Want to be ethical in science? Speak up.

Lenny Teytelman May 31, 2015

What is the etiquette for disclosing an anonymous review that you wrote? It’s not a trivial question because all of us have the natural sense that an anonymous review is supposed to stay anonymous. Even I, an advocate of non-anonymous open peer review, see the problem of going public with something that was written in private at the request of an editor, with the understanding from the author and the journal that the review is private and anonymous.


I tracked an excellent and extensive discussion of this on Twitter, I listened, I have been thinking hard about it for a few hours on the airplane. And the more I think about this, the clearer it is that it is deeply wrong to keep silent about a paper you reviewed and think is flawed. Yes, we have the responsibility to the author of the paper to be civil. But that author-reviewer contract stands in direct conflict with the responsibility to the scientific community.


Suppose I got the STAP paper to review, I saw through it and outlined the fundamental flaws. Then the Nature editor made the call to publish it anyway. Can I make my review public? By keeping silent, I am honoring a single author and disrespecting a world of researchers. By keeping silent, I am letting students and postdocs waste months or years chasing smoke. I have a responsibility to the countless scientists following up on the published work. I have the responsibility to science and society. I think that science, society and that world of researchers override my oath to the author.


Now we come to the question of the appropriate means of responding. Every single person whose work is questioned fires back with “This is unprecedented! Why didn’t you contact me first? Why didn’t you write to the editor? Where is your civility? You didn’t follow the etiquette!” Well, very often, any attempt to do it the “expected civil way” is blocked by the journal or the highly influential researcher you disagree with. It can take years to publish a rebuttal. Journals often reject letters of concern because it’s not fun to publish them. By arguing for the via-editor/journal way, we are placing an extraordinary burden on the scientist raising the question. We are telling that scientist to shut up and keep quiet.


Yes, we should be civil and focus on the science rather than personal motivations. We don’t need to accuse of misconduct, unless we have clear proof of it. We don’t need to be mean. But we have to be honest and we have to encourage open and critical post-publication discussion. In the Twitter thread on this, I see completely random lines drawn on the good and bad way to have post-publication discussion. Alerting the editor and trying to publish the rebuttal in the original journal is okay but elsewhere it’s not. Publishing elsewhere is okay if it’s a journal, but not okay if it isn’t peer-reviewed. Publishing a critique on a blog is okay, but disclosing your review on PubPeer is out of line.


Those lines are entirely random. My paper was ripped to shreds in a Nature publication from Mike Snyder's group. No one reached out to me, even though I had personally discussed our results with Mike Snyder prior to submitting the work for publication. Mike Snyder could have easily contacted me as we had even been co-authors on another paper. I found the critique accidentally through my PubChase recommendations. I responded on PubMed Commons and on PubPeer. At least my response went to the corresponding author via PubPeer. (Note, I have no problem with my paper being scrutinized and criticized. I don't think Mike Snyder's group needed to talk to me first. But see Note below on Mike Snyder's perspective regarding etiquette.) 


There is no rhyme or reason to personal opinions of what is and isn’t ethical for post-publication disputes. By asking people not to criticize we undermine science. We hurt scientists. We hurt ourselves. We have to grow up. It’s not about us – it’s about the science. We have to learn to criticize each other in a firm but civil manner. That’s doable any way you like, Twitter, original journal, PubPeer, your blog, PubMed Commons. Some are going to be mean and uncivil no matter where. Most of us can be respectful and focus on the science. All of us need to embrace post-publication critique.


Note: here are recent examples of post-publication critiques that were flagged as uncivil.

1. Yoav Gilad was criticized for disputing Mike Snyder’s work. And Mike Snyder said, " “If someone has concerns, the normal route is to contact the journal or the authors,. There was an avalanche of comments before we even knew about it.”

2. Lior Pachter was criticized for questioning the conclusions of Eric Lander and Manolis Kellis.

3. Vicki Vance was criticized for making public her review on PubPeer (more here).

4. The Berkeley students David Broockman and Joshua Kalla were criticized for attacking LaCour’s work and leading to a retraction of his paper. LaCour wrote, "I note that Broockman et al. (2015)’s decision to not present the lead author with the critique directly, by-pass the peer-review process, privately investigate data collection activities without knowledge or consent of the author, demand confidential identifying information from respondents in a study without grounds or standing to do so, publicize unsubstantiated allegations and hearsay prior to a formal investigation, is unprecedented, unethical, and anomalous in the relevant literature."