Sexist Weather And Hermaphroditic Frogs: The Problem Of Faux Peer Review
In today's Wall Street Journal, I have an article discussing recent problems in peer review.
It's big news when a journal busts a 'peer review ring' that had manipulated its way to 60 papers sailing through peer review that then had to be retracted. Prior to that, Nature retracted a paper on stem cells that was obviously flawed - and everyone but the peer reviewers knew it.
The issue may be news but it's not new. Everyone in science has joked about gaming peer review, I wondered in Penny Stock Peer Review why it did not happen more and I speculated it is because most scientists are honest.
But not everyone is playing fair - sometimes they want to Do God's Work. They believe their claims are vital to saving humanity and that if they don't rig the system, some conspiracy will block them out. The end justifies the means, and all that. The damage to policy and public trust in science can still be substantial when that happens. Why is the public going to believe peer review on climate change and evolution, or vaccines, GMOs and energy, when junk papers about Facebook emotions and female hurricane names get a faux peer review legitimacy stamp from an elite journal?
And then there are very expensive debacles, I note. The same journal behind the genetics of why you are a lousy gambler and those two papers above, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published a paper in 2002 that got an emergency Scientific Advisory Panel called by the EPA. It claimed feminization of male frogs due to an herbicide. It turned out to be nothing, the authors refused to show their data to the EPA and the EPA ended up giving the herbicide a clean bill of health. How did all that happen? The hand-picked, pre-chosen editor for the paper inside the National Academy of Sciences happens to be a friend of the first author of that paper. Then they teamed up to do the same thing in PNAS again, about the same herbicide, in 2010.
The EPA spends years on issues when they are mobilized. We wasted time and money that could have been spent doing real fact-finding about products. Career scientists inside EPA were forced to stop what they were doing because environmental groups engaged in scare-mongering, all with the claim that the studies in PNAS was peer reviewed. Sorry, but that's not peer review, it's friendly editing, and it doesn't make the public safer and it does not inspire young scientists, it makes them cynical.
I'm not trying to pick on PNAS, they just happen to be a high-profile publication that carries a lot of weight in mainstream media, so when they drop the ball, it has expensive consequences for taxpayers and collateral damage for science acceptance.
Every journal has papers that slip under the radar and open access journals are actually worse, but they get a pass because it's assumed in open access that the standard is lower.
Not only does PNAS say it is better than open access, it says their system is better than Cell, Nature and Science.
When they brag to a higher standard, they get held to a higher standard.