Paper retractions, I hear it on a daily basis on Retraction Watch. But this one was a big heist. 34 papers, all coming from BioMed Central, a respected publisher among other scientific publishers (e.g. Nature NPG, Science, Elsevier, Wiley…).
First what is the problem? For those unfamiliar with scientific publication, it follows a particular pattern. Let me explain.
When you are a scientist like me, once you have (or think you have) a series of experiments that are bringing something new to the field, you have to publish it. Why publish it? To run experiments, you need money. The University will pay your salary and thats’ it. To have a lab running, research personnels running the experiments, travel to conferences, you need money. A lot of money.
To get money to run the lab, you need to write grants and show them that their money is in good hands and will help advance sciences. How do you show you are credible in science? You need published studies in peer-reviewed journals (I will explain that in a bit).
And finally, to get paper published, you need experiments to write such paper. Now we have a closed loop. Call it virtue circle, I call it academic Sisyphus task.
So now when you submit your paper, you will have it reviewed by other scientists (usually 2 or 3 reviewers). They will read your paper, make comments and critique and submit their comments to the Editor. This editor will decide to push your paper or not to have it published in their journal. Not all journals are created equals and are driven by what we call the “impact factor”. This is the most common (and fairly biased) metric to judge how a scientist is prolific and for the University how valuable he or she is to it.
Now, as you seek money for your lab, you have to face fierce competition for getting grants, as your publication will play a big role in the “king-making” decision. Journals often let you give a wishlist of recommended peer-reviewers (because they are in the field) and those you want to avoid (because they are competitors and they want to have their studies first published and may run over you).
Getting a paper accepted is hard, even more when English is not your native language. This is what happened. Several scientists from China and Asia requested writing services as “fee-for-service” to get their English poshed before submission. Now what happened is that such companies went further and proposed some premium services that would ease the review. They will assign “fake” reviewers that will automatically trump your paper and bias editor decision. Your paper may be full of flaws or even worse data falsification, yet it will be accepted, thanks to “fake” reviewer.
This is a problem, because once published, journals will rarely accept to publish a study trying to repeat previously published studies. If it is not new, it is not news. That is something that need to be address as biological sciences are facing a problem of data reproducibility. For instance, the STAP paper that was proposing to get stem cells as easy as pickle them in acid bath. Trumpeted early last year in a big journal, the study rapidly collapsed as a souffle.
It is time to rethink how we publish and maybe stop pushing scientists to get into the racearm of novelty and focus more on data reproducibility.