[OPE-L] Peer-Reviewed Articles

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu May 11 2006 - 09:25:55 EDT

Heard about this from the science-for-the-people list. Are some of
the same problems with the peer review process experienced by journals
which concern political economy and or Marxism?

In solidarity, Jerry

  The Doctor's World
  For Science's Gatekeepers, a Credibility Gap
  New York Times, May 2, 2006
Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in medical and
scientific journals have called into question as never before the merits
of their peer-review system.

The system is based on journals inviting independent experts to critique
submitted manuscripts. The stated aim is to weed out sloppy and bad
research, ensuring the integrity of the what it has published.

Because findings published in peer-reviewed journals affect patient care,
public policy and the authors' academic promotions, journal editors
contend that new scientific information should be published in a
peer-reviewed journal before it is presented to doctors and the public.

That message, however, has created a widespread misimpression that passing
peer review is the scientific equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of

Virtually every major scientific and medical journal has been humbled
recently by publishing findings that are later discredited. The flurry of
episodes has led many people to ask why authors, editors and independent
expert reviewers all failed to detect the problems before publication.

The publication process is complex. Many factors can allow error, even
fraud, to slip through. They include economic pressures for journals to
avoid investigating suspected errors; the desire to avoid displeasing the
authors and the experts who review manuscripts; and the fear that angry
scientists will withhold the manuscripts that are the lifeline of the
journals, putting them out of business.By promoting the sanctity of peer
review and using it to justify a number of their actions in recent years,
journals have added to their enormous power.

The release of news about scientific and medical findings is among the
most tightly managed in country. Journals control when the public learns
about findings from taxpayer-supported research by setting dates when the
research can be published. They also impose severe restrictions on what
authors can say publicly, even before they submit a manuscript, and they
have penalized authors for infractions by refusing to publish their
Exceptions are
made for scientific meetings and health emergencies.

But many authors have still withheld information for fear that journals
would pull their papers for an infraction. Increasingly, journals and
authors' institutions also send out news releases ahead of time about a
peer-reviewed discovery so that reports from news organizations coincide
with a journal's date of issue.

barrage of news reports can follow. But often the news release is sent
without the full paper, so reports may be based only on the spin created
by a journal or an institution.

Journal editors say publicity about corrections and retractions distorts
and erodes confidence in science, which is an honorable business. Editors
also say they are gatekeepers, not detectives, and that even though peer
review is not intended to detect fraud, it catches flawed research and
improves the quality of the thousands of published papers.

However, even the system's most ardent supporters acknowledge that peer
review does not eliminate mediocre and inferior papers and has never
passed the very test for which it is used. Studies have found that
journals publish findings based on sloppy statistics. If peer review were
a drug, it would never be marketed, say critics, including journal

None of the recent flawed studies have been as humiliating as an article
in 1972 in the journal Pediatrics that labeled sudden infant death
syndrome a hereditary disorder, when, in the case examined, the real cause
was murder.

Twenty-three years later, the mother was convicted of smothering her five
children. Scientific naïveté surely contributed to the false conclusion,
but a forensic pathologist was not one of the reviewers. The faulty
research in part prompted the National Institutes of Health to spend
millions of dollars on a wrong line of research.

Fraud, flawed articles and corrections have haunted general interest news
organizations. But such problems are far more embarrassing for scientific
journals because of their claims for the superiority of their system of

widespread belief among nonscientists is that journal editors and their
reviewers check authors' research firsthand and even repeat the research.
In fact, journal editors do not routinely examine authors' scientific
notebooks. Instead, they rely on peer reviewers' criticisms, which are
based on the information submitted by the authors.

While editors and reviewers may ask authors for more information, journals
and their invited experts examine raw data only under the most unusual

In that respect, journal editors are like newspaper editors, who check the
content of reporters' copy for facts and internal inconsistencies but
generally not their notes. Still, journal editors have refused to call
peer review what many others say it is < a form of vetting or technical

In spot checks, many scientists and nonscientists said they believed that
editors decided what to publish by counting reviewers' votes. But journal
editors say that they are not tally clerks and that decisions to publish
are theirs, not the reviewers'.

