Peer-review scams, citation rings, inefficient post-publication amendments. Can we still trust scientists to trust each other?
How trustworthy is science? Or, being more specific, how trustworthy are scientific publications? An overwhelming number of papers is published every year. According to Daniel Sarewitz, it was nearly two million per year by in 2012. Scientists are pushed to publish as many papers as possible, in order to attract funding and advance their career. Cases of fraud and invalidating data are more frequent than one would expect and peer reviewing shows several weaknesses.
Anyone who has worked in a lab knows that scientific research is based on hard and constant work and a publication is the final, strenuously craved goal representing years of commitment. The paper must undergo a meticulous review by other experts and can only be published in a scientific journal only after it is revised according to these experts’ suggestions.
Unfortunately, efficacy and impartiality of peer reviewing is more and more frequently challenged. In an article published in Nature in 2014, Cat Ferguson, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky discussed a couple of impressive cases in which the system of peer reviewing was scammed.
A few years ago a researcher from South Korea was accused of systematically reviewing his own papers. What made the editor of The Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry suspicious about the reviews of the Korean researcher’s works was that they were usually completed and sent back to the journal often in less than 24 hours. Definitely an astonishing rapidity for a procedure that can take up to several weeks. It is a common habit for several journals to invite authors to suggest a list of potential reviewers. Of course, editors don’t have to stick to authors’ suggestions, whereas they often follow them. Thus, it was rather easy for the Korean researcher to provide the editor with fake names and bogus email addresses, and eventually write the reviews of his papers by himself.
In another case, an investigation involving Californ
ian SAGE Editorial found a citation ring in which authors used to repeatedly review and cite each other at an impressive rate. At the centre of this ring was a Taiwanese researcher, who was a co-author on basically every affected article. It was discovered that this researcher even included Taiwan’s education minister as a co-author on five of the papers without his knowledge. This impressive system of reciprocal citations and reviews caused the retraction of 60 papers and resignation of several people, including the Taiwanese minister.
“We learned that post-publication peer review is not consistent, smooth or rapid. Many journal editors and staff members seemed unprepared or ill-equipped to investigate, take action or even respond.” (Allison et al 2016)
In their experience, the processes of retraction took several months to be fulfilled. They were asked to spend their own money (up to $10,000) to issue a retraction of someone else’s article. Journals were often reluctant to acknowledge invalidating errors and it was not clear who to point them out to.
Science is an amazing endeavour that, as sociologists such as Shapin or Latour have pointed out, is a collective enterprise based on the trustworthiness of its members. Scientists have to act according to a moral code and rules. The pressure to publish pushes the quality of research and publication down and can bring authors to act in fraudulent ways.
The balance is undoubtedly hard to find, but in this context of society, trust seems to play a particularly fundamental role. Of course, the vast majority of scientists acts according to the rules and make peer reviewing an effective control system. However, it is important to bear in mind that it is up to scientists to be honest and trustworthy in the first place. Would we be able to keep trusting science and its discoveries if its members didn’t match up to science’s ethical principles?