Publications on the internet
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 18th May 2011|
Publications on the internet
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
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Andrew Miller (Chair)
Witnesses: Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science, and Dr Liz Wager, Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics and Board Member of the UK Research Integrity Office, gave evidence.
Q62 Chair: Good morning. Can I thank you for coming in this morning? Just to start, would the two of you be kind enough to introduce yourselves?
Tracey Brown: I am Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science.
Dr Wager: I am Liz Wager. I am the Chair of COPE-the Committee on Publication Ethics. My position is slightly complicated; I am wearing two hats today, because I am also an adviser to UKRIO, the UK Research Integrity Office, where I represent COPE. I am primarily speaking for COPE, but as the representative of UKRIO was not able to be here and as a lot of our policies are rather similar, I will also try to represent their views.
Q63 Chair: Thank you. Peer review is perceived to be "critical to effective scholarly communication". If it disappeared tomorrow, what would be the consequences?
Tracey Brown: Perhaps the best way to understand it is this. We are faced with a sea of material from which something has to determine what is going to grab our attention, what needs our attention and what is important. Something will do that, no matter what, because the reality is that we cannot sift that sea of stuff ourselves, whether we are researchers, members of the public or in policy. There are, fundamentally, three ways that that can happen. You can slice up the sea of stuff. For example, you can say, "We’ll just look at clinical reports and not apply particularly strict quality control to that. We just want to look at a very narrow part of it." Or you can try to implement something with aspirations to objectivity, which we have for the peer review system, which is, "Is this valid, significant and original?" and try to apply a fair test to that.
The third alternative is some form of patronage. These days we often hear people talk about alternatives to peer review and they sound really groovy because they talk about online publication and getting people spontaneously to respond, but the reality is that if we had no system for determining what is important and worthy of attention, then something else would determine that, and it would be some form of patronage. It would be the university with the biggest PR department or those researchers who have the best clubby contact books who would get their material recognised. That is the choice that is faced in terms of whatever system is operating.
Dr Wager: I think if it disappeared it would be reinvented with a subtly different name. There is great utility to it. As Tracey said, most researchers are swamped by information. They don’t know where to turn, so they use filtering systems-various selective systems-to decide what is reliable and what to read. As I said, it would change. I came up with an analogy for peer review which the journal editors may not like, but it works for me. It is a little bit like the MOT system for cars. It is designed to keep the traffic flowing, reduce accidents and make cars roadworthy. It does not, though, guarantee that every car on the road is going to run tomorrow. We could increase it, and we could say that every car owner must have their car checked once a month, but that would be disproportionate; that would be unreasonable. Similarly, you could have more draconian methods and say, "Journals must review the raw evidence" and so on, but that would be disproportionate. It is a reasonable system.
Another analogy that works is that peer review does not necessarily spot that a car has had its milometer clocked and that it is a bit different from what it looks like. It does not pick up major fraud all the time. It also does not necessarily tell you whether you are dealing with a Rolls-Royce or a white van. Different journals are looking for different things. It is a useful system. It is not a panacea, but in the way that the MOT is helpful to the police, to motorists and to various people, it is helpful to society as it keeps things rolling. However, other systems are also needed.
Q64 Chair: I will quote from the memorandum that we had from UKRIO: "There is a danger that the peer review process can stifle innovation and perpetuate the status quo. Peer reviewers, for example, are more likely to reject a paper or research grant if it challenges their own belief system." Can you elaborate on how big a problem that is for the progression of science and what can we do about it?
Dr Wager: There is some quite nicely crafted evidence that that is true. In general, peer reviewers prefer positive findings. They prefer findings that confirm their own hypotheses and so on. That is just human nature. One of the very important roles of editors, though, is reducing that kind of bias as well as other kinds of bias. One of the things that COPE encourages is to make sure that systems are as objective as possible, to make sure, for example, that journals publish criticism, especially of things that they have published in their own journal, to make sure that they are willing to listen to alternative views and so on. There is a danger of bias towards the status quo. There are other kinds of biases as well, but a well set-up system and a good editor will minimise those biases.
Q65 Chair: Let me just put that in a slightly different way. Is enough being done about it now?
Dr Wager: In the last few years the opportunities to publish have greatly increased, so we do have the less selective journals. In the days when journals were limited by the cost of print and paper and when page space was very limited, it was probably much harder to publish. There are so many more journals now that are less selective. People have done studies at the more selective journals to see what happens to the papers they reject, and they found that about 80% of the studies get published somewhere else. What happened to the other 20%? Maybe they shouldn’t have been published at all because they really were misleading or completely whacky. It is difficult to tell. The opportunities to publish have increased. I don’t know whether it is too far skewed.
Tracey Brown: May I add something to that? This Committee knows well that research is a dynamic beast. You would expect publishing to reflect that. Sometimes you get fields of research which ossify and stagnate. Therefore you would perhaps expect some of the discussion in those fields to reflect that. Similarly, what happens then is that people go off and form new collaborations in more dynamic fields and set up new journals, or they come into old, stagnating journals and realise that the reviewers are few and increase the field of reviewers. You would expect to see it almost become a mirror image of what happens to research generally. We see departments in universities stagnate and then get taken over by something more dynamic. That is what happens.
