Wednesday, 16 September 2009

What happens when you don't have peer review

Normally, when a scientific paper is submitted, it is subjected to scrutiny by two or more scientists working in a similar field. Only if the paper gets through this peer review process, and if corrections required by the reviewers have been made, does the paper actually get published. This process is by no means perfect: bad papers slip through, and good papers get blocked by over-zealous reviewers. But there are two examples this week of what can go wrong when papers are not peer reviewed.

Firstly, Ben Goldacre and Respectful Insolence discuss the case of two papers, recently published in Medical Hypotheses, that were so bad they were withdrawn by publishers Elsevier. Given that Elsevier happily publishes Homeopathy, the fanzine of the Faculty of Homeopathy, this should give pause for thought. Medical Hypotheses is a bit of an oddity: it does not send papers out for peer review. Rather, they are approved solely by the editor of the journal, one Bruce Charlton. It appears that many papers are approved within days, sometimes hours, of being submitted, suggesting that there is very little scrutiny of the papers.

The two papers are one by Duesberg et al., and one by Ruggiero et al., both of which seek to deny the magnitude of the AIDS crisis. Seth Kalichman of the Denying Aids blog did an experiment by sending the manuscript out for blind peer review. All three "reviewers" rejected the manuscript on the basis that it was filled with logical flaws and mis-representations of the published literature.

Elsevier says:

This Article-in-Press has been withdrawn pending the results of an investigation. The editorial policy of Medical Hypotheses makes it clear that the journal considers "radical, speculative, and non-mainstream scientific ideas", and articles will only be acceptable if they are "coherent and clearly expressed." However, we have received serious expressions of concern about the quality of this article, which contains highly controversial opinions about the causes of AIDS, opinions that could potentially be damaging to global public health. Concern has also been expressed that the article contains potentially libelous material. Given these important signals of concern, we judge it correct to investigate the circumstances in which this article came to be published online. When the investigation and review have been completed we will issue a further statement. Until that time, the article has been removed from all Elsevier databases. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause. The full Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal can be found at

The second example is a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, amusingly known as PNAS. This is a venerable and respected journal, but it has a little-known wrinkle: members of the National Academy of Sciences are allowed to bypass formal peer review by "communicating" papers for other researchers. This is how the PNAS "Information for Authors" page describes the process:

An Academy member may “communicate” for others up to 2 manuscripts per year that are within the member's area of expertise. Before submission to PNAS, the member obtains reviews of the paper from at least 2 qualified referees, each from a different institution and not from the authors' or member's institutions. Referees should be asked to evaluate revised manuscripts to ensure that their concerns have been adequately addressed. The names and contact information, including e-mails, of referees who reviewed the paper, along with the reviews and the authors' response, must be included. Reviews must be submitted on the PNAS review form, and the identity of the referees must not be revealed to the authors. The member must include a brief statement endorsing publication in PNAS along with all of the referee reports received for each round of review. Members should follow National Science Foundation (NSF) guidelines to avoid conflict of interest between referees and authors (see Section iii). Members must verify that referees are free of conflicts of interest, or must disclose any conflicts and explain their choice of referees. These papers are published as “Communicated by" the responsible editor.
The paper in question is was submitted via this communication process. It was written by Donald Williamson, a retired academic from the University of Liverpool, and suggests that butterflies and caterpillars orginated as different species:

I reject the Darwinian assumption that larvae and their adults evolved from a single common ancestor. Rather I posit that, in animals that metamorphose, the basic types of larvae originated as adults of different lineages, i.e., larvae were transferred when, through hybridization, their genomes were acquired by distantly related animals.

The paper has been criticised on the basis that it contains no supporting data for what is, after all, a fairly extraordinary hypothesis. Not only that, but it turns out that it had previously been rejected by seven different journals.

In both Medical Hypotheses and PNAS, the defence seems to be that there needs to be some mechanism by which speculative ideas that go against current mainstream opinion can be presented and discussed. This seems fair enough, but is anything gained by publishing hypotheses that are not supported by any data, or papers that are logically flawed and contain mis-representations? In both these cases, it seems that the papers would not have been published had they been reviewed properly.


Neuroskeptic said...

PNAS is one thing because PNAS is a well-respected journal where good papers often appear.

But Medical Hypotheses really isn't, and it's not meant to be. The whole point of MH is to publish ridiculous papers which wouldn't get published elsewhere, in the interests of free debate.

So I think it's a bit silly for Elsevier and others to focus on the AIDS papers when MH has published plenty of equally stupid stuff before. You either agree with MH in principle, or you don't...

Personally I see MH as providing a useful service. Certainly it's a lot more worthy of publication than something like Homeopathy which is nominally "peer-reviewed" but in fact isn't because all the reviewers are homeopaths and as such are not going to make serious criticisms.

Paul Wilson said...

I think that is probably fair comment, at least up to a point. But I wonder what valuable service MH is providing if it is publishing stuff that is flat-out wrong. There needs to be some level of review, if just to see that the references say what they are represented as saying and that the paper isn't just totally nonsensical. Of course, it matters less if no-one takes it seriously, but it seems that some people DO take it seriously.

Quite agree that Homeopathy is a total waste of space.

Neuroskeptic said...

Actually that's true, a paper which simply lies about other papers has no place in an academic journal.

But I think the editor of MH would agree. The point as I understand it is to publish wild, unorthodox ideas, and there are plenty of wacky papers that don't misrepresent other work.