Weekend reads: Peer review unreliable? Merck retracts legal threats over criticism

booksAnother busy week at Retraction Watch, with a lot of media attention to a story about 60 retractions at a single journal for peer review fraud, and our op-ed in yesterday’s New York TimesHere’s what was happening elsewhere:

Bonus: Ivan will be on Boston’s WXKS & WJMN today at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. with Bill Frezza of the Real Clear Radio Hour.

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18 thoughts on “Weekend reads: Peer review unreliable? Merck retracts legal threats over criticism”

  1. All of your efforts including your op-ed piece are a great public service. If we got a fraction of your dedication to the truth from our taxpayer funded research institutions they would really be helping science and the public. However some funding motivated bloggers seem to be blind to this. Others get caught up in political or cerebral arguments that only serve to obscure the true mission of science.

    1. the thumbs could be considered a poll: 50% of respondents get and agree with the intended public service message of the blog and 50% don’t, very sad commentary

    2. Ed, can I ask what experience you have had with scientists and/or research institutions that has shaped your obviously strong anti-research beliefs? It can’t simply be the idea that some tax money is being wasted, since, at $30 bil, the NIH budget is much less than 1% of the total fed budget (and the budgets for other funding agencies, like the NSF and EPA are much lower). If money is your concern, I’d direct my energy elsewhere. Much more money is being spent on social programs and defense. Most of us doing government funded science in the US are honest folks. Unfortunately, we’re made to look bad by a high profile minority.

      1. Mitch, Much more than I ever wanted. My blog also refers to truth and public benefit in science. So the theme was meant to express paying for junk science. You probably know about “publish or perish”, the main driver of much high profile funding. Pointing to other waste is just a misdirected diversion. Would you go rob a bank because the banking industry rips off the consumer? It seems like retraction watch has a lot of nameless rock throwers. Although we differ, you are at least not one.

        1. “You probably know about “publish or perish”, the main driver of much high profile funding.”

          Really Ed? Surely the “driver(s) of high profile funding” relate to widely recognised research objectives (e.g. novel antibiotics to address antibiotic resistance, nanotechnology, cancer research, stem cells and regenerative medicine, climate change etc. ), the research records and potential of research fund applicants and so on… Do you have any evidence that research funds are simply given to applicants in order to help them publish stuff (and so stop them from “perishing”)?

          I wonder whether the “thumbs down” might relate to the idea that there may be alternative points of view that relate to the pursuit of scientific objectives in the real world that don’t conform to your perjoratives (“blind” “funding motivated bloggers” etc.).

          1. Yes, I suspect that one is always correct in one’s own mind. Stem cell research is now generating the most
            documented misconduct because it is the latest and hottest field, Actually ditto for the others you mention.
            There is hope for
            all to live longer and open the eyes. Its a freedom of speech blog and sometimes we reveal what we don’t
            know by stressing what we think we know. However, I really wish you were right, but I don’t think so.

        2. I appreciate that, Ed. I agree that too much money is wasted in science and the fact that more money is wasted elsewhere does not make that OK. Still, it is a drop in the bucket by comparison, especially considering that most of us are trying to do things in an honest way so most of the money invested in US science is not being squandered (at least not intentionally – it’s hard to avoid the occasional blind alley in research). There are some things that I would change, though, to relieve some of the competitive pressure: cap the number of R-level grants that any one investigator can have simultaneously at two (instead of concentrating funds with the big names, who can’t possibly truly keep up with the number of people and projects funded by 3+ R01s), reduce the average lab size (in other words, promote more postdocs to faculty instead of staffing every bigwig’s lab with 20 postdocs and making them compete for projects and publications), require a masters before a PhD in the US (this will immediately weed out those who aren’t serious and quickly reduce the glut of science PhDs and thereby reduce the competition that promotes fraud), stop paying for stipends and fellowships for foreign students and postdocs (same reason as last one – reduce the number of PhDs – especially since they are increasingly going back these days; of course, this one will never happen due to the implications for international relations) and encourage retirement at 67 or so (so we have fewer older tenured faculty clinging to jobs that they don’t need and clogging up the system fron the top), among other things.