The important thing with a system that produces 1.3 million papers a year is that it is self-reflective. A lot of study goes on, as Liz has said, looking at the fate of papers that aren’t published and looking, just generally, at trends across the system. So long as that is going on and patterns of behaviour can be spotted, then the system can be self-correcting.
Q66 Pamela Nash: Doctor, can I ask you to put on both your hats this morning and explain to us more about the roles of both COPE and UKRIO, and perhaps touch on why we are in need of both organisations?
Dr Wager: Sure. COPE is the Committee on Publication Ethics. We have quite a narrow focus. We were set up in 1997, originally by quite a small group of about a dozen, mainly UK, medical journal editors. It has grown hugely since then. We now have 6,500 members, all of whom are journal editors or publishers. We are just looking at publication ethics. We are not looking at research misconduct in the broader field. Our members are not research institutions and so on; they are journals and their publishers. We are a registered charity. We are international. We provide advice to the editors, which they are free to ignore. We don’t have any particular powers, except that we also provide a code of conduct and we ask all our members to adhere to that code. If they don’t adhere to that code, then anybody, be it an author, another editor or a member of the public, can bring a complaint to COPE against a member. We don’t get many complaints, but we get a few every year and we hear them, so we feel that there is some accountability as well. That is COPE. We look at the publication ethics issues, like plagiarism, authorship issues, review and misconduct.
UKRIO-the Research Integrity Office-is a more recent organisation. It was set up to address the concern that there was no national body in the UK to look at research integrity in the broad sense. It, too, is advisory, so it has no statutory powers, but it is working more with institutions and research bodies. It is providing codes of conduct about how, for example, to conduct an inquiry into alleged misconduct, which is the role of the university or the hospital rather than the journal, whereas at COPE we are guiding the journal editors on how to handle a specific issue. Very often we say to the editors, "You shouldn’t be judge and jury. You should hand it on to the institution." So UKRIO is mainly working with the institutions. It is on the broader spectrum, so it would look at all kinds of research misconduct and not just the publication ethics aspects.
Q67 Pamela Nash: Just to be clear, COPE deals more with the actual publication and the journals, but UKRIO is talking about the research that is done before.
Dr Wager: Precisely.
Q68 Pamela Nash: Do you think there is any case for merging the two organisations?
Dr Wager: We work very closely together. The fact is that I am one of the advisers and have been on the board. COPE gave a small amount of money at the outset to help UKRIO get established. There is a sufficient difference that they go along quite nicely. There is some overlap; we do work together. For example, COPE produced some guidelines on how editors should handle retractions when a publication is considered so unreliable that you need to withdraw it from publication. UKRIO produced a complementary set of guidelines heavily referencing the COPE ones, informing researchers and institutions of what their responsibilities were on retraction. We have subtly different audiences.
Q69 Pamela Nash: This Committee has received some evidence from the Academy of Medical Sciences that has alluded to some of the problems that UKRIO has had with funding, which it says stems from broadening the remit of UKRIO from just medical science. Can you clarify what the current situation is regarding funding for UKRIO?
Dr Wager: Yes. James Parry, who is the managing officer for UKRIO, would like to give some supplementary written evidence on that point to give you some detail. Yes, it is true that it started looking at biomedical more, with some funding, for example, from the Department of Health and so on. They also had some broader funding from organisations such as Universities UK and Research Councils UK. UKRIO’s aim is very much to cover all the disciplines. That would be a great strength if it wasn’t sub-divided. One of the problems with the US system is that there are so many different bodies you have to go to, depending on whether it is physics or medical research. One of the strengths of UKRIO is that it was going to be broad. With the current climate and lack of funding in universities and so on, for whatever reasons, RCUK and UUK decided that they did not want to fund UKRIO at the moment. That is the current situation. They are looking at alternative models of funding.
Q70 Pamela Nash: Apart from the organisations that you just mentioned, are there any other potential funders in the pipeline-for instance, from the private sector, perhaps?
Dr Wager: Yes. In the past it did get some funding from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. That is one area it would look at. As I said, I would suggest that if James can give you some detail on which funders they are planning to approach, that would probably be more appropriate. COPE, on the other hand, gets its money mainly from the publishers, who pay for their journals to be members. So we are getting our funding, effectively, from the private sector.
Q71 Pamela Nash: My next line of questioning was to ask if any of those sources would compromise the independence of UKRIO, but that might be something on which James would want to give us some detail.
Dr Wager: That is an important issue. One of the strengths of UKRIO is being independent. If you are funded by a particular body, you may not feel so comfortable in going to that body and asking questions, whereas if it is seen as an independent organisation, that would be a great strength. The Research Integrity Futures Working Group made some recommendations last year with which UKRIO was very happy, and it was happy to morph into whatever it recommended, and it strongly recommend an independent body-that is, independent of RCUK and independent of all the different funders-but, sadly, it hasn’t happened.
Q72 Pamela Nash: Finally, do you think there is any case for UKRIO becoming a regulatory body with full legal powers?
Dr Wager: This is an interesting one. I have spoken to the people at UKRIO to make sure that I am representing their views correctly. They are not against there being a regulatory body, but they don’t want to be it; I think that would be the best way of putting it. They still think that an advisory and voluntary group would have its uses. That is their position. There has certainly been criticism and people saying, "We do need a body with more teeth, with some statutory powers", yes.
