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Blog

Peer reviewers accused of nepotism

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Are reviewers looking out for their own? Credit: David Dennis, Wikimedia Commons

By James Dacey

Every researcher understands the prestige and career opportunities that can present themselves if they can just get their work published in a major academic journal. If that paper contains a genuine “world first” then a young researcher can be set up for a glorious career. How would you feel then if this process was being abused by reviewers seeking to steal glory for themselves and their mates?

This is the accusation made by 14 stem cell researchers in a letter to several major journals in their field. The researchers believe that the peer review process is being corrupted by reviewers deliberately stalling, or even stopping, the publication of new results so that they or their associates can publish the breakthrough first. They also blame the journals for not doing enough to prevent this behaviour from happening.

“It’s hard to believe except you know it’s happened to you where papers are held up for months by reviewers asking for experiments that are not really fair or relevant,” says Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, UK.

Smith, who was speaking this morning on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, is concerned that reviewers can no longer remain objective when there is so much at stake with these publications. “A paper in Nature or a paper in Cell is worth your next grant – it could be worth half a million pounds,” he says. Very serious allegations indeed…

You can hear the full broadcast here.

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6 comments

  1. John Duffield

    Very interesting broadcast, and very hard-hitting. Mind you, it never ceases to surprise me that people see blatant vested interest and tooth-and-claw competitiveness within religion, ideology, and other spheres, and yet think science is whiter than driven snow. They don’t seem to appreciate that people are people. That’s how they are.
    Hence the image here is my favourite:
    http://community.acs.org/chembiol/?TabId=54&topic=Experimenting+with+Peer–45-Review

  2. John Duffield

    NB: the peer-review cartoon is by Nick Kim, an environmental chemist in New Zealand. See http://www.lab-initio.com/

  3. 2 comments regarding the BBC broadcast:
    1) Nature referred to its panel of referees, but failed to mention that its editors sometimes discard submissions without sending them off for refereeing at all. In correspondence regarding a Commentary article for which I submitted a proposal, a Nature editor with no expert knowledge of the subject of the proposal referred to it as a ‘well-worn and antiscientific topic’. Unbiased? I think not!
    2) If a paper is rejected by a journal there are alternatives, but there is no effective alternative to the physics preprint archive arxiv.org. Officially there is no refereeing process and any paper of acceptable standard may be uploaded to the archive. But it is notorious for the way its anonymous moderators on occasion protect their subject — and their funding — by declaring a submission ‘inappropriate’. No meaningful discussion with the moderators is allowed; at best one will get back very characteristic jocular comments whose authorship some claim to recognise, such as “we are always thrilled to hear when people find an avocation that keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.” More about the archive’s functioning can be found at http://archivefreedom.org.

  4. Arturo TIBURCIO-SILVER

    UUFFF. After the fraud in science and now nepotism in peer review, science can now be seen closer to politics than science itself. I add also the decrease in the quality of peer review (we can now see papers published in prestigious journals with garbage and lies within them). What about people that is supposed to be as rigorous as science demands?

  5. John Duffield

    People are people, Art. They suffer from groupthink, and aren’t as in control of their intellectual abilities as they think they are. When you see it in action, it can be amazing. It’s like the shutters are down and there’s nobody home.
    Interesting Brian, thanks. There aren’t enough people willing to stick their head up above the parapet on this, and IMHO if left unchecked it could prove extremely damaging. I note an interesting letter in the Times yesterday by John F Allen, Professor of Biochemistry at Queen Mary College at the University of London. I couldn’t find it online, so I’ve retyped it:
    RESEARCH IS OFF-TARGET
    Obtaining evidence requires time and money (“We might err, but science is self correcting”, Opinion, Feb 8). Research funding in the UK is increasingly channelled to predetermined ends, and those who win in the fierce competition for research council grants tend to be those who endorse them.
    Barriers to sceptical inquiry are augmented by a “peer review” system in which the worth of a research proposal, and its chance of receiving support, are assessed by those who have succeeded previously. Expert opinion rarely looks sympathetically on those who challenge the orthodox view. University autonomy is diminishing as institutions vie with each other to demonstrate “impact”, and science departments are rebadged with shallow names in order to advertise their relevance to assumed needs of society. Vital freedom, safeguarded by tenure, is replaced by a ruthless system of targets, the most important being “Bring in grant income or you’re out”.
    Scepticism used to be what we were all about. Now it’s “grantsmanship”.

  6. Anonymous

    I’ve been directed here again when searching for some printed material regarding my research, and after the lecture of the letter authored by professor John F Allen, I agree John: RESEARCH IS OFF-TARGET, now it’s all about “grantsmanship”, it doesn’t matter the country where you live in. What a shame. It’s human nature I guess.

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