Introducing PubPeer.com

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/05/introducing-pubpeer-com/

Guest post from PubPeer.com
The process of reviewing published science is constantly occurring and is now commonly being called post-publication peer review. It occurs in many places including on blogs such as this one, review articles, at conferences around the world, and has even been encouraged on the websites of some journals. However, the process of recording and searching these comments is, unfortunately, inefficient and underused by the larger scientific community for several reasons: To successfully impact the publication process, this database of knowledge has to accomplish two important tasks. First it requires participation by a large part of a given scientific community so that it reflects an average impression instead of an outlier’s impression. Second, it requires that the collective knowledge is centralized and easy to search in order find out what the community collectively thinks about an individual paper or a body of work. A recent initiative, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), echoes many of these same concerns.

In an attempt to assemble such a database, a team of scientists, have put together a website called PubPeer.com that is searchable and encourages participation by the larger scientific community. With a critical mass of usage an organized system of post-publication review could improve both the process of scientific publication as well as the research that underlies those publications.

Those of us involved in the creation of PubPeer.com believe that in an ideal world, a scientist’s main goal would be to discover something interesting about the world and simply report it to other scientists to use and build upon. This idealistic view of the scientific process is however not matched in reality because, for academic scientists, our publications count for much more than a simple contribution to the scientific record. For example, the majority of candidates are eliminated from consideration for tenure track positions at a major universities based on the names of the journals that have published their recent findings.

Review committees use this method because publications are the best measure of past and potential scientific output, but by potentially overvaluing “high impact” journal names, these committees and study sections effectively defer to journal editors to help them choose the best candidates for jobs and grants. However, these journals select their articles based on more than just good science – the papers also need to be of ‘wider interest’ and this can sometimes skew the publications towards ‘exciting’ results over those that are more measured, and perhaps more likely to be correct (for instance). The sometimes disproportinate attention given to a high profile paper also makes it a tempting target for more unscrupilous scientists.

It’s never going to be possible for us to thoroughly read all of the papers submitted to a job advertisement, nor all of the papers referenced in grant applications, but we can easily reduce the importance that journal names play in decisions and replace it with something that is more meaningful and directly in our hands instead of the hands of publishers. After reading any publication, we all have impressions about whether the reported observations are useful, interesting, elegant, irrelevant, flawed, etc. If a particular scientific field that is interested in a given publication were able to compile all of it’s impressions of that publication, that collective information would be infinitely more useful to search committees and study sections than the name of the journal in which it was published.

Outlined below are a few aspects of PubPeer.com that differentiate it from the current post-publication review systems and which will hopefully make it more widely used.

A key issue that we have decided on is the importance of anonymity. One of the reasons that we have never commented on articles directly on journal websites is because the colleagues whose publications we are most qualified to comment on are likely reviewing our publications and grant proposals. Even the most well-intentioned criticism could potentially irk these potential reviewers. Since publications are so precious to everyone’s future career advancement, there is a huge psychological barrier for early stage scientists to attach names to any comments that could be considered critical.

Therefore, in order to encourage as much participation in this post-publication review process as possible, PubPeer allows comments to be left anonymously if someone is so inclined. Critics of this feature sometimes email us to point out that anonymity allows for baseless slander or to proclaim that a commenter’s name is essential for judging the validity of a comment. We strongly disagree with this second point because good comments are good regardless of whether they come from a senior scientist or a graduate student. We can all judge for ourselves the content of comments and on PubPeer it is possible to vote the good comments up and the bad comments down into the noise so that community as a whole can decide together what is worth paying attention to. Baseless defamation, rumors, and ad hominen attacks are not tolerated at all and are immediately removed from the site.

The people involved with PubPeer are all active scientists and we are trying to remain anonymous for the time being for several reasons: 1) we can imagine scenarios in which pressure could be put on us to remove/alter comments if our identities were known and 2) we would like to protect our families and private bank accounts from the more litigious among our readers.

A main drawback of the current practice of post-publication peer review is that the reviews can be spread across many different blogs and journal websites. If one wants to know what the community thinks of a given body of work (whether it be a discipline, an author’s output, a university department, etc.) it takes a major time investment to track down the information from all of these different sources. PubPeer provides a centralized and easily searchable database that contains comments on all published articles.

PubPeer also provides for a system of alerts. In order to be effective, authors and others interested should be able to be alerted to comments on their favorite publications or topics. Pubpeer automatically notifies corresponding authors of new comments on their articles and anyone can set up email alerts on articles they find interesting.

We’d like to thank realclimate.org for this invitation to explain PubPeer and we welcome any suggestions, comments, criticism, or questions on the contact page pubpeer.com/contact or in the comments section below. Many conversations have already started on the site both with and without author responses that are sometimes quite detailed (a list of all of the most recent articles receiving comments can be found at pubpeer.com/recent). Some comments have already led to important corrections in high profile studies. We hope that this can be even further expanded in future.

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