Q73 Graham Stringer: How can we keep the different people involved in the peer review process honest-the editors, reviewers and authors?
Dr Wager: A lot of trust is involved, and that is necessary. How do we keep them honest? There are various checks and balances. That is why COPE works with editors on, sometimes, seemingly quite small changes to processes that can make a big difference, such as asking reviewers to declare their conflicts of interest and asking the authors to declare their conflicts. Increasingly, though, technology is being used. Publishers are able to use things like CrossCheck, which is this very powerful text-matching software. It can pick up plagiarism and duplication. Publishers are also using software to pick up manipulated images and so on. Whereas the software has also made it easier to commit the fraud in the first place, it has also made it easier to detect it. Coming back to my MOT analogy, it needs to be proportionate. You don’t want to put yet more barriers in people’s way, but, equally, you don’t want to mistrust everybody and assume that you can’t trust anything.
Q74 Graham Stringer: You have done some research, have you, about the integrity of reviewers and editors in this area?
Dr Wager: I don’t think there has been much research on the integrity of reviewers or editors. Much more research has focused on misconduct by authors. There have been some cases of reviewer misconduct. It is something that COPE picks up now and again. I have done a survey of journal editors to find out how big a problem they thought reviewer misconduct was, and it came pretty low on their list. COPE has produced a flowchart about how to handle allegations and how they should be investigated, because a classic complaint by an author would be, "Someone stole my idea," but that is really pretty uncommon. I don’t think it is a huge problem. Signing up to COPE and getting the complaints procedure working will be one mechanism, we hope, to deal with misconduct by editors.
Tracey Brown: Could I answer that? It is important to separate out what can reasonably be achieved through the peer review process, in terms of reviewers looking at a paper and sending comments to an editor, and what journals might try to achieve more broadly. It would be unreasonable to ask reviewers to spot fraud or plagiarism on a systematic basis, although, of course, there are cases where reviewers are quite well placed to notice such things. Their main consideration is whether the paper is valid, significant and original and whether it provides the basis on which others can understand what has taken place and, therefore, replicate or investigate those results.
There are other things that editors and publishers can put in place to which Liz is referring. We perhaps need to make a separation, rather than suggest that the process of other researchers publishing in the field and reviewing the material is falling down just because it doesn’t always spot those things. I would also draw attention to the fact that when things do go wrong, particularly on a significant issue that, perhaps, has implications for wider society, there is a blaze of publicity and discussion. That is, perhaps, testament to how unacceptable it is. When we had the controversy around the stem cell work, for example, that was something that was being discussed on radio programmes and across the newspapers and had been caught and addressed. That tells you that there are ways in which these things get noticed and cause quite a lot of self-reflection within the system.
Q75 Graham Stringer: In your submission, you seem to imply that the research institutes themselves should take responsibility if there are allegations of fraud or misconduct on behalf of the authors. Do you think they have the resources to do that? Is there not a conflict of interest? I understand what you say about the stem cell research case, but if you take the Andrew Wakefield case, which got a huge amount of publicity, the institute itself, the co-researcher who seemed to have been involved and the journal wasn’t interested. The hero of the hour, or the 10 years it took, was a journalist. What do you learn from that and do you really think that research institutes are going to be the answer?
Tracey Brown: A lot of people along the way have learned a lot, including journalists, publishers and editors. The Wakefield case may be an example of bad cases making bad law, in the sense that that was a pretty exceptional set of circumstances. There is, obviously, a big debate about why that paper was published and also the lack of clarity on allegations that were made in the context of a press conference around that paper rather than within the paper itself. This is something where it would be very hard to set out a one-size-fits-all approach. This is much more Liz’s area, but it seems to me that the role of editors in evaluating what is taken up within the journal and what needs to be taken up within the institution is very important to that.
Dr Wager: I would like to add to that by commenting specifically on the Wakefield case. There is clear evidence that the institution did not fulfil its duty in that case. It should have done a proper investigation. Whatever its reasons were for not doing it, it was shoddy. It was not properly done. It has now recognised that, and I believe it is looking into their processes.
You asked if the institutions have a conflict of interest. That is something that concerns me because, yes, they do. Institutions don’t like to proclaim when things go wrong. I would like to campaign for a change, so that rather than a misconduct finding against a university being a black mark, it is seen as a badge of honour. You should say, "Don’t go to a university that hasn’t had at least one person fired for misconduct, because it means they are not looking for it properly." I come back to you and ask: are the institutions well resourced in the right places to do it? They are certainly better resourced and better placed than the journals. It is not appropriate for the journals to be doing that.
There is a great debate about how common misconduct is. The evidence is that it is probably more common than we think-at least the questionable practices. If you are the University of London with however many thousands of researchers, you are going to expect a few bad apples and you need some systems that can sort them out. I would like to see support for that system and, perhaps, yes, a greater level of regulation. In the Wakefield case, the institution clearly didn’t do a proper investigation. Some pressure should be brought to bear.
Even in the US, which has a more heavily regulated system-you are probably familiar with the fact that they have their Office of Research Integrity-the ORI doesn’t do the investigations. The institutions actually do them, but with the ORI pushing and gently nudging them to do the right thing.