          1. Mitch, You have some good ideas that could be debated for decades before the hundreds of top tier
            research universities finally conclude that they can’t agree on anything beyond the status quo.
            Retraction watch has proposed administrative subpoena power for research oversight bodies—that is doable and absolutely necessary, but not the total answer. Oversight bodies need to be removed from PHS and staffed by balanced independent professionals with non MD and science PhD backgrounds ( they are potentially too narrow and biased) and a push toward Open Access to break the lock-hold of traditional journals that get free studies on the taxpayer tab. Congress has the power to do both of these initiatives in short order to clean up the errant powerbase of our researcher/university/government/publisher complex that does not serve the public benefit.

          2. One comment, reseatch that goes down a blind alley, if it is a real scientific study, is not money wasted. It eliminates an option that can be put to rest until new information is discovered. Thank you all for your comments, they are very informative.

          3. Sharon, you make a good point. I’ve occasionally worked on projects that seemed to hit a dead end, only to discover months or years later that there was something useful there for a current project. On the other hand, I’ve also done a few experiments that haven’t been useful or enlightening at all yet, years later, and in a couple of cases I can now see that I was way off base from the start, I just didn’t see it then. But that’s the march of progress. “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

  2. I’m surprised that Harvard psychologist hasn’t responded yet, it seems that scientists and non-scientists alike have reacted to his essay with almost universal disgust and disbelief. A response to these critiques, or at least some admission that replications do constitute evidence, would seem appropriate at this point.

  3. I quite like this sentence by Dorothea Salo in the response to the OA sting affair:

    “That Bohannon carried out a sting operation is not the problem with his article; the problem is that he didn’t sting anywhere near all the journals desperately needing to be stung.”

    1. I wish to bring to your attention a case involving a paper of mine that has now been in “peer review” for over 600 days (i.e., > 20 months).

      Summary of paper submitted to Science and Engineering Ethics (Springer Science + Business Medium):
      Submission: Nov 11, 2012 (JSEE-D-12-00418)
      Submission R1: Jan 18, 2013 (JSEE-D-12-00418R1)
      First query: June 5, 2013
      Second query: Sept 13, 2013
      Complaint 1: Sept 20, 2013 (extended to ALL JSEE editors)
      Response 1 (Stephanie J. Bird): Sept 24, 2013 (with spelling mistake to my name)
      Third query: Nov 5, 2013
      Response 2 (Stephanie J. Bird): Nov 5, 2013 (still with spelling mistake to my name)
      Fourth query: Jan 12, 2014
      Response 2 (Arun Sundar, Springer SBM): Jan 12, 2014

      A copy of the communications for the public record:

      To Me, Oosting, Floor, Springer and others CC’s on Jan 12
      Jan 13, 2014
      Dear Dr. da Silva,

      Your manuscript is currently with Dr. Stephanie Bird and she will handle your manuscript once she completes the special Issue.

      Thank you very much.

      Best regards,

      Arun Sundar
      Journals Editorial Office (JEO)
      JEO Assistant

      tel +91 44 42197752
      fax + 91 44 42197763

      Sent: Sunday, January 12, 2014 2:44 AM
      To: Sundar, Arun
      Subject: Ad Hoc from author to Editorial Office

      CC: Floor Oosting, SJ Bird, R Spier, H. Zandvoort, M. Deneke [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]

      Dear Dr. Stephanie Bird and Dr. Ray Spier,

      Could you be so kind as to provide an update on the peer review of my paper that was submitted on November 11 (2012), and re-submitted in revised form on January 17, 2013.

      Thank you in advance,

      Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

      To Me, Ray Spier, Oosting, Floor, Springer SBM
      Nov 5, 2013
      Dear Dr. Teixera da Silva,
      I regret that my current work load has not provided the window of opportunity to engage with your ms; as and when this is no longer the case, your ms will be dealt with promptly.
      Stephanie J. Bird

      To Stephanie J. Bird, Ray Spier, Oosting, Floor, Springer SBM
      Nov 5, 2013
      Dear Dr. Bird,

      I am wondering if you have been able to dedicate an hour or two to look at the paper yet.

      At most, other competing ethics-related journals take approximately 3 months to reach a decision following re-submission.

