How to Hold Scientific Journals Accountable?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticSep 15, 2016 12:41 PM


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Writing in PLoS Biology, neurobiologist Thomas C. Südhof discusses 

Truth in Science Publishing: A Personal Perspective.

Südhof is a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford. A veteran scientist, he's been publishing since 1982.

So what's the state of science publishing as Südhof sees it? He first notes that "scientists, public servants, and patient advocates alike increasingly question the validity of published scientific results, endangering the public’s acceptance of science." This wave of skepticism is understandable, he says, because today's scientists are often "failing to ensure that studies report facts and not fantasy". The problem, Südhof explains, is that the systems for ensuring quality control in science - such as peer-review - have become dysfunctional. Peer-reviewed journals, for instance, chase "trendy" topics, while reviewers often favor their own friends and allies. Yet scientific journals face few consequences when things go wrong:

Journals should be held accountable not only by their owners for the money they make but also by the public for the value they provide - just as a drug company cannot simply sell any drug but has to show that the drug is safe and effective, a journal should not be allowed to "sell" [i.e. publish] its products without being accountable for its content... If a journal repeatedly publishes papers that draw untenable conclusions, eventually the authors of the papers may be blamed, but editors and reviewers who are arguably responsible for gross negligence are not held responsible. There are insufficient checks and balances in the publishing system; when high-ranked journals repeatedly publish papers that are later considered unreliable or even retracted, the journals seem to face no consequences - their premier status remains untouched.

This is true, but I imagine that high-ranking journals would counter this charge by saying something like this: it's the scientific community - people who read and cite papers - that decides a journal's prestige and status. So if we top journals seem to 'get away with' publishing bad papers, this can only mean that the scientific community feels that our journals are essentially high quality, the unfortunate problem papers notwithstanding. The community are the ones to blame if you feel that we lack accountability. Südhof goes on to list some rules that he thinks journals should adhere to:

Reviews should be published, not hidden. Editors should be named as part of the published reviews and should be held accountable if papers fail to meet basic quality and reproducibility standards... Submitted papers should be assessed by a checklist that ensures that proper controls and reagent validations are present, and such validations should be required for the supplementary materials...

How can we get these rules in place? Südhof says that "as 'voluntary' action" by the journals seems unlikely, "we should demand rules that inject accountability into the system." I agree that if we want scientific journals to be more accountable, we (the scientific community) need to drive this change. But I'm not sure that demanding rules will be enough. Maybe something more akin to 'direct action' will be required. Put simply, we could just start holding journals accountable ourselves. Suppose, for instance, that you as a scientist are unhappy with the quality or policies of a particular journal. Sure, you could complain and demand improvement. But if that doesn't work, you could put your money where your mouth is and stop submitting papers there, and maybe even stop reading (and citing) papers published there. Now, depending on the status of the journal, such a boycott might be easier said than done - boycotting Science and Nature might not be great for your career - but if enough people join your boycott it would really pressure that journal to change its ways. Without at least the credible threat of this kind of community action, journals will never be incentivized to improve, and any amount of new rules and recommendations would lack teeth. Essentially, if we as the scientific community want change, we have to actually change our behaviour, not just ask for it.

Südhof TC (2016). Truth in Science Publishing: A Personal Perspective. PLoS Biology, 14 (8) PMID: 27564858

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