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What does it take to run a website where scientists can chat freely about published papers?

时间:2013-08-16 15:54:00  来源:  作者:

The Web's Faceless Judges
Jennifer Couzin-Frankel
PubPeer is the latest forum for free-ranging discussion of published papers. It can only succeed, say its anonymous founders, if participants are able to keep their identities hidden.


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ILLUSTRATION: DAVID PLUNKERT
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In Science Magazine
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Science Podcast: 9 August Show
Science 9 August 2013: 678.What does it take to run a website where scientists can chat freely about published papers?

Anonymous e-mail addresses. Temporary phone numbers. Undisclosed locales. Jitters that one day, your cover will be blown, your career destroyed, and your family's finances depleted. It sounds like a John le Carré novel. But no, the protagonists here are a handful of biologists who last fall unveiled PubPeer, which bills itself as "an online community that uses the publication of scientific results as an opening for fruitful discussion." The goal is something of a free-for-all journal club, welcoming comments from readers and authors across disciplines.


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"When I saw that it was not signed by anybody, I felt uncomfortable—it was an instinctive reaction".

—Shaul Hestrin, neuroscientist at Stanford University
PubPeer is one of several recent ventures to encourage scrutiny of published work, seeking to fill what many consider a gap in scientific publishing. "I myself have kind of longed for a place where I can see discussion of work after publication," says Ferric Fang, a microbiologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and editor-in-chief of Infection and Immunity. Journals are one obvious place to leave comments about a paper, says Fang, who has written extensively about scientific publishing and misconduct (Science, 25 January, p. 386). But he says that most "haven't been very good" at nurturing such discussion. Some don't allow comments at all, and others require commenters to be named or remove those that may imply wrongdoing.

When questions about published research bleed into misconduct accusations, journals and institutions have their protocols, but many researchers grouse that the process can take years and its outcome is often unsatisfying. "Universities charged with investigation [have a] huge conflict of interest," says Jennifer Nyborg, a biochemist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, who's been frustrated by her efforts to report potential misconduct through the proper channels.

Given these shortcomings, many agree there's a place for sites that engage in postpublication peer review. They can clarify experiments and catch errors, something several, including PubPeer, have done. They can challenge how studies are interpreted and suggest avenues for follow-up work.

But many who participate in these discussions sit at a tense nexus: They long for more unfettered conversation about science, yet insist on doing so anonymously, fearful that their words will come back to haunt them. One of PubPeer's founders, who describes himself as a tenured professor, says that even a senior scientist "very rarely, myself included, wants to take the risk" of criticizing fellow scientists under their own names. The professor and his shadowy brethren—another founder tells Science that he is finishing up his Ph.D. somewhere in the United States—have gone to great lengths to protect their identities. "I don't want it to impact my scientific life or my personal life," says the professor of his site, adding that the phone number from which he was calling "probably won't work after a few days."

While anonymity can spur discussion, it does not always elevate it.

When PubPeer launched in October 2012, the founders' goal was genteel dialogue. "I enjoyed this paper greatly," an anonymous commenter wrote early this year, about a study in Science on empathy in rats. The commenter politely queried about comparisons between littermates and nonlittermates and sought more information about how the animals behaved.

Posts like this one, though, were interspersed with those of a different nature. "The paper was VERY effective for getting his lab a lot of publicity (and money?)," one commenter wrote about an article in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal. "Was it just sensationalism or did it tell us something new about the brain?"

In May, PubPeer underwent a tectonic shift after a tip exposed errors in a high-profile paper. The anonymous post flagged apparent image duplications in a manuscript describing how human embryonic stem cells could be produced by cloning, published in Cell by a group based in Oregon (Science, 31 May, p. 1026). Cell subsequently printed an erratum. Suddenly, PubPeer was in the news, and whistleblowers began flooding it with tips suggesting problematic images in dozens of papers. It now receives between 10 and 50 comments a day. "They're getting a little bit out of control, in my opinion," the professor founder says.

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