      Thank you in advance of an update. When responding, please provide concrete dates by which a decision will be made. Publishing cannot progress effectively when editors take ad infinitum to complete their tasks.


      Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

      Sep 24, 2013
      Dear Dr. Teixera da Silva,

      Thank you for your interest in Science and Engineering Ethics. I am the editor assigned to your ms. because of concerns regarding the potential appearance of a conflict of interest. I am currently working on a Special Issue of the journal involving 17 carefully edited mss. There are several manuscripts ahead of yours but I will get to your paper as soon as I can.

      Best wishes,
      Stephanie J. Bird

      Sent: Friday, September 20, 2013 8:20 PM (spell checked)
      Subject: Complaint JSEE editorial incompetence (Springer)

      Dear Dr. Bird and Dr. Spier,
      CC: select JSEE editor board members (http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/applied+ethics/journal/11948?detailsPage=editorialBoard), e-mails courtesy primarily of PubMed

      It is very unfortunate that you are actively choosing to ignore my requests for a simple update. I believe that a “peer” review in excess of 10 months for what is supposed to be an Opinion Piece is much too excessive.

      Moreover, despite a formal request on June 5, 2013 for an update, and one which was formally promised, none was delivered.

      A week ago, I re-emphasized the importance of responding, even simply, to my request for an update. Not because I am seeking favourable treatment, but because a response, and not silence, is the responsible thing to do when an author contacts a journal, editor or publisher about a paper. This forms part of an editor’s responsibility: http://www.globalsciencebooks.info/JournalsSup/images/2013/AAJPSB_7(SI1)/AAJPSB_7(SI1)6-15o.pdf

      I understand that my critique in this paper, primarily of Elsevier because of its incompatibility of author definitions as defined by the ICMJE is going to rile many feathers, least not of which Elseviers’, but I hope that inter-publisher rivalry is not in any way influencing the massive delays regarding a decision on this manuscript. Also, I hope that my differences of opinion with COPE are also not playing any factor in this delay.

      Assuming, thus that potential conflicts with other publishing bodies is clearly out of the question, it simply dumbfounds me to understand why no response, not even a small or simple one, is not forthcoming.

      Claiming this editorial incompetence, I am left with no alternative but to contact all members of the entire editorial board. Not because this is the correct thing to do, but because you have left me with no alternative, and hopefully without being accused of being inappropriate or unethical in some way with regard to online protocol.

      I would hope that common sense will prevail among at least a few members of the editor board, who will hopefully indicate to Dr. Spier and Dr. Bird that a response, at least, if not a decision, is forthcoming.

      I am confident that we can get past this impasse and lack of editorial responsibility and move on to what is truly important, namely showing to the scientific community that the definitions of Elsevier regarding authorship are incompatible with their “ethical guidelines” and with their “basal”, supporting organizations, namely the ICMJE and COPE.

      I look forward to hearing from you soon. If I do not receive a response within a reasonable amount of time, I will be forced to withdraw my manuscript from review at JSEE and submit it elsewhere, adding, in an annex, this editorial super-gaffe by Dr. Bird and Dr. Spier.

      Thank you in advance,

      Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

      Sep 13, 2013
      e-mail “To” Arun Sundar (Springer)
      CC: Floor Oosting (Springer), Stefan van Dijl (Springer), SJ Bird, R Spier

      Dear Dr. Spier and Dr. S.J. Bird, Editors, JSEE

      REF (JSEE-D-12-00418R1): One Conjunction, a World of Ethical Difference: How Elsevier, the ICMJE and Neurology Define Authorship

      I am inquiring about my paper that was originally submitted on November 11, 2012. The revised paper was re-submitted on January 17, 2013. 8 months have now passed and I am extremely surprised not to have yet heard from the journal about my paper. What makes it even more surprising is the fact that Mr. Arun Sundar promised to provide me with an update on June 6, 2013, stating “I have forwarded your mail to Dr. Spier. I will keep you posted once I hear from him.” Due to the lack of a response, I have now been forced to contact you at your institutional addresses as well as the journal Springer contacts to obtain a more formal response. This is an opinion piece, not an original paper, so I am not sure why 8 months are required to revise the R1 version of the manuscript. This paper is being referenced in other papers and thus I really need an editorial decision at the earliest. As I indicated in my e-mail of June 5 to JSEE, I also need to add in the ethical authorship guidelines of the American Journal of Botany, to make the importance of the opinion paper broader. I look forward to an update at the earliest.


      Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

      Jun 6, 2013
      Dear Dr. da Silva,

      I have forwarded your mail to Dr. Spier. I will keep you posted once I hear from him.

      Thank you.
      Best regards,

      Arun Sundar
      Journals Editorial Office (JEO)
      JEO Assistant

      tel +91 44 42197750
      fax + 91 44 42197763

      Sent: Wednesday, June 05, 2013 8:56 AM
      To: Sundar, Arun
      Subject: Ad Hoc from author to handling editor

      Dear Dr. R. Spier and Dr. S.J. Bird,

      Could you kindly provide me with an update on the progress of this manuscript that was submitted about half a year ago.

      Thank you in advance,

      Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

      Jan 18, 2013
      Dear Dr. Teixeira da Silva,

      Thank you for approving the changes that we made to your submission entitled “One Conjunction, a World of Ethical Difference: How Elsevier, the ICMJE and Neurology Define Authorship”.

      You will be able to check on the progress of your paper by logging on to Editorial Manager as an author. The URL is http://jsee.edmgr.com/.

      Thank you for submitting your work to this journal.

      Kind regards,
      Editorial Office
      Science and Engineering Ethics

      Nov 11, 2012
      Dear Dr. Jaime Teixeira da Silva,

      Thank you for submitting your manuscript, One Preposition: A World of Ethical Difference, to Science and Engineering Ethics.

      During the review process, you can keep track of the status of your manuscript by accessing the following web site: http://jsee.edmgr.com/

      Should you require any further assistance please feel free to e-mail the Editorial Office by clicking on “Contact Us” in the menu bar at the top of the screen.

      Alternatively, please call us at +91 44 42197752 anytime between 9.00 – 17.00 hrs IST/5.00 – 13.00 hrs CET.

      With kind regards,
      Springer Journals Editorial Office
      Science and Engineering Ethics

      1. Sent to Bird/Spier and 40 members of the 2012/2013 editor board of JSEE at 2:12 am (14 July, 2014).

        “Dear Dr. Stephanie J. Bird and Dr. Raymond Spier,

        REF: JSEE-D-12-00418R1

        I am calling on your immediate and unconcditional resignation from the editor board of Science and Engineering Ethics (Springer Science + Business Medium).

        After waiting rather patiently for 20 months for my paper to be “peer reviewed”, I can only come to the conclusion that your editorial incompetence is to blame for such an outrageously long peer review period.

        I should add that this call for your immediate resignation has also been sent (CC:) to the original editor board members whom I contacted in late 2013 with a formal complaint, because their silence is somewhat supportive of your editorial incompetence. Other relevant parties have also been copied on BCC.

        To ensure that my complaint is not silenced any further by this publisher, journal and editor board, I have posted my e-mails and communications with you and with Springer over the past 20 months publically at Retraction Watch (including all relevant editorial dates):

        In addition to my call for your resignation, I would apreciate a formal explanation, and apology, from Springer Science and Business Media.

        Finaly, although it is quite evident that the peer review will no longer be free of bias, I would appreciate a formal decision on my manuscript, so that I can edit and improve it, or submit it elsewhere.


        Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva

        1. A small update on Obokata. She has started to make preparations for experiments and has been given one month to do this. All of her actions and activities are being monitored by two people by her side and she is under constant camera surveillance (see the photos and schematics in these pages * and **; use Google site translator to translate the Japanese into English). No matter what she was guilty of not guilty of, one can say that it must be horrible, psychologically, to be working under these conditions of total and constant surveillance. I stand corrected, but I have never seen any other scientist whose paper was retracted repeating their experiments to save face, much less under these stressful conditions. Honestly, I wish her well, and for her sake and for the sake of so many involved parties, may she find those elusive STAP cells a 201th time.

          * http://dailynews.yahoo.co.jp/fc/science/stap_cells/?id=6123349 (July 15)
          ** http://headlines.yahoo.co.jp/hl?a=20140703-00000010-asahi-soci (July 3)

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