by Ian McLaughlin
On the 24th of October, the Penn Science Policy Group met to discuss the implications of a new mechanism by which individuals can essentially take part in the peer review process. The group discussion focused on a particular platform, PubPeer.com, which emerged in 2012 and has since become a topic of interest and controversy among the scientific community. In essence, PubPeer is an online forum that focuses on enabling post-publication commentary, which ranges from small concerns by motivated article readers, to deeper dives into the legitimacy of figures, data, and statistics in the publication. Given the current state of the widely criticized peer-review process, we considered the advantages and disadvantages of democratizing the process with the added layer of anonymity applied to reviewers.
PubPeer has been involved in fostering investigations of several scandals in science. Some examples include a critical evaluation of papers published in Nature 2014 entitled Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency . The paper described a novel mechanism by which pluripotency might be induced by manipulating the pH environments of somatic cells. However, following publication, concerns regarding the scientific integrity of published experiments were raised, resulting in the retraction of both papers and an institutional investigation.
Subsequently, the publications of a prolific cancer researcher received attention on PubPeer, ultimately resulting in the rescission of a prestigious position at a new institution eleven days before the start date due, at least in part, to PubPeer commenters contacting faculty at the institution. When trying to return the professor’s former position, it was no longer available. The professor then sued PubPeer commenters, arguing that the site must identify the commenters that have prevented a continued career in science. PubPeer, advised by lawyers from the ACLU working pro-bono, is refusing to comply – and enjoy the support of both Google and Twitter, both of which have filed a court brief in defense of the website .
Arguably at its best, PubPeer ostensibly fulfills an unmet, or poorly-met, need in the science publication process. Our discussion group felt that the goal of PubPeer is one that the peer review process is meant to pursue, but occasionally falls short of accomplishing. While increased vigilance is welcome, and bad science – or intentionally misleading figures – should certainly not be published, perhaps the popularity and activity on PubPeer reveals a correctable problem in the review process rather than a fundamental flaw. While the discussion group didn’t focus specifically on problems with the current peer review process – a topic deserving its own discussion  – the group felt that there were opportunities to improve the process, and was ambivalent that a platform like PubPeer is sufficiently moderated, vetted, and transparent in the right ways to be an optimal means to this end.
Some ideas proposed by discussion participants were to make the peer-review process more transparent, with increased visibility applied to the reasons a manuscript is or is not published. Additionally, peer-review often relies upon the input of just a handful of volunteer experts, all of whom are frequently under time constraints that can jeopardize their abilities to thoroughly evaluate manuscripts – occasionally resulting in the assignment of peer review to members of related, though not optimally relevant, fields . Some discussion participants highlighted that a democratized review process, similar to that of PubPeer, may indeed alleviate some of these problems with the requirement that commenters be moderated to ensure they have relevant expertise. Alternatively, some discussion participants argued, given the role of gate-keeper played by journals, often determining the career trajectories of aspiring scientists, the onus is on Journals’ editorial staffs to render peer review more effective. Finally, another concept discussed was to layer a 3rd party moderation mechanism on top of a platform like PubPeer, ensuring comments are objective, constructive, and unbiased.
The concept of a more open peer review is one that many scientists are beginning to seriously consider. In Nature News, Ewen Callaway reported that 60% of the authors in Nature Communications agreed to have publication reviews published . However, while a majority of responders to a survey funded by the European Commission believed that open peer review ought to become more routine, not all strategies of open peer review received equivalent support.
Ultimately, the group unanimously felt that the popularity of PubPeer ought to be a signal to the scientific community that something is wrong with the publication process that requires our attention with potentially destructive ramifications . Every time a significantly flawed article is published, damage is done to the perception of science and the scientific community, and at a time when the scientific community still enjoys broadly positive public perception , now is likely an opportune time to reconsider the peer-review process – and perhaps learn some lessons that an anonymous post-publication website like PubPeer might teach us.
1) PubPeer - Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2016, from https://pubpeer.com/publications/8B755710BADFE6FB0A848A44B70F7D
2) Brief of Amici Curiae Google Inc. and Twitter Inc. in Support of PubPeer, LLC. (Michigan Court of Appeals). https://pubpeer.com/Google_Twitter_Brief.pdf
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