Q76 Graham Stringer: If we moved to either voluntary or statutory regulation in that area, do you think there should be an obligation on the institutes to publish any findings that they make ? Sometimes when there are investigations by institutes , they say, "We have investigated it", and that is all you find out .
Dr Wager: Sure. I would welcome greater transparency. That is an issue that journal editors have sometimes. They will go to an institution with an allegation or a suspicion of misconduct and the institution will say, "Oh, we can’t tell you. It’s confidential." The journal editor may be put in a very difficult position, because if, for example, they have published something, they need to know whether to retract it or whether to publish an expression of concern. That is an area where transparency would be a great advantage. It would also help public confidence. The public are concerned when they feel there is a cover-up. There is concern when they feel that people are getting away with it. They would accept that things go wrong sometimes, but if you don’t react to them, or don’t react to them properly, that is when the problems occur.
Q77 Graham Stringer: What are the consequences for editors and reviewers if they are found to be behaving unethically? We have an idea of what happens to scientists who produce fraudulent papers. What happens to reviewers and editors?
Dr Wager: Editors tend to get fired if they fall out with the society or the publisher. The publishers and the learned societies have an important role. They employ the editors, albeit usually on a part-time basis, so there is a contract. If the editor really steps out of line, they can lose their editorial position. Obviously, that would be quite public.
In terms of reviewer misconduct, which is relatively rare but does occur, initially, they might well be sanctioned by their employer. If an editor found that a reviewer acting for a journal had acted improperly, they would report that to the institution. There could be an academic or employment case against them because that would be seen as professional misconduct. In terms of the journal, they would probably not use that reviewer again, or, if they were doing something and it was a matter that they had not realised they were not meant to do, they would perhaps provide some more guidance and so on. It could be taken up.
Dealing more, perhaps, with grant applications rather than journal submissions, if somebody steals somebody’s idea from a grant application, then both the funder and the institution would certainly take disciplinary measures against that person.
Tracey Brown: Could I add a postscript to the question of transparency in publication? As this Committee, I am sure, is aware, the Government are developing proposals to reform the libel laws at the moment, in part in response to threats received by scientists and publishers of scientific information. One of the areas on which Sense About Science has received evidence is a fear of publishing information about investigations into research conduct. Even just publishing news items or discussions on those things raises a fear of libel action. That is something that we hope is going to be addressed in new legislation, but it is something on which the Committee may want to comment because it does limit the ability to put these things in the public domain.
Q78 Graham Stringer: I have a final question to follow up on Pamela’s question. You recommend there being a research integrity officer within institutes to look at these things. How would that operate? Is there any evidence or experience?
Dr Wager: There is certainly experience. That is how it is done in the US. For any institution that receives federal funding, they must have an appointed research integrity officer. It has various benefits. One is the simple, practical matter of knowing who to contact. It can be very difficult for a whistleblower, a member of the public or even a journal editor to try and find out who to contact. That person acts as the point of contact.
It also means that somebody has, as part of their job description, the responsibility of taking an active interest in making sure that the institution is doing the right thing, conducting inquiries appropriately and so on. It has benefits. It can also be helpful in this way. Sometimes journal editors say to us, "I’ve tried to go up the hierarchy of this institution." We had a classic one not long ago. They described this terrible situation. There were very serious concerns about the author. We said, "This is obvious. You need to go to the institution." There was a pause-the man was on the telephone from another country, calling COPE-and he said, "Ah. The author is the president of the institution." That is a very extreme example. If the person to whom you are trying to go is the head of department, they have a stronger conflict of interest for covering it up and keeping it local than a neutral body. Let’s say you have a concern in the physics department. If you can go to the research integrity officer, who happens to be from humanities, archaeology or something, they are, perhaps, more likely to deal with the problem in a properly impartial way. If the person was the head of the department involved, there would be a vice-research integrity officer who would deal with it if they had a conflict of interest. There is a clear structure involved.
Q79 David Morris: This question is directed to Tracey Brown. Last week Dr Robert Parker said that the public "probably don’t care" about peer review. What is your view on this?
Tracey Brown: The context for that is, when a story takes off in the mainstream media, whether people ask questions about where that story has come from in terms of the integrity or validity of the science. Sense About Science, as I am sure the Committee is aware, published the leaflet that became the Public Guide to Peer Review. We were rather taken aback; we published 10,000 and then we found ourselves, 500,000 copies later, realising that there was something of an appetite to understand not just the content of the findings of a particular paper but its status. There are many user groups of information. There are policy makers, journalists looking to decide which papers are worthy of discussion, and health service providers, libraries, teachers and information providers right across society, who are looking to understand, when a story says that Alzheimer’s is being caused by aluminium foil, whether it is based on peer-reviewed research published in a journal known in the field and what others in the field say about it so that they can begin to interrogate it on that basis.
We found that people, for want of a better word, find this quite an empowering line of questioning. To take the Wakefield example, you are not going to turn yourself into a gastroenterologist overnight in order to assess whether you are going to vaccinate your child or whether there is any credibility to the stories. What you can do is ask questions such as, "How has this information come forward? What do others in the field say about it? What status should I give this?"
