Saturday, 10 March 2012
Blogging in the service of science
It’s been gratifying to see how this post has sparked off discussion. To me it just emphasises the value of tweeting and blogging in academic life: you can have a real debate with others all over the world. Unlike the conventional method of publishing in journals, it’s immediate. But it’s better than face-to-face debate, because people can think about what they write, and everyone can have their say.
There are three rather different issues that people have picked up on.
1. The first one concerns methods in functional brain imaging; the debate is developing nicely on Daniel Bor’s blog and I’ll not focus on it here.
2. The second issue concerns the unusual routes by which people get published in PNAS. Fellows of the National Academy of Science are able to publish material in the journal with only “light touch” review. In this article, Rand and Pfeiffer argue that this may be justified because papers that are published via this route include some with very high citation counts. My view is that the Temple et al article illustrates that this is a terrible argument. Temple et al have had 270 citations, so would be categorised by Rand and Pfeiffer as a “truly exceptional” paper. Yet, it contains basic methodological errors that compromise its conclusions. I know some people would use this as an argument against peer review, but I’d rather say this is an illustration of what happens if you ignore the need for rigorous review. Of course, peer review can go wrong, and often does. But in general, a journal’s reputation rests on it not publishing flawed work, and that’s why I think there’s still a role for journals in academic communications. I would urge the editors of PNAS, however, to rethink their publication policy sp that all papers, regardless of the authors, get properly reviewed by experts in the field. Meanwhile, people might like to add their own examples of highly cited yet flawed PNAS “contributions” to the comments on this blogpost.
3. The third issue is an interesting one raised by Neurocritic, who asked “How much of the neuroimaging literature should we discard?” Jon Simons (@js_simons) then tweeted “It’s not about discarding, but learning”. And, on further questioning, he added “No study is useless. Equally, no study means anything in isolation. Indep replication is key.” and then “Isn't it the overinterpretation of the findings that's the problem rather than paper itself?” Now, I’m afraid this was a bit too much for me. My view of the Temple et al study was that it was not so much useless as positively misleading. It was making claims about treatment efficacy that were used to promote a particular commercial treatment in which the authors had a financial interest. Because it lacked a control group, it was not possible to conclude anything about the intervention effect. So to my mind the problem was “the paper itself”, in that the study was not properly designed. Yet it had been massively influential and almost no-one had commented on its limitations.
At this point, Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) got involved. His concerns were rather different to mine, namely “retraction / non-publication of bad papers would leave the data inaccessible.” Now, this strikes me as a rather odd argument. Publishing a study is NOT the same as making the data available. Indeed, in many cases, as in this one, the one thing you don’t get in the publication is the data. For instance, there’s lots of stuff in Temple et al that was not reported. We’re told very little about the pattern of activations in the typical-reader group, for instance, and there’s a huge matrix of correlations that was computed with only a handful actually reported. So I think Ben’s argument about needing access to the data is beside the point. I love data as much as he does, and I’d agree with him that it would be great if people deposited data from their studies in some publicly available archive so nerdy people could pick over them. But the issue here is not about access to data. It’s about what do you do with a paper that's already published in a top journal and is actually polluting the scientific process because its misleading conclusions are getting propagated through the literature.
My own view is that it would be good for the field if this paper was removed from the journal, but I’m a realist and I know that won’t happen. Neurocritic has an excellent discussion of retraction and alternatives to retraction in a recent post, which has stimulated some great comments. As he notes, retraction is really reserved for cases of fraud or factual error, not for poor methodology. But, depressing though this is, I’m encouraged by the way that social media is changing the game here. The Arsenic Life story was a great example of how misleading, high-profile work can get put in perspective by bloggers, even if peer reviewers haven’t done their job properly. If that paper had been published five years ago, I am guessing it would have been taken far more seriously, because of the inevitable delays in challenging it through official publication routes. Bloggers allowed us to see not only what the flaws were, but also rapidly indicated a consensus of concern among experts in the field. The openness of the blogosphere means that opinions of one or two jealous or spiteful reviewers will not be allowed to hold back good work, but equally, cronyism just won’t be possible.
We already have quite a few ace neuroscientist bloggers: I hope that more will be encouraged to enter the fray and help offer an alternative, informal commentary on influential papers as they appear.