When a respected Nobel prize-winning cancer scientist like Linda Buck is forced to retract not one, not two, but three of her published peer-reviewed journal articles, we might justifiably ask: “What the hell is going on here?” We might also question the system of academic peer review. Buck joins an alarmingly long list of big-name scientists embarrassed by retractions of their flawed research.
A significant number of scandals have been connected to peer-reviewed articles, including similar spectacular retractions of ground-breaking articles like that of the now-discredited Andrew Wakefield. He’s the UK researcher who almost single-handedly launched the panic among parents over the alleged link between autism and childhood vaccination.
But 12 years after his 1998 study was published in The Lancet, the journal retracted Wakefield’s article amid a firestorm of worldwide attention. A New York Times editorial explained in February 2010:
“A British medical panel concluded last week that Dr. Wakefield had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules, and showed a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children involved in his research. The Lancet called the evidence against Wakefield ‘a damning indictment’ of the man and his research.”
Despite the humiliating retraction, public damage may have already been done long ago. For some reason, Wakefield continues to be the darling of the anti-vaccine fringe movement, despite the clear evidence against his tainted work. Since Wakefield’s 1998 study, vaccination rates have plunged in Britain and the number of deadly measles cases has soared.
The cornerstone of maintaining the quality of all published scientific papers is this peer review system. Under this, papers submitted to scientific journals are reviewed anonymously by experts in the field. Conducting peer reviews is seen as part of the job for academics, who are generally not paid for the work.
The papers are normally sent back to their authors for improvement, and published only when the reviewers give their approval. But the system relies on trust, especially if editors send papers to reviewers whose own work is being criticised in the paper. And as New York Times journalist Andrew C. Revkin, author of Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, reminds us:
‘‘For every Ph.D., there is an equal and opposite Ph.D.’’
There are a number of inherent problems with any peer review process, as illustrated by these scenarios taken from real cases offered by researcher and psychology professor Dr. Joan E. Sieber:
- A novice submits a naive paper to the field’s foremost scientific journal that is rejected with two reviews that feel more like a poke in the eye than useful feedback. After revisions, the manuscript is submitted to an obscure journal and accepted, conditional on responding to good suggestions by reviewers.
- A young researcher submits a complex, carefully developed paper to a leading journal. It is rejected with suggestions of significant further research needed before the paper is publishable. A year later, a nearly identical paper is published in another top journal by a well-known, well-connected researcher who happens to be on the previous journal’s review board. In the interests of damage control, the young researcher does not complain and moves on to another research project.
- A manuscript is published with flawed methodology and an introduction that is largely plagiarized – problems that are identified later by a reader.
In Linda Buck’s case, three prominent scientific publications have retracted her peer-reviewed papers submitted in 2005, 2006 and 2008 by the 2004 Nobel laureate (Physiology in Medicine) because she was “unable to reproduce [the] key findings” of experiments done by her former postdoctoral researcher Zhihua Zou, according to a statement issued by Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where Buck worked at the time of the publications. Zou was listed as the first author on all three papers, responsible for conducting the flawed experiments. Buck told Science interviewers last month:
“I sincerely apologize for any confusion this may have caused.”
UPDATE: January 5, 2011: Forbes report: “Extradite Andrew Wakefield To Face Fraud Charges in the U.K.