In The Spotlight
Pubpeer: much more than an online journal club
Written by Isabelle
Pubpeer was anonymously launched in 2012 by Brandon Stell, who revealed his identity as its founder in 2015. He was helped by two developers, George Smith and Richard Smith. The website is managed by Brandon Stell, Boris Barbour (which some of you might remember from the talk he gave at the FTN day in Mainz in 2015, shortly after Stell’s outing as Pubpeer’s founder) and Gabor Brasnjo. Stell and Barbour are both neuroscientists at the French national science organization CNRS (i.e. with permanent positions), while Brasnjo is a US expert in intellectual property.
This website aims to be a hub platform to centralize exchanges between researchers about already published scientific articles. The goal is to improve science by openly discussing any publication in any field and cross-examining the material. When a research article is commented on by others, the authors are alerted by mail and they can directly reply to commenters. Pubpeer then encourages the authors to answer pending questions about their article to promote transparency, quality, clarity and integrity in science. With the growing success of the site between 2012 and 2015, the board decided to create a non-profit foundation registered in California, to raise money. By law, the First Amendment in the US Constitution protects the right to anonymous free speech. This anonymity is the key in the functioning of the platform and has important pros and cons.
On one hand, writing remarks anonymously give you the freedom to comment on your colleagues’ article. A great number of scientists won’t do it without anonymity. When you are a young PhD student, you can easily be afraid that addressing comments to famous and highly regarded professors could terminate your career if they do not like what you wrote, even if it were legitimate and relevant. There is a certain pressure to please the top of the hierarchy which is alleviated by the anonymity.
But on the other hand, hidden behind their screen, some people tend to ‘troll’ or spread rumors. To prevent the spread of unfounded rumors, Pubpeer has strict guidelines: comments have to be based on facts with pertinent explanations. This means that all information has to be publicly verifiable. Moderators are employed to check the relevance of the comments and to discard them when they are not factually coherent. Pubpeer has gained traction, or, let's say, attracted interest as a scientific vigilante, by uncovering fraudulent data and errors in some publications that have led to serious consequences for the careers of the authors involved.
For example, in 2014, the cancer researcher Fazlul Sarkar wanted to force Pubpeer to reveal the identity of the commenter who criticized his work and led him to lose his job. Sarkar was at the Wayne State University in Detroit when he accepted a tenured post at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. But the university withdrew its offer after PubPeer’s comments about Sarkar’s work. The Pubpeer board replied that “they were legitimate scientific questions that should not be resolved through court proceedings, but through more discussion”. Unfortunately, Sarkar never addressed the scientific questions which were the main concern of the University of Mississippi in Oxford according to the spokesperson Tom Eppes. It’s worth to note that 40 of his papers have been retracted (source: retractionwatch.com), all involving falsification of data.
Sarkar is not the only case where fraudulent data were revealed, there have been different types of reactions. Richard Hill (University of Portsmouth) decided to retract a 2011 paper after it raised criticism on Pub peer. He wrote “I do not take this decision lightly, however I acknowledge that there are unacceptable splicings and errors in this publication and consequently, as lead author, I have made this decision. I deeply regret the multiple issues throughout this manuscript. I sincerely apologize to the readership of Oncotarget and the research community regarding these errors.”
In Bremen, Kathrin Maedler – a prominent diabetes researcher – got papers flagged by Pubpeer regarding the reliability of the data, leading her to publish a corrected version of it. She said: “Mistakes have indeed occurred by reusing loading controls from different experiments, which was not apparent to me at the time of publication. We have immediately put the appropriate actions in place to avoid such instances in the future. Several replicate experiments were provided to the respective journals, which fully confirm scientifically correct data, and we could correct the wrongly placed loading controls in our publications. Journals have investigated all provided full blots of the experiments, which led to correction of the data.”
Pubpeer, as Brandon says, focuses on the article itself, rather than the journal. This means that the Pubpeer community can point out a sub-optimal paper published in a high ranking journal and, likewise, point out an excellent paper published in a low ranking journal.
Pubpeer, like any other whistleblowing platform, has received flak and its users have been accused of libel. Regulating the content of the comments on Pubpeer and ensuring only fact-backed claims can go a long way in establishing the credibility of the platform. Complementing the traditional process of peer-reviewed, journal-biased science with community interaction based reviews can help promote scientific equality and prevent scientific malpractices and data falsification.
As Brandon Stell puts it, “that’s why we started PubPeer,” he said. “It was a way of saying publication shouldn’t be the end of the scientific process.”
Written by Isabelle Arnoux; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured image by NGC/Design.