Since it launched in 2012, PubPeer has grown to become a standard part of the scientific lexicon, and its numerous post-publication discussions have led to more editorial notices than we can count. But it’s also faced its share of critics, including a scientist who took the site to court to unmask commenters he alleged had cost him a job offer. The site won that case on appeal, but is today launching new features that will make it impossible for the site to reveal users’ identities, as well as easier to read and format comments. We spoke with PubPeer co-founder Brandon Stell about what to expect from the new site.
Retraction Watch: What changes have you introduced to the site?
Brandon Stell: There are many things that we have wanted to do to extend PubPeer but unfortunately all development ground to a halt a few years ago when the original developer, George Smith (who was working on PubPeer in his spare time) stopped working on the site after we decided to transition to a nonprofit. Recently, thanks to a generous grant from The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we were able to hire a very talented new programmer to work on the site full-time and completely rewrite it to to make it easier to add some of the ideas we have for new features in the future. [Editor’s note: Retraction Watch is also funded by the Arnold Foundation.]
There are many changes behind the scenes in this current rewrite but the two biggest changes for users are the improvement of readability/formatting of comments and the security of user anonymity. Users will now have options to format their comments to be more academic and they will be able to easily insert and format images and equations. We feel that strong anonymity is very important for effective post-publication peer review and to address the security of user anonymity on PubPeer we decided to do our best to not retain any identifying information for any users that wish to remain anonymous.
RW: You’ve added some identity management features. What are the most notable changes, and what problems are they designed to address?
BS: There are now two types of accounts: anonymous and signed. Anonymous accounts with random user names from the tree of life (e.g. drosophila melanogaster) can now be generated when anonymous comments are submitted and users can sign into those accounts again later (using only a key that we provide them) in order to leave subsequent comments, receive feedback about why comments were moderated, check for replies to all their comments left with that account, etc. (for the PubPeer aficionados out there: it is as if Peer X accounts and Unregs have been merged into one)
RW: Will the identity changes you’ve installed make it more difficult for scientists to unmask (and thereby seek recourse from) anonymous commenters?
BS: Yes, that is one of the main motivations for that change. Once the transition to the new site is complete our goal is to not be able to reveal any user information if we receive another subpoena or if the site is hacked.
RW: You’re adding links to retraction notices (as well as EoCs, errata, etc.) directly in the commenting threads. Often users post those on their own, so what’s the advantage of the site taking that over?
BS: It’s true that some users occasionally insert expressions of concern and retraction notices into PubPeer comments but it is far from systematic and not easily searchable. Richard Smith and Steph Smith-Unna recently created a great API to easily access publication events and we are using it to more systematically pull information into PubPeer, make it searchable, and insert it into the appropriate timepoints of the PubPeer commenting timelines. Richard is using the data provided by Crossref and PubMed but if you know of anyone with a more complete API we would love to use that as well 🙂 [Editor’s note: We’re working on that for retractions, stay tuned!]
RW: What prompted these changes?
BS: As you know, we feel that most of the problems with scientific reproducibility stem from the fact that scientific evaluation committees around the world rely so heavily on journal names to identify promising science, and scientists. To help alleviate that problem we want to continue to build a timeline for each publication that includes all comments from the community, references, and other publication events (i.e. retractions, expressions of concern, acceptance in an overlay journal, etc). We believe that if all that information becomes more centralized and easily searchable, evaluation committees will use it to help them make more informed decisions. That will hopefully loosen the grip that journals have on deciding the future of science, put evaluation back in the hands of community, and change some of the publishing incentives to ultimately strengthen science.
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