One of the reasons why we started doing this was in the field of policy making. We were frustrated that when Government consultations were under way it appeared to us that they were, literally, weighing evidence-you would have five submissions on this side and five submissions on that side; one side suggested one thing about the disposal of nuclear waste, and the other suggested another, for example-rather than going into looking at what status those different studies had. To take an extreme, is a study a review of all the published papers on the subject or is it a set of results that some bloke has got from doing an experiment in his garage around mobile phone safety? Those are the extremes. We are asking people to ask those questions. You can ask questions about where something has come from.
Q80 David Morris: At what stage of general school education do you think the concept and understanding of peer review should be introduced?
Tracey Brown: There has been some success already in introducing it at key stage 4. The new Twenty First Century Science curriculum in schools has had a mixed reception. One of its features that people most seem to like is that it develops discussion around what science is, and the nature of scientific ideas and information. We ourselves ended up becoming involved with the people who were developing that curriculum in order to take what is in the public guide and bring it to life by talking about how research reaches the public domain. There is certainly an appetite for that.
It also seems to chime with the point in education where kids are doing experiments in which they might get different results, and they are starting to ask themselves, "Why did Jim and Joe get one set of results, and my experiments come out with a different set of results?" It picks up on the ability to step back from your own experience and evaluate what is going on. They can see that mirrored in a much bigger system.
Q81 David Morris: Is the kitemark of peer review really a gold standard that tells the public and policy makers a particular piece of research is reliable?
Tracey Brown: I don’t think it is. For the reasons that Liz and I have already outlined, it is a dynamic system that has all the benefits of human judgment, in that it can recognise good ideas. It can sometimes recognise ideas of which even the authors themselves don’t recognise the full implications. It has all the downsides of the system with human judgment, in that it doesn’t always recognise good ideas and sometimes it can be a bit shoddy. It has all those benefits to it. I don’t think it is something that is a stamp of approval beyond which we ask no further questions. It is seen by the scientific community as the basis on which we select those things that are worthy of further attention, but I would emphasise "further attention".
"Peer reviewed equals true" is not something that would get us very far. We were concerned about that, as were many scientists, when we began popularising an understanding of peer review. Would it be seen as, "Well, it has been peer reviewed so therefore it must be true"? I am rather pleased to report that the public seem a bit more subtle in understanding that. To refer to the example that Liz gave of the MOT, people know that if you give something a standard it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that that is going to be good and true for ever. It simply tells you that it has passed an initial assessment.
Q82 David Morris: You feel that a single peer review article may disagree with previously published findings.
Tracey Brown: Yes, absolutely. It may disagree because it develops the science further or because it is not taking into account the work of others. Asking people to ask the question, "Is this peer reviewed?", invites further questions, such as, "What do others in the field say about it, where does it sit in the wider consensus, and where is this research field going?" It opens up that line of questioning rather than close it down.
Q83 David Morris: Does the publication of fraudulent or incorrect papers that have been through the peer review process damage public perception of peer review as a mark of quality?
Tracey Brown: Inevitably, the high-profile discussion about fraudulent activity in particular damages not just the peer review process or publishing but also science as a whole, which is why so many of us are concerned with addressing those issues and there is such vigilance around them. It is inevitably going to happen. The more that people can understand the system through which scientific research results are generated and come into the public domain, the more we can understand why those things happen. You cannot build a world that is immune to fraudsters. Not in any part of life can you build a world that is immune to fraudsters. We have to accept that that is the case and hope that we have systems that detect those as early as possible.
Q84 David Morris: What differences are there in the way in which peer review is perceived by the public outside the UK? Do any countries have organisations or schemes for informing the public about peer review from which the UK would possibly benefit?
Tracey Brown: We are experiencing the opposite at the moment, which is quite challenging for a small charitable organisation like ours. We are experiencing a lot of demand internationally to make use of this to turn it into something which is culturally specific to other societies. There is a lot of interest. We have been working with people in the US and recently with journalists and scientists in China to develop similar things. There is certainly a recognition of the need to build understanding about the context and status of research results. The global discussions about climate change have particularly underlined that. We have found that that has increased rapidly the demand for this.
The answer to your question is that initiatives are being thought of and are under way in a range of places. They are, perhaps, not as under way in the European Commission as much as I would like them to be because recognition of that in the calibre of research that is used in European policy making would be very useful. Elsewhere, people are recognising the need to do this.
Q85 Stephen Metcalfe: Good morning. We all accept that there is a limit to the peer review process. You have said that the public accept that and are able to understand that just because something has a mark of quality, it does not necessarily mean it is true. Do you think that is communicated across the whole of the public? You talked about the public; presumably, that is the part of the public that takes an interest in science as opposed to just having it fed to them. Do you think that is communicated widely enough? When you talk about it being taught at key stage 4, are they also teaching the fact that it is a limited process as well?
Tracey Brown: The simple answer to your second question is yes. I would be very happy to supply further information about that peer review resource that was developed. I believe the University of Reading is going to be working on taking that forward. I will send some more information about that to you.
The way to understand it not to think of society as those people interested in science and those people not interested in science; lots of different organisations have a role in mediating information and ideas to others. That goes right the way through to, for example, midwives on their morning rounds, who, faced, with a story in today’s newspapers about the fact that exposure to very hot sun will harm an unborn baby, get questions from new parents asking, "Is this true?" Their professional organisations can have a role in helping them to understand, "Where has this story come from? Does it come from a reputable study? What do others in the field say about it?" They can mediate that information through to midwives, who then mediate that information through. It is a much broader process. I don’t think those mothers would identify themselves necessarily as being interested in science by asking that question, but it is significant much more widely.
