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June 28, 2010

Induced publication of stem cells?

by David Kent

Earlier this month, the New Scientist shook up the stem cell community, putting forth the idea that publication speed, frequency, and journal quality might be skewed by where you’re from and who you know rather than the quality of your data.

The article, entitled "Paper trail: Inside the stem cell wars" was inspired by an open letter last summer (notably co-signed by Austin Smith, Shinya Yamanaka, Thomas Graf, Connie Eaves and Guy Sauvageau, among others) which requested leading journals to publish the reviews of papers in order to increase transparency and to reduce “unreasonable or obstructive reviews” – something that is already done by the EMBO journal. This is an issue that I have blogged about before.    

There was a large amount of attention to this story over the past year, including a BBC news radio story worth listening to.  This includes Prof. Peter Lawrence decrying the current system as a “corruption of modern science”. 

The New Scientist article took an interesting approach to investigating the consequences of such a system and analyzed over 200 papers in the new and high flying field of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, focusing on the dynamics of publication (time from submission to acceptance, networks of citations, etc).  The data analysis in the article can be stripped down to two main points regarding publications involving iPS cells:

  1. A US scientist, on average, will be published faster in more important journals when compared to a non-US scientist. This is statistically significant – there appears to be a lag of almost one month for a non-US based scientist.
  2. International scientists do not have citation networks amongst themselves to the same degree as US based scientists.  

The article speculates that US-based researchers have supported each other through a vast citation network that makes it attractive for journals to accept papers from these scientists.  It doesn’t take much to conclude that if journals want to give their impact factor a boost they would look favorably on publishing papers from scientists at one of these citation nodes.

Naturally, a story like this gets you thinking, so I did some quick investigative journalism.  I’m often struck by how novel research is completed by multiple non-related groups at the same time and wondered if this trend that the New Scientist reported was at the crux of these situations in my own field of adult stem cells.  The first two examples of two groups pursuing a similar story that I put to the test made me groan in agreement:

  1. Group A from Asia submits to a high level journal on June 17, 2009, accepted April 8, 2010, published April 26, 2010.  Group B from the USA gets “contributed” to PNAS on January 21, 2010 and is published online March 18, 2010 (the “contributor” just happens to be the former supervisor of the last author). 
  2. Group A from Europe submits to a high level journal on July 25, 2008, accepted October 30, 2008, published December 4, 2008.  Group B from the USA submits on November 24, 2008, accepted December 1, 2008, published December 5, 2008 – yes that’s right:  less than one week from submission to acceptance and another week to publication.

While I would normally say to myself, “surely these are exceptions and not the rule” and note that these are four different journals with unique review processes, The New Scientist article strongly suggests that this sort of journal jockeying is actually quite pervasive and for that reason, this article should be read by everyone who is involved in the peer review process in hopes that we can determine why such a trend is in existence and if something foul is afoot, set it right.


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Hi Alexey,
Open and transparent peer review is clearly something to strive toward. In my ideal world, reviewers are not anonymous and are willing to stand behind their reviews as much as they are behind their publications.

I've written on this before on my website http://scienceadvocacy.org/Blog/ and I really think there are major advantages including an additional metric for your contribution to the scientific community (i.e.: another public record of your understanding of and engagement in the field that could be used to help get a job or with the tenure review process).

Keep up the good work though, perhaps we'll run into each other sometime - if you're ever in the UK, let me know.

Thank you for bringing it up.
Unfortunately this kind of skewing under the risk of becoming a rule soon. Especially in such fast moving, hot and crowded field as stem cell research.
I'd like to add that increasing number of papers and increasing number of groups working on the same problem is not directly correlate with quality of research and productivity now. So increasing scientific competition at some point can hold back the progress.

It's not a secret that many BIG NAMES reviewers hold papers for months (let's say 2-7 months) in order to claim priority of discovery in the same time and get into the same issue of Nature. System is broken and frequently corrupted.

Unfortunately academic system is so broken that support all of these things just by judging a candidate (postdoc/faculty) by impact factor of journal where he/she published but not by significance and quality of papers.

Me personally and our project - Stem Cell Assay is supporting EuroStemCell activism and letter that they made -

We are actively support and promote open science and transparent peer-review (EMBO model).

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