February 3, 2010

Rivalry Thwarts Publication Of Top Stem Cell Research

Experts in stem cell technology have accused a small number of scientists of keeping top research from being published in scientific journals, BBC news reported on Tuesday.

In some cases, this "Ëœvetoing' might be even be deliberately conducted to thwart competitive research, the experts say.

The BBC also cited 14 leading stem cell researchers as having penned an open letter to major scientific journal editors to express their dissatisfaction in the matter.

"Papers that are scientifically flawed or comprise only modest technical increments often attract undue profile. At the same time publication of truly original findings may be delayed or rejected," the letter read.

"It's turning things into a clique where only papers that satisfy this select group of a few reviewers who think of themselves as very important people in the field is published," Professor Robin Lovell-Badge told BBC News.

"You can get a lot of hype over a paper published on stem cell research that's actually a minimal advance in knowledge whereas the poor person that is doing beautiful research that is not catching the eye of the editor, you don't get to hear about that, even though it could be the world changing piece of research."

Britain currently spends billions of pounds in public money on stem cell research.  Such funding is primarily awarded to scientists who have had their research published in leading journals.

"Last year we used about 400 reviewers in stem cell and developmental biology, and we constantly recruit new referees. The idea that there's some privileged clique is utterly false," said Dr. Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, one of the top scientific journals in the field.

It is often a requirement of publicly funded research to publish in scientific journals. The publication process includes sending a report about the research to a journal editor, who then determines if it is sufficiently unique and interesting.  If so, they will solicit reviews and comments from a handful of scientists who are experts in the field.

It is at this point where scientists who may compete with the person who submitted their research get to say whether or not the research is of high quality.

Alternatively, they can also suggest to the journal editor that further work needs to be done to confirm the conclusions of the original research.

The journal editor typically decides to publish the research after the majority of reviewers are satisfied.

However, professors Lovell-Badge and Austin Smith, from the University of Cambridge, say that some reviewers are increasingly giving negative comments, or asking for needless experiments to be carried out, for dubious reasons.

In some cases, this is being done simply to halt or delay the publication of the research so that the reviewers or their colleagues can be the first to have their own research published, they say.

"It's hard to believe except you know it's happened to you that papers have been held up for months and months by reviewers asking for experiments that are not fair or relevant," Professor Smith told BBC News.

But Dr. Campbell denies this claim.

"It's an editor's responsibility to ensure that delays are minimized, and we stop using any referee where a pattern of delays is apparent, whatever the reason might be," he told BBC News.

These types of charges are not new, nor are they unique to stem cell research.  However, Smith and Lovell-Badge cited two reasons that the problem is particularly serious in their field.

Firstly, research grants and career progression are now determined almost solely by whether or not a scientist gets their research published in a major research journal.  Secondly, such vast amounts of money are available for stem cell research that the temptation is greater for those that want the funds to behave dishonestly.

"The problem has become more common and more serious now," Professor Smith said.

"The issue here is all about public funding because you have to get these papers published to be able to get your next grant. It could be worth half a million pounds. It can be difficult for people in that position to be objective."

Even if research is not being intentionally thwarted, high quality work is being passed over as an "accidental consequence of journal editors relying too much on the word of a small number of individuals," said Professor Lovell-Badge.

"You will have what looks like a very good paper by a very reputable scientist - but the journal takes the word of one particular reviewer too strongly. They have their favorite reviewers and what this means is that it distorts what gets published because that's going to be the view of one individual which may not reflect where the field should be going," he added.

But Dr. Campbell maintains that such charges are without merit for his publication.

"Our editors, who frequently attend conferences and visit laboratories in order to keep abreast of the field and the people in it, have always used their own judgment in what we publish. We have not infrequently overruled two or even three skeptical referees and published a paper," he said.

At a recent stem cell scientific meeting, 14 of the world's top stem cell researchers accused journal editors of not recognizing what they called "unreasonable or obstructive" reviews.

In an open letter to the journals, they suggested that if a research paper was published, the accompanying reviews should be also provided online as supplementary material to the report.

It's an idea Dr. Campbell is open to, but in which he also sees practical challenges.

Professor Lovell-Badge believes the editors could do more to identify bias in the review process.

"Editors should be able to see when reviewers are asking for unnecessary experiments to be carried out and if it's the difference between an opinion of the referee and a factual problem. But what tends to happen is that the editor takes the opinion of an editor rather than the factual substance," he said.

Professor Smith said one of the main reasons for this is that journals compete with one another.  Editors have grown dependent on certain favored experts who both review other scientists' research and submit their own to the journal.   If an editor offends these experts, they risk losing future research to rival publications.

This is leading to the publication of pedestrian science, Professor Lovell-Badge said.

"We are seeing the publication of a lot of papers in high profile journals with minimal scientific content or advance, and this is partly because of these high-profile journals needing to keep their so called 'impact factors' as high as possible. That's determined by the number of citations that the papers have and they know that some of this trendy work is going to get cited and they seem not to care about whether its a real scientific advance or not," he said.

Monica Bradford, executive editor of the journal Science, said she is not yet convinced the system needs to be changed.

"Our current policy is to preserve the confidentiality of reviewers' names and comments. Some journals have tried experiments to test the impact of open review on the quality of the feedback received through peer review," she told the BBC.

"We have not been convinced to switch to such a system, but we will continue to monitor such experiments. We also will discuss the pros/cons of our current process internally and with our senior editorial board.

"We do recognize that human factors such as competition and potential financial gains can bias a reviewer's assessment of a paper and we expect our editors to consider these factors when evaluating the comments of the reviewers, particularly in cutting-edge areas of research."