Q86 Stephen Metcalfe: It is whether or not they understand that just because they have read it in a newspaper, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. It is that wider approach. We get fed a lot of science because journalists are interested in it. At times, as in the example that you have quoted, it can distress people. How do we make sure that they understand their limitations?
Tracey Brown: Let me give you a good example. We published a booklet called I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it, which is for people with chronic diseases who go looking for miracle cures and then are trying to work out, "Is this based on any kind of science or not?" We had a really big post bag from that. People were saying how much it really helps them to be able to ward off those friendly neighbours who come round with press cuttings or something off the internet saying, "You must try this diet". They were able to say, "Actually, that has not been through any kind of study. I can’t find any published research that suggests that that is good." People can use it in that way.
Going back to the question of whether a person asks if it is peer reviewed, there is the potential-we have seen it take off in a number of places-for a bit of a virtuous circle to take place. If, in a Radio 2 programme in the afternoon, the interviewer is equipped to ask the scientist-this question was not asked in the Wakefield case-"Which of these claims has been published and peer reviewed? Do you have a study that backs this up?", the more that question gets asked, the more the listening audience expects that to be one of the interrogatory questions. The more that the listening audience expects that to be an interrogatory question, the more the radio interviewer feels that they, representing their listening public, must ask that question. We have seen these improvements. For example, in its online material, the BBC always makes reference to where a study has been published. We have worked very closely with science journalists over recent years. That is now the case in many of the newspapers as well, and certainly with online publication that facilitates making links to where research is published.
Q87 Stephen Metcalfe: Where that process goes wrong and fraudulent or incorrect papers have been published, what lessons have been learnt from that? What information is then fed back to the editors, reviewers and the authors about how they can learn from these things? Is there a two-way communication?
Tracey Brown: There is very dynamic discussion around these things. My experience is much narrower than Liz’s. Within publishing circles and within the scientific community there is very dynamic discussion of this. For example, most publishers have editorial conferences on an annual basis, if not more regularly, through which they can reflect upon those kinds of experiences. There are also the popular publications within science, which include journals like the New Scientist and the science pages in the newspapers, but also the news, views and comments sections of some of the journals that are published that don’t just have peer-reviewed content but also have discussion content. Those are also places through which people discuss and debate matters. At a general level, it is widely discussed.
In terms of specific learning, take something like vested interests. I looked at the work that has been done over the last 20 years for a paper that I wrote recently on vested interests; it was very informally determined previously in publications. How do you express whether you have a vested interest in the field that might influence what you said in your paper or the way in which you review a paper? It has now been much more formalised. Post-Wakefield, most journals have much better ways of asking people to express their vested interests or potential conflicts. Over the past few decades there has been a general move towards getting away from the informal, "Yes, they’ll mention it if it is a problem", towards a much more formal set of questions and guidance to authors, reviewers and editors.
Dr Wager: Could I add something on that?
Stephen Metcalfe: Yes, of course.
Dr Wager: You were asking about feedback to the authors. Dr Wang is no longer the hero that he was in Korea. Jobs get lost. If there is a really major case of fraud and a paper is retracted, there can often be very serious consequences for the authors, which is why editors, sometimes, are a little bit reluctant to set the ball rolling, because they do know it can be serious.
The journals will also usually do some heart-searching and say, "Was there a problem? What went wrong in this case?" If you look at the retractions-this is interesting-the prominent journals with excellent peer review systems like Science, Nature, The Lancet and so on publish more retractions or retract more articles than the slightly lower-tier journals. It could be because they are publishing more controversial research. It could also be because they are better at spotting the problems. I don’t think there is any question, though, of their systems being at fault. If you look at them, there is not generally a systemic problem. There may have been occasional issues, but I don’t think there is a correlation. There has been a big increase in retractions; this is something I have studied. They have gone up about tenfold, in fact. There has been quite an increase in retractions, if you look at the retractions on the big medical databases. It is because we are better at correcting the mistakes. I don’t think there is any evidence that that correlates with a systemic problem in peer review. As I said, peer review is not very good at spotting the major fraud, but some journals and publishers are good at making sure that they clear up the mess when it does get caught.
Q88 Stephen Metcalfe: The UKRIO submission said that the process of peer review needs to be confidential. Can you explain why that is important?
Dr Wager: This is not necessarily something that COPE agrees with. In the traditional system of peer review, the author does not know who the peer reviewers are. The idea is that you protect the reviewers’ identity so that they are free to say whatever they want to say. A junior can criticise a senior person and there is no fear of retribution if you bump into that person or you apply for a job, and they say, "You’re the person who killed my paper." That is the idea behind the blind peer review.
It sometimes goes one stage further and the author’s name may be removed from the paper. The idea of that is more to reduce bias, so that you don’t look at it and say, "This is from Professor So-and-So at Oxford. It’s bound to be good." That is trying to reduce the reviewer bias. With some journals, the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are and the reviewers don’t know who the author is.