Editors say they have accepted a number of papers that reviewers have
harshly criticized as unworthy of publication and have rejected many that
received high plaudits.

Many nonscientists perceive reviewers to be impartial. But the reviewers,
called independent experts, in fact are often competitors of the authors
of the papers they scrutinize, raising potential conflicts of interest.

Except when gaffes are publicized, there is little scrutiny of the quality
of what journals publish.

Journals have rejected calls to make the process scientific by conducting
random audits like those used to monitor quality control in medicine. The
costs and the potential for creating distrust are the most commonly cited
reasons for not auditing.

defending themselves, journal editors often shift blame to the authors and
excuse themselves and their peer reviewers.

Journals seldom investigate frauds that they have published, contending
that they are not investigative bodies and that they could not afford the
costs. Instead, the journals say that the investigations are up to the
accused authors' employers and agencies that financed the research.

Editors also insist that science corrects its errors. But corrections
often require whistle-blowers or prodding by lawyers. Editors at The New
England Journal of Medicine said they would not have learned about a
problem that led them to publish two letters of concern about omission of
data concerning the arthritis drug Vioxx unless lawyers for the drug's
manufacturer, Merck, had asked them questions in depositions. Fraud has
also slipped through in part because editors have long been loath to
question the authors.

"A request from an editor for primary data to support the honesty of an
author's findings in a manuscript under review would probably poison the
air and make civil discourse between authors and editors even more
difficult than it is now," Dr. Arnold S. Relman wrote in 1983. At the
time, he was editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, and it had
published a fraudulent paper.

Fraud is a substantial problem, and the attitude toward it has changed
little over the years, other editors say. Some journals fail to retract
known cases of fraud for fear of lawsuits.

Journals have no widely accepted way to retract papers, said Donald
Kennedy, editor in chief of Science, after the it retracted two papers by
the South Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, who fabricated evidence
that he had cloned human cells.

In the April 18 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, its editor, Dr.
Harold C. Sox, wrote about lessons learned after the journal retracted an
article on menopause by Dr.
Eric Poehlman of the University of Vermont.

When an author is found to have fabricated data in one paper, scientists
rarely examine all of that author's publications, so the scientific
literature may be more polluted than believed, Dr. Sox said.

Dr. Sox and other scientists have documented that invalid work is not
effectively purged from the scientific literature because the authors of
new papers continue to cite retracted ones.

When journals try to retract discredited papers, Dr. Sox said, the process
is slow, and the system used to inform readers faulty. Authors often use
euphemisms instead of the words "fabrication" or "research misconduct,"
and finding published retractions can be costly because some affected
journals charge readers a fee to visit their Web sites to learn about
Dr. Sox

Despite its flaws, scientists favor the system in part because they need
to publish or perish. The institutions where the scientists work and the
private and government agencies that pay for their grants seek publicity
in their eagerness to show financial backers results for their efforts.

The public and many scientists tend to overlook the journals' economic
benefits that stem from linking their embargo policies to peer review.
Some journals are owned by private for-profit companies, while others are
owned by professional societies that rely on income from the journals. The
costs of running journals are low because authors and reviewers are
generally not paid.

A few journals that not long ago measured profits in the tens of thousands
of dollars a year now make millions, according to at least three editors
who agreed to discuss finances only if granted anonymity, because they
were not authorized to speak about finances.

Any influential system that profits from taxpayer-financed research should
be held publicly accountable for how the revenues are spent. Journals
generally decline to disclose such data.

Although editors of some journals say they demand statements from their
editing staff members that they have no financial conflicts of interest,
there is no way to be sure. At least one editor of a leading American
journal had to resign because of conflicts of interest with industry.

Journals have devolved into information-laundering operations for the
pharmaceutical industry, say Dr. Richard Smith, the former editor of BMJ,
the British medical journal, and Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of The
Lancet, also based in Britain.

The journals rely on revenues from industry advertisements. But because
journals also profit handsomely by selling drug companies reprints of
articles reporting findings from large clinical trials involving their
products, editors may "face a frighteningly stark conflict of interest" in
deciding whether to publish such a study, Dr. Smith said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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