“My time and energy were stolen:” Peer reviewer reacts to retraction

Martha Alibali

When a former Stanford psychology researcher lost her fifth paper last year due to unreliable results, one researcher took particular notice: Martha Alibali at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Why? She had reviewed the 2006 paper, and took to social media to express her dismay at the result of the time and effort she spent on the research. We spoke with Alibali further about her reactions to the news.

Retraction Watch: You reviewed the paper more than 10 years ago. Can you recall what you thought about it? In retrospect, were there any red flags or doubts you had about the findings that you wish you’d caught?

Martha Alibali: When I read about the paper being retracted, I checked to see if I had that paper among my own files, as it reports research close to my own area.  When I searched for the paper on my computer, I immediately found my review, as it had not been “blind” — I knew the authors’ names when reviewing it.  My review raised concerns about the experimental methodology and the framing of the original submission, but not about the quality of the data or the data analysis.

RW: You told us that you learned the paper had been retracted from our post about it, and tweeted that you felt like your “time and energy were stolen.” Can you tell us more about that?

MA: As a reviewer, I spend a lot of time and care with a paper.  It requires substantial time and energy to write a helpful and constructive review.   I read the paper carefully (sometimes twice) and make notes, I organize my concerns into categories, I write a draft of the review, and then I revise it to adjust tone and improve clarity.

Reviewers give their time and energy freely and without compensation — reviewing others’ papers is the “right” thing to do when one publishes in an area.  In this situation, I feel like someone stole the time and energy I spent on this review, without regard for its value.

I have many demands on my time and energy — I am not only a professor and researcher, but also a spouse, a daughter, and a parent.  I make every effort to use my time and energy well, and in ways that accord with my values.  In this situation, someone took something of value from me, under false pretenses. It makes me angry to know that I spent several hours reviewing a paper that was not based on sound science, especially at a time in my life when I had a small child and was experiencing role strain and time pressure.

RW: Is this the first time a paper you’ve reviewed was retracted?

MA: To my knowledge, yes.

RW: Do you plan on altering your approach to peer review as a result of this? Reviewing papers differently, accepting fewer invitations, etc?

MA: The retraction notice says that the senior author “believes that the research results cannot be relied upon”. This makes me wonder whether I should have scrutinized the data analyses and statistics more carefully. I will try to do this in the future.

RW: The first author on the paper ended up retracting four others after the 2006 paper you reviewed was published — did you know about those retractions? Did it cause you to question this paper over time?  

MA: I was aware that at least one paper by these authors had been retracted — but I did not know that four had been retracted! I had not questioned this paper until reading about the retraction.

RW: Anything you’d like to add?

MA: This situation seems complicated because one author “believes that the research results cannot be relied upon” and the other “takes full responsibility for the need to retract this article”.  As someone who supervises graduate students and post-docs, I am reflecting on what practices should be in place in my own laboratory to insure that data is handled responsibly. What practices could have prevented this situation from occurring? What do other researchers do to make sure that situations like this do not arise?

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5 thoughts on ““My time and energy were stolen:” Peer reviewer reacts to retraction”

  1. Yes, indeed Ms. Alibali I have found that fraudsters have a reckless disregard foe anything that does not serve their twisted goals. Understandably, getting duped is
    painful and you were robbed of your time and skill in your review effort–you deserve
    much better. As we all do.

  2. It is true to say that the general public often has no regard for the efforts that other people
    make in their lives. Educators often are disappointed and frustrated by the failure of their
    students to acknowledge the effort involved in their education. All investments carry a risk,
    one should be grateful but should not always expect a return.

  3. So impressed that a peer-reviewer has the confidence to go public. IMO the reviewer should be named. It’s not a crime to be lied to and she has been reproachful of her own actions. That level of commitment in todays science is to be applauded. I believe the reviewers SHOULD be named and conflict of interest declared.

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