Some journals have said, "That’s not such a great system", because as an author you are being criticised anonymously, and you think, "Isn’t transparency a good idea?" Particularly in the medical journals, some of them now operate open peer review. The reviews are signed. The peer reviewer puts their name on to the article. Before they launched these systems, they tested them to make sure that it was feasible because there was a concern that reviewers would say, "No, way. I’m not putting my name on this", and to see if it had an effect. They hoped it would improve the quality of the review. There is some quite nice research. It did not improve the quality but it didn’t lessen it either, so they decided it was feasible and practical. Some of the medical journals use this open review, so it is by no means confidential.
Some of them have gone one stage even further and publish the reviewers’ comments. BioMed Central has been doing that. You can click on "Publication History" where you can see the submitted version, the reviewers’ comments, how the author has responded to it and then the revised version. That is totally open. If you want to criticise somebody, that is good because you will be able to say, "I know who that person works for or who they are funded by" and so on. The conflicts of interest are all out in the open.
The reason why COPE does not necessarily recommend one system or another is because some editors have said to us, "We work in a very narrow field. Everybody knows everybody else. It just would not work to have this open peer review." There are different options. UKRIO is referring to the fact that, if you have a blind system of peer review, then, of course, it is important to keep the names confidential. Obviously, on the other hand, if you have an open peer review system, it is not going to be kept confidential. There is contradictory evidence. My opinion is that it depends on the discipline. With a discipline as big as medicine, where there are hundreds of thousands of people all around the world you can ask and they probably don’t bump into each other the next day, open peer review seems to work. In much narrower and more specialised fields, it perhaps does not, and the traditional system of the blinded review is perhaps better.
Q89 Chair: The narrower the discipline gets, the more likely it is that all the parties will know each other anyway.
Dr Wager: You are absolutely right. There are also some nice studies showing that taking the names off doesn’t necessarily prevent the people from knowing it both ways.
Q90 Chair: You can work it out from the methodology that has been applied.
Dr Wager: You know who is doing the research. For most authors, the first papers they cite are their previous work, so you look at the references and you can see whose paper it is. Some journals go to the length of removing the author’s papers from it. There is evidence that sometimes it is a waste of time.
Tracey Brown: One of the biggest concerns is what reviewers feel comfortable with; there have to be enough reviewers attracted to reviewing. There are very few incentives to review in the university system; there is no time given for it and no recognition of it in your career. These things need to be dealt with, but that is the current position. If you have something that puts people off reviewing, then that is ultimately going to cause the whole system to fall down. Sense About Science ran the biggest ever international survey of authors and reviewers in 2009 because of this perceived crisis in the future of peer review and we wanted to look into it. It found that 76% of the people responding who have reviewed papers said that they feel most comfortable with, or described as best, the double blind system that Liz described, but as she has said, there can also be a lot of openness in doing things in other ways.
Q91 Stephen Metcalfe: You touched on bias; presumably, the double blind eliminates almost all the bias, doesn’t it?
Dr Wager: That is the idea, although if you know who the person is anyway, even if they have had their name taken off, it does not. That is the theory behind it. It was brought in for very good motives, but it is not clear that it is a great mechanism.
Q92 Stephen Metcalfe: Finally, if you were to have a more open system, can anything further be done to minimise bias? Once the names are in the public domain, it is too late.
Dr Wager: Quite interestingly, recently concern was expressed by some stem cell scientists who felt that there were cliques and groups and there was bias in the system. One of the journal’s responses was to publish the names of the peer reviewers. They did move towards a more open system, which is interesting. In a lot of disciplines, the open system does work well and transparency can be helpful. Training is also important. If you are recruiting and employing someone, you go through training to make sure that you have proper employment practices and that you are aware of anti-discriminatory laws, diversity and that sort of thing. Sometimes it is a case of making sure that you are doing that. Editors have a fair idea. Sometimes they will pick reviewers because they know they will disagree. That, in a way, balances out the bias.
Chair: Thank you very much. I hope that not too many vice-chancellors take your message too seriously of sacking some academics this afternoon. Thank you very much for your evidence.
Witnesses: Mayur Amin, Senior Vice President, Research and Academic Relations, Elsevier, Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature Publishing Group, Robert Campbell, Senior Publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief, BMJ Group, and Dr Andrew Sugden, Deputy Editor andInternational Managing Director, Science, gave evidence.
Q93 Chair: I thank the panel for coming in this morning. We have rather a lot to cover in a relatively short time, so please feel free to send us any supplementary notes if we cannot get your particular answer to a question. May I ask the five of you to start off by introducing yourselves?
Mayur Amin: I am Mayur Amin. I work at Elsevier and I head up a research and relations group there.
Dr Campbell: I am Philip Campbell. I am editor-in-chief of Nature and of the Nature Publishing Group.
Robert Campbell: I am Bob Campbell. I am senior publisher at John Wiley and Sons.
Dr Godlee: I am Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the BMJ and the BMJ Publishing Group.
Dr Sugden: I am Andrew Sugden. I am international managing editor of Science magazine at Cambridge.
Q94 Chair: Thank you very much. You will have heard me ask this same question to the first panel. Peer review is regarded as "fundamental to academia and research". What happens if it disappears tomorrow?
Dr Campbell: There would be a sudden decline in trust by academics of what they are reading, and by those in the media and among those members of the public who take the literature seriously, correctly. Increasing numbers of the public do engage with the literature. That, to me, is one of the most important aspects of what you would lose.
