There’s a lot of unsettled science going on these days. The peer-review system, which is supposed to serve as a quality assurance system, allowing credentialed experts to pass judgment on new research before it is published, is breaking down. The latest in a series of scandals involves 43 papers, but more are expected to follow.
Fred Barbash of the Washington Post reports:
A major publisher of scholarly medical and science articles has retracted 43 papers because of “fabricated” peer reviews amid signs of a broader fake peer review racket affecting many more publications.
The publisher is BioMed Central, based in the United Kingdom, which puts out 277 peer-reviewed journals. A partial list of the retracted articles suggests most of them were written by scholars at universities in China, including China Medical University, Sichuan University, Shandong University and Jiaotong University Medical School. But Jigisha Patel, associate editorial director for research integrity at BioMed Central, said it’s not “a China problem. We get a lot of robust research of China. We see this as a broader problem of how scientists are judged.”
Meanwhile, the Committee on Publication Ethics, a multidisciplinary group that includes more than 9000 journal editors, issued a statement suggesting a much broader potential problem. The committee, it said, “has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.” Those journals are now reviewing manuscripts to determine how many may need to be retracted, it said.
Science has become a major industry, with the billions of dollars of government funding available not just in the US bit worldwide providing incentives for cheating. Promotion in universities depends on publication in peer-reviewed journals, so desperate academics seek it, no matter how trivial or even phony the results. In addition, in medicine, climate science, and many other fields, huge financial stakes exist for non-scientists, leading to pressure on the peers who do the reviewing. As the Clmategate emails revealed, conspiracies among the peers who review can lead to suppression of research contrary to the interests of the conspirators.
The integrity of science – and the continued progress of mankind – depends on the efficacy of peer review. We are at a critical point, with the danger of phony science misleading us into dead ends and worse.