Battle lines are being drawn on the internet, between the scientific establishment and volunteer vigilantes trying to impose their own vision of the scientific process through “post-publication peer review”.
On one side is the cream of the scientific aristocracy: a professor with a meteoric career trajectory at Imperial College London, one of the best universities in the world, and the top academic publisher, Nature Publishing Group. On the other side: a few anonymous malcontents carping on an obscure web site called PubPeer (welcome to our site!).
A couple of years ago, the professor’s group published in Nature journals a short series of papers reporting an ultra-sensitive assay, in principle for anything that could be recognized by an antibody. The assay, called “Plasmonic ELISA”, was hailed as a breakthrough in diagnostic medicine and is typical of the kind of sensational “high impact” work encouraged by Nature journals. The story was widely reported in the mainstream press.
However, a few scientists felt that the results were a little too good to be true, or at least that unexpected observations were not well explained and that supporting evidence was missing. One of the critics wrote to the journal in private, detailing those concerns. The journal considered them but, with its referees, decided that there was no substance to the complaints. So the publications were not only initially accepted for publication by the journal and its editors, after a typically rigorous review, but their quality was reconfirmed by a second round of review that specifically addressed the criticisms. A stronger proof of quality is hard to come by: Nature says “yes”, twice.
Scientists can be stubborn, especially when they think they are right and have been told they are wrong. The unhappy critic therefore took advantage of our site, which enables anonymous comments on scientific articles, to air his concerns. Site visitors found them convincing and chimed in with their own remarks and analyses. The flow has been essentially one way, with nearly all commenters agreeing that the publications appear to contain serious problems. The difference of opinion with the professor, Nature Nanotechnology and their referees could not be stronger. Only one side can be right. To date, no substantive rebuttal of the criticisms has been posted, though of course the authors and the referees of the papers would be free to defend their work and judgement, anonymously or otherwise. They haven’t responded because dealing with the ignorant internet riff-raff is beneath them or because they have no answer to the criticisms?
Who do you believe – a prestigious professor publishing in a high-impact Nature journal or the anonymous cowards? You can make up your own mind and join in the discussion here (please be polite and factual):