Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Repercussions in Research

Having perused the biased research articles it became evident that lack of repercussions in research contributes to the abundance of invalid data and publications.  The problems of incorrect data in publications encompasses two paths of invalidity:  1) the known use of incorrect or fraudulent data, and 2) unknown methodological errors in analyzing data and presenting research findings.  Each is equally detrimental to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and counterproductive to the progress of any field.  One such reason that this incorrect data continues to plague research is the lack of true consequence to multiple parties involved in the publication.  The goal of achieving higher rates of truly valid publications lies in three areas of gate-keeping: the authors, the reviewers and the journals themselves.  To increase the amount of veritable new data it is important to approach this systemically at all three levels of the publication process.  While the onus of true and verified data in research still, and will always be, primarily that of the authors; there are new ideas and sources to help to ensure the adherence to the scientific method .
                Belluz mentions in her article in September of 2015 the recent development of PubPeer which allows readers to anonymously review and critique published research and methods.  This article highlights an initial problem of the publication process, lackadaisical peer review contributing to a lack of quality control of published data.  The use of PubPeer is a step in the right direction of opening up the critique of research beyond that of a limited peer review.  One aspect of this process that is intriguing, is the anonymity which allows a third party to examine data free from an attached name or reputation.  I support the idea of allowing an open source of review, which helps to keep all readers engaged in the scientific process and opens up the review process to more than just a handful of individuals.
                The publication of improper research rarely results in a retraction and even so, the event of a retraction unless highly publicized to the public, often lacks any true consequence for the original author, the peer review system or the journal of publication.  As many researchers in a variety of fields strive to publish in such highly regarded journals as Nature and Science, one cannot excuse the fact that these journals often have some of the highest rates of retraction.  As mentioned in the Economist article, journals such as Nature have begun to put together a checklist for authors to adequately address for publication.  This puts responsibility often still on the authors, who had they been adhering to the scientific method would have already resolved any issues; and thus one should ask if the journal itself holds any accountability for the publication of incorrect data.  As a profitable enterprise, journals compete with one another and for readers.  They have a substantial reason to want to publish new and exciting data and thus are equally involved in the process of publication of invalid data.  An article published by Fang and Casadevall in Infection and Immunity shows the below image of retraction index of major journals.  Curiously, some of the most prominent journals in the fields are high on the retraction index and there is a correlation between impact factor and retractions.  One must ask then if there is any responsibility that journals also face scrutiny for publications that are proven invalid.  If a journal faced more serious repercussions than simply a self-admitted notice of retraction, would there be an added level of examination of data in publications?
Fig. 1.
Infect. Immun. October 2011 vol. 79 no. 10 3855-3859

While the idea that all scientists, editors, reviewers and journals would work in the pursuit of pure knowledge without bias is noble, it is evident in Dan Ariely's TED talk that the human condition is often incapable of being empirically unbiased.  Since this is an inherent challenge, it is important to create a system of checks and balances that ensures that all parties involved are appropriately scrutinizing and also admittedly involved in the publication process.  While reading many of these articles proved to me why authors are so important to the process, it became clearer to me that accountability of the process itself must be held to a higher standard and shared by all parties involved in publication.  This means that improper publications should not only be detrimental and worrisome for an individual author, but also for a journal.  Allowing more involvement of a broader community and anonymity, such as PubPeer, is a step towards involving critiques and thorough examination that may steer the direction of scientific publications closer to that what has always been expected.

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