hell hath no fury like a scientist scorned by bad peer review…

Peer review and editorial input at PLOS ONE are in trouble and scientists are very, very upset.

angry woman

While my play-along-at-home AI project hit a little snag as I’m still experimenting with using the newest cross-platform version of a framework which might not be ready for prime time just yet, why don’t we take a look at the huge controversy surrounding the open journal PLOS ONE and why no matter how it all happened, the fact that it did is alarming? If you don’t know, the journal has been savaged on social media by scientists for publishing a Chinese study on the dexterity of the human hand with an explicit reference to God in the abstract. Some reactions have been so over the top that an ardent creationist watching form the sidelines could collect the outraged quotes and use them in a presentation on how scientists get reflexively incensed when anyone brings up God because they’re all evil atheists who can’t even bear to hear him invoked. But at its core, the scientists’ outrage has less to do with the content of the paper than it has with how badly broken the peer review mechanism is in a world of publish-every-day-or-perish, when the tenure committee that decides your fate scoffs at anything less than 100 papers in journals…

For what it’s worth, the paper’s writers say that they flubbed their translation into English and a reference to “the Creator” was really supposed to say evolutionary nature. I’m not sure if that’s true because while on the surface, China is an atheistic country, there are plenty of Christians who live there, and the rest of the paper’s English seems perfectly fine and proper. The capital reference seems too deliberate to just be there as a mistake, almost like someone deliberately snuck it in and the team is now covering for this investigator by faking sudden bouts of Engrish in a paper that doesn’t actually suffer from any. Obviously there’s no prohibitions for a scientist to be religious and conduct exemplary research. Francis Collins is a devout Evangelical whose free time was spent preaching Templeton’s gospel of accommodationism, but his work with the Human Genome Project is critical in modern biology. Ken Miller is a devoted Catholic, but he’s tirelessly kept creationism out of classrooms in the Midwest and separates his personal beliefs from his scientific work and advocacy. And that’s what all scientists of faith try to do, maintain a separation between religion and work in the public eye, and when they fail, an editor should be there to review the papers and point that out before publishing it for public consumption.

So that’s what the fuming on social media is all about: the lack of editorial oversight. Scientists who wanted to submit their research to PLOS ONE, or already have, are now worried that it will be considered a junk journal, and their time and effort publishing there will be wasted. Not only that, but they’re worried about the quality of papers they cited from the journal as well since an editorial failure during peer review means that outright fraud can go undetected and take huge professional risks by other scientists to uncover. Since peer review is supposed to keep a junk paper out of a good journal by pointing out every design flaw, obvious bias, cherry-picking, and inconsistencies that signal fraud or incompetence, and it’s the only mechanism that exists to do so before publication, any signs that the reviewers and editors are asleep at the wheel, or only going through the motions, is incredibly alarming to scientists. Yet, at the same time, I can sort of understand why this kind of thing happens. Reviewers are the gatekeepers of what qualifies as scientific literature and their job is to give scientists hell. But they’re not paid for it, their work for journals is not appreciated very much, and despite their crucial role in the scientific process, the fact of the matter is that they’re volunteers doing a thankless task out of a sense of duty.

While the popular perception of a scientist is that research is a cushy gig, the reality is that the majority of scientists are overworked, underpaid, and expected to hand out their time for free in the service of highly profitable journals that charge and arm and a leg to publish scientists’ own content. Any person, no matter how passionate or excited about his or her work, is not going to be extremely motivated and exceedingly thorough under these circumstances. Until we start to properly appreciate reviewers for their work and rewarding them for it, and until colleges finally realize that it’s dangerous and ridiculous to encourage scientists to write ten papers where one good one would’ve sufficed, mistakes like PLOS ONE’s are just going to keep happening as the review takes place in social media rather than by writers and editors, like it should’ve been. We can’t expect quality from peer review in the future if we’re not willing to make the task logistically reasonable and professionally appreciated, much like we shouldn’t expect to walk into any used car dealership and drive off in a brand new Ferrari for the price of an old Kia. Like with so many things in life, you get what you pay for when someone has to work for your benefit.

# science // peer review / sceintists / scientific journals / scientific research


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