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Posted by on Apr 22, 2014 in Culture, Education, featured, Research, Science, Skepticism, Society | 3 comments

Peer Review

For the past few decades, scientific publication in a peer-reviewed journal was the gold standard. When you read a peer-reviewed journal, you might disagree with the conclusions of the authors, but you knew that it was solid work. And, for the most part, the top-tier journals are still like that. Journals like Nature, Science, and Cell maintain a decent reputation.

But only a lucky few are accepted into those journals. My understanding is that something like 90% of the articles submitted are rejected. Not necessarily because they are bad articles, but just because these are premier publications looking for premier research. A graduate project that merely confirms prior work isn’t going to make it in these journals.

However, there is a relatively new scam moving into the science world. In our publish or perish society, there is a market for shoddy research that gets published, no questions asked. Peer-review is… shall we say… minimized in order to a)make a quick buck for the publisher and b) get one’s name published for the author.

So, there’s an glut of “peer-reviewed journals” that are anything but peer-reviewed. They are, very simply, pay to publish. One such example should fill all legitimate scientists with dread.

Tom Spears, a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen has submitted the world’s worst research paper. In less than 24 hours, several ‘online, peer-reviewed’ journals have accepted it for publication… for a fee.  Considering that the paper is utter bullshit, that’s a pretty good deal.

I’ll let Mr. Spears describe the article he attempted to get peer-reviewed.

My short research paper may look normal to outsiders: A lot of big, scientific words with some graphs. Let’s start with the title: “Acidity and aridity: Soil inorganic carbon storage exhibits complex relationship with low-pH soils and myeloablation followed by autologous PBSC infusion.”

Look more closely. The first half is about soil science. Then halfway through it switches to medical terms, myeloablation and PBSC infusion, which relate to treatment of cancer using stem cells.

The reason: I copied and pasted one phrase from a geology paper online, and the rest from a medical one, on hematology.

I wrote the whole paper that way, copying and pasting from soil, then blood, then soil again, and so on. There are a couple of graphs from a paper about Mars. They had squiggly lines and looked cool, so I threw them in.

Footnotes came largely from a paper on wine chemistry. The finished product is completely meaningless.

The university where I claim to work doesn’t exist. Nor do the Nepean Desert or my co-author. Software that catches plagiarism identified 67 per cent of my paper as stolen (and that’s missing some). And geology and blood work don’t mix, even with my invention of seismic platelets.

He submitted this to 18 journals and waited. Within 24 hours he had an acceptance and after some time, he had several more. After telling the publishers that the article was crap, they suggested some minor revisions and were willing to publish it anyway.

You see, it has nothing to do with science. It is simply gaming the system. Anytime there is money, prestige, or positions available, someone, somehow will game the system.

The problem is that this hurts science. Of course, these ‘publishers’ don’t care about science. They are in it for some easy money. But sadly, the people submitting these articles may not care about science either. And they are the science researchers looking to get published.

Either, they are not aware of a particular journal’s… ease of entry. Or they are aware and don’t care. In either case, these are not the kind of people that need to be doing real science. I am reminded of Seralini paper. In that case, a paper was published that contained so many obvious errors that an amateur like me caught many of them. That paper has been subsequently withdrawn by the publisher.

I am very comfortable reading and understanding a paper on evolution and/or some aspects of biology or geology. But I am not that familiar with agricultural biochemistry. I had to ask some people I trust about some recent papers.

But to someone who doesn’t have even a basic grasp of science, all of this is a hopeless muddle. They have to pick someone to trust. Kind of like someone who doesn’t know anything about cars. They have to pick a mechanic to trust and hope they don’t get screwed.

It’s gotten to the point where, unless you are an expert in a field, then you simply have to make a choice on who to trust. If you make the wrong choice, then you have incorrect information. Much like creationists choose to trust fellow creationists (generally Christians) and those people that they trust are liars. This isn’t hyperbole or me being a jerk. It’s simply the truth.

Part of this is a failure of our education. Probably the vast majority of people in the US have eight or fewer hours of college level science courses. In the universities that I worked at, two 4-hour science courses were required for any bachelor’s degree. Obviously, some degrees required more science than that. But a student could easily take geology for non-majors and look at a few rocks, maybe talk about plate tectonics, and that was it. [1]

Another part of it is the people who want to game the system. Why write a paper, when you can buy one off the internet (or steal one off the internet)? Why try to get in a good journal, just to be rejected, when you can be published tomorrow in a so-so journal? At least you have a publication on your CV.

The final part is the ‘publish or perish’ system that seems to exist in our universities. I don’t have direct experience with this, but it seems to be a serious issue. University budgets are shrinking and every one wants to attract top-tier scientists that are going to bring large research grants. How do they know if a researcher is top-tier? By looking at the list of publications and research grants that they have gotten.

Some of the other SIN authors may be willing to comment on this, since they are university professors. I’m not.

So what we have is a system that encourages publication and a group of publishers willing to take advantage of that system. Similar to how companies are willing to take over prisons, then contribute money to candidates that are ‘hard on crime’. Gee, I wonder if there’s a plan there.

I’m not saying that the peer-review system needs an overhaul. I’m not even sure where to begin with something like that. I have some ideas, but gaming the system seems to be an inherent human trait. When we’re not gaming it for profit, we’re gaming it for funnies. See the recent trend in humorous Amazon reviews.

I am saying that just presenting a ‘peer-reviewed’ article isn’t enough anymore. I’ve debunked several anti-GMO and creationist articles on this blog. Articles published by peer-reviewed journals.

It not only takes a peer-reviewed article, but we (even us amateurs) have to understand the article and determine it’s validity. I can’t tell you how many times some creationist has come to me with a peer-reviewed article claiming that it debunks evolution. Of course, that person has almost never actually read the article, but instead has just read what someone else wrote about it… something that was totally opposite of what the article was actually about.

I don’t know if there’s a solution, other than becoming an expert in any area you might be interested in[2].

__________________________

[1] Of course, I need to add that I think that basic accounting should also be a required course for every degree. That course should include basic budgeting, taxes, credit and loans, and basic investing.

[2] It’s not actually that hard. It takes time and effort, but no different than any other skill or knowledge.

  • SmilodonsRetreat
  • http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless Reasonably Faithless

    Here’s the equivalent in mathematics:

    http://thatsmathematics.com/blog/archives/102

    Most of the long-standing journals are quite safe, but yes, there are some very dodgy Open Access ones.

  • KeithB

    That is appearantly how Burzynski got published.

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2014/04/17/stanislaw-burzynski-publishes-42-5-of-one-clinical-trial/

    It got published because none of the peer reviewers responded. Here is what the editor said:

    “I have invited eminent neurooncologists to write a comment to be added to the articles. Unfortunately the reviewers of the journal failed to provide their promised evaluation so that after several months there were “no negative comments” to justify rejection. Now I look for receiving comments from Canada and UK to be published in the journal. Should you be willing to contribute you are welcome”