Opinion Leaders, Thought Leaders, Preeminence

PubPeer, a new and ominous website which

“started from the lack of post-publication peer discussion on journal websites. Thus was born an idea for a website where open peer review was not intimidating to users, while maintaining the rigor and anonymity of the closed review process currently used by the major journals. The site has been put together by a diverse team of early-stage scientists in collaboration with programmers who have collectively decided to remain anonymous in order to avoid personalizing the website, and to avoid circumstances in which involvement with the site might produce negative effects on their scientific careers,”

has got quite some traffic today when discussing several embarrassing errors in a recent paper by the group led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov which claims derivation of human embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer, i.e., cloning of human beings (Cell 2013; 153: 1-11). As commenter “Peer 1” noticed, figures appeared twice and in one case either a somatic and stem cell were represented by the same image. This is, of course, serious.

In the comment section of the article, Cell Editor-in-chief Emilie Marcus clarifies somewhat evasively,

“Questions have been raised in PubPeer, a website where people can make anonymous comments about published papers, about some of the figures in this paper. Based on our own initial in-house assessment of issues raised and in initial discussions with the authors, it seems that there were some minor errors made by the authors when preparing the figures for initial submission. While we are continuing discussions with the authors, we do not believe these errors impact the scientific findings of the paper in any way.

A number of comments about these errors in articles and blogs have drawn connections to the speed of the peer review process for this paper. Given the broad interest, importance, anticipated scrutiny of the claims of the paper and the preeminence of the reviewers, we have no reason to doubt the thoroughness or rigor of the review process. The comparatively rapid turnaround for this paper can be attributed to the fact that the reviewers graciously agreed to prioritize attention to reviewing this paper in a timely way. It is a misrepresentation to equate slow peer review with thoroughness or rigor or to use timely peer review as a justification for sloppiness in manuscript preparation.

Emilie Marcus, Editor-in-Chief of Cell and the Cell editorial team” (Emphasis added.)

I doubt whether asking “preeminent reviewers” (we are not informed who that actually were) would assure thoroughness and rigor of the review process. Probably hundreds of thousands of reviewers are involved in scrutinizing scientific manuscripts every day. They all know that thoroughness and rigor should be a matter of course. Although editors may tell stories about sloppy reviews, they are eventually responsible for accepting a paper or its rejection. But that takes time, and that was not available in the present case. The paper was reviewed, revised, and accepted within four (!) days.

All of this is not a big issue if authors can provide proper explanation for erroneously picking the wrong pictures and replace them with the correct ones. A Letter to the Editor would have sufficed followed by a Corrigendum. No need to involve an obscure website like PubPeer which might be inclined to publish defamatory “comments” which have not made it as official Letter to the Editor.

23 May 2013 @ 7:59 pm.

Last modified May 28, 2013.

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