewal post. But I don't know that I am much more optimistic than you, particularly in that we share a common concern about the dismal current peer review process.

Warm regards,

David. said...

Its like shooting fish in a barrel. Here's the latest "expose", this time from Harvard's Mark Shrime via Elizabeth Segran at Fast Company.

David. said...

John Michael Greer has a must-read post with a broader view of the implications of this problem. He writes:

"institutional science only has the authority and prestige it possesses today because enough of those outside the scientific community accept its claim to speak the truth about nature. Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today."

David. said...

Dr. Arthur Caplan of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Langone Medical Center supports John Michael Greer with a short but pertinent article The Problem of Publication-Pollution Denialism.

Hat tip to Retraction Watch, but their link points to the wrong paper.