Friday, July 18, 2014

"Nature" and the retracted STAP cell paper


After its publication in January this year, to much fanfare and international acclaim, the two STAP cell papers have been retracted because, it seems, there were flaws in them.

In an editorial, Nature has absolved itself of all responsibility for the flawed papers, claiming that neither its referees nor its editorial team could have spotted the apparently serious flaws in the them, flaws which led to the papers’ rapid demise.

Nature is in fact quite correct. It is not the function of editors or journals to look for manipulated images or plagiarism. I have no doubt that the very great majority of referees would notify the editors at once if they detect such flaws. There is, or ought to be, a certain element of trust between authors, journals and their editors. Moreover, as I understand it, Nature and its referees did not give these papers an easy ride. It took several months before the papers were published, implying that the referees had asked for substantial modifications to the manuscript.

Thus, Nature could be said to come out of it smelling like roses.

Yes, but not quite so fast.

Nature should take a leaf from one of its sister publication, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which is in fact owned by the Nature Publishing Group.

After a paper is accepted in Frontiers (but not before, and not if it is rejected), the names of the referees are published on the front page of the article. Publication in Frontiers is also not an easy ride, but at least the authors are allowed to enter into dialogue with the referees to put right or respond to criticisms, something that few journals allow, to the disadvantage of authors. The referees remain anonymous throughout this process, and only if a paper is accepted for publication are their names published.

Hence, if a paper is of extraordinary significance, some of the glory is reflected onto the referees and of course onto the journal. I mean, just imagine, if the Crick-Watson DNA paper had the names of the referees on it, they would no doubt have wanted to share in the glory to some minor extent. Indeed, Nature itself periodically reminds its readers that the DNA article was published in their pages, thus basking in the reflected glory.

Since all reasonable people understand that referees and editors cannot be held accountable for things like manipulated images or plagiarism in a paper, publication of their names in an accepted paper would do no harm, if the published paper turns out to have serious flaws.

If, on the other hand, the paper turns out to be some extraordinary contribution, then they can at least feel pride in helping to bring it to fruition and bask in its glory.

It is a classic case of “heads I win, tails you lose”

Why not try it?


Sachi Sri Kantha said...

I read with interest Prof Zeki's thoughts on the STAP cell paper. Related to the famous Watson-Crick communication in the Nature (1953), I have read that it was not submitted to peer-review at all. The then editor of Nature, accepted the communication based on the words of Bragg Jr.

S.Z. said...

That, I believe, is true. And it raises an interesting point. The Editor of Nature at that time must have had good judgment, both in his appraisal of the paper and in his confidence in Bragg's views. The paper was and remains a landmark in biology.

The STAP paper, as I understand it, went through a long peer-review process lasting many months. And the end result? It was retracted.

Contrasting the two processes makes one think, doesn't it?