The creators of PubPeer dropped their own anonymity today, as part of an announcement about a new chapter in the life of the post-publication peer review site.
By now, Retraction Watch readers will be familiar with PubPeer.com. Founded in 2012, the commenting site has allowed for robust discussions of scientific papers — which in turn have led to corrections and retractions. (We regularly feature discussions there in our PubPeer Selections feature.) The site has many supporters — including us — but also some critics, one of whom has filed suit against its commenters, arguing anonymous comments cost him a job opportunity. (Late last week, PubPeer learned that a judge had granted them the right to appeal the most recent decision in that case.)
Like most of the commenters on the site, whose careers could be threatened if they were exposed as critics, the founders of the site have until now been anonymous.
Today, however, founders Brandon Stell, George Smith, and Richard Smith unmasked themselves. They are joined on a board of directors by Boris Barbour and Gabor Brasnjo. Stell and Barbour are practicing scientists, while Brasnjo, who trained as a scientist, works as an attorney. Here’s the whole statement, followed by a Q&A with Stell:
We are pleased to announce the creation of The PubPeer Foundation, a California-registered nonprofit public benefit corporation in the process of obtaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in the United States. The overarching goal of the Foundation is to help improve the quality of scientific research by enabling innovative approaches for community interaction. Our initial focus will be on maintaining and developing the PubPeer online platform for post-publication peer review.
The bylaws of the newly created Foundation aim to establish it as a service run for the benefit of its readers and commenters, who create all of its content. We feel that a nonprofit organization constitutes the ideal framework through which to pursue these goals. We are also taking this opportunity to formalize the responsibilities of directors, officers, agents, and subcontractors of the Foundation. First and foremost, they should always act to preserve and defend the anonymity of users of Foundation sites. In addition, they must not comment on Foundation sites except through official channels (such as the blog, the twitter account or as moderators), and they must avoid real and apparent conflicts of interest.
The inaugural Board of the Foundation consists of the three founders of PubPeer.com and two associates, respectively: Brandon Stell (President), George Smith, Richard Smith, Boris Barbour (Treasurer) and Gabor Brasnjo (Secretary).
We wish to thank all of the expert commenters of PubPeer.com, who are responsible for the success of the site. We also thank and are extremely grateful to our pro bono legal representatives (Nicholas Jollymore of Jollymore Law and Alex Abdo, Daniel Korobkin and Samia Hossain of the ACLU) for defending our site and the community’s right to comment freely under the law.
For anything related to the Foundation or PubPeer.com, please continue to contact us through the site (firstname.lastname@example.org) and not via any professional or personal channels you may discover.
(Richard Smith is a different Richard Smith than the one on the board of directors of The Center For Scientific Integrity, our parent 501(c)3 organization.)
Stell answered a few questions for Retraction Watch:
When you launched, you said you “started from the lack of post-publication peer discussion on journal websites.” Is that still a problem? What about sites like PubMed Commons?
We are convinced that the more post-publication peer review the better, and are very happy to see PMC gaining traction. It should be noted that PubPeer allows anonymous comments and is not restricted to the medical sciences, so there are substantial differences between the two platforms.
Have you been surprised at the impact of PubPeer?
During the summer leading up to the initial launch of PubPeer in 2012, we started to see more clearly the potential impact the site could have on science and we still expect bigger things for PubPeer in the future.
You also wrote at your launch that the founders “collectively decided to remain anonymous in order to avoid personalizing the website, and to avoid circumstances in which involvement with the site might produce negative effects on their scientific careers.” Today, you’re going public. What has changed?
We feel that the PubPeer Foundation is necessary for us to achieve some of the goals of PubPeer and anonymity is unfortunately incompatible with 501(c)(3) status of the foundation.
Are you concerned about the potential effects of the case that Fazlul Sarkar is trying to bring against your commenters?
In the days following our announcement of the case we saw a decrease in the number of comments left on the site, but it didn’t last long (users started leaving comments again a week later with the same frequency as before our announcement). There will always be risks of lawsuits but hopefully we’ll see more people responding to critics with raw data instead of lawsuits.
What role do you hope PubPeer plays moving forward? What plans do you have for the Foundation?
We hope that the PubPeer Foundation will provide us with more opportunities to develop the site in ways that will help grow the community of post-publication peer reviewers and further encourage quality science. As more of us scientists become accustomed to commenting on papers, and as that becomes more of a part of the overall scientific process, I think we’ll be able to finally up-end the backwards reward structure that is currently in place in science. Hopefully we can get to a point where the data are much more important to a scientist’s career than the journal that published them.
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