Dr Godlee: It is important to distinguish-I am sure others will do this-between pre-publication peer review and peer review generally. Pre-publication peer review is only one aspect of the peer review process, which begins with grant-funding peer review, ethics committees, the pre-publication process, the editing process and then the peer review that goes on after publication. Then there is correction and, in some rare cases, retraction. All of those systems constitute peer review.
If you are talking about the decline or the loss of pre-publication peer review, there are some areas in science and medicine where that would be a problem, as Phil has said, and others where it might be a benefit. The balance between the benefit and harm of peer review is still very poorly experimented with.
Q95 Chair: If we look at the evidence that Richard Smith, the ex-editor of the BMJ, sent us, he suggested moving from "filter, then publish" to "publish everything, then filter." Is there any sense in that approach?
Robert Campbell: He is ignoring the other very important part of peer review, which is improving the article. Especially in some disciplines, that is a lot of what peer review is about. It is not just filtering but going back to the author, making revisions and even doing new experiments. It is only taking one part of peer review.
Mayur Amin: In the Sense About Science study that Tracey Brown mentioned, 91% of the authors said that the peer review process helped to improve their paper. Where everything is published before it gets its first peer review filter, we may end up with a system where it is hard to differentiate between evidence-based conclusions and conclusion-based evidence. We end up in a situation where there is a lot of noise and uncertainty as to whether it is credible or not.
Dr Campbell: My other reaction is that all the experience of allowing people to comment online and our experience of open peer review in an experiment that we did at Nature suggests that people are much more motivated to comment and assess a paper if asked by an editor before it is published than they are in any other way.
Dr Sugden: I would endorse that, and add the fact that peer review is a system very much for improvement of papers as well as filtering.
Q96 Chair: Mr Campbell said that part of the process is to improve the paper, but some of the evidence we have had suggests that the process has a rather conservative impact on the science. Is there not a problem in that respect?
Robert Campbell: I don’t see it as particularly conservative. A good editor will encourage the author to write a better paper, develop those ideas better and get them over more effectively than in the first draft. It is a positive process. If you have a very conservative editorial board, the journal will suffer. It is a market; the more proactive entrepreneurial editorial teams will win out and build better, more successful journals. It is a very dynamic market. A conservative editorial board wouldn’t last long.
Q97 Chair: Do you think that that process mitigates against the creation of a risk-averse culture?
Robert Campbell: Yes. I don’t see it as risk averse, no. There are some editorial boards that are, perhaps, more conservative than we would like. On the whole, they are trying to publish better papers each year. There are higher impact factor scores. There is the reverse side, which you picked up: it tends to be the more radical and original article that will win more citations.
Dr Campbell: I completely agree with that use of the word "conservative". Another use of the word "conservative" concerns robustness. For us, peer review helps us deliver robust publications. We, at Nature, if anything, are more conservative than other journals. We make researchers go the extra mile to demonstrate what they are saying. I also celebrate the fact that we do not want to be conservative with papers that go against the status quo. We want to encourage radical discoveries.
Dr Godlee: We have to acknowledge that there is a huge variety in the quality of peer review across the publishing sector. Journals like Nature, BMJ and The Lancet, which have big editorial teams within them, do a very different type of peer review from those with much less resource. At its very worst, peer review has been described-many will have heard this list-as slow, expensive, biased, open to abuse, stifles innovation, bad at detecting errors and hopeless at detecting fraud. At its best, I think we would all agree that it does improve the quality of scientific reporting and that it can improve, through the pressure of the journal, the quality of the science itself and how it is performed, putting pressure back on the funders and the ethics committees, for example.
We have to acknowledge that scientific communication has changed enormously with the increased volume and sub-specialisation. Technology has changed the equation. The economics of scientific publishing has completely changed with the internet. There may be better ways of speeding up innovation, dissemination and quality control. We should not be frightened of those. We need to experiment with them.
I would agree that conservatism is not a bad thing in science or medicine in terms of making sure that what we publish is robust, relevant and properly quality controlled. That is absolutely crucial, but I don’t think we should be conservative in how we go about achieving that.
Chair: We also have different meanings of the word in this place as well.
Q98 Graham Stringer: Let me follow that up. One of the submissions we have had from a Cambridge professor shows that the criticism of conservatism is stronger than that. He says he tried to get a paper published that showed that a large percentage of work in nanotechnology was never going to result in any practical application. He found it extremely difficult to get it published, and his view was that it was because it was running against the interests both of the other authors as well as the publications. Is that a criticism that you have come across? Do you think it is a fair criticism?
Dr Campbell: We would love to publish something that strongly made a provocative case of that sort. That is not because we want to be sensationalist but because, if there is a good reason to say that, it needs to be out there and we would like to be the place to publish it.
Q99 Graham Stringer: He should have come to Nature and not to a nanotechnology publication.
Dr Campbell: Of course. In the same breath as conservatism, sometimes things like that are too easily said and not backed up well enough. A journal, which also has a magazine role in Nature, has one of the most critical audiences in the world. They love to be stimulated but they also want to make damned sure that the evidence on which we base the stuff we publish is reasonably strong.
Q100 Gavin Barwell: In 2008, a Research Information Network report estimated that peer review costs about £1.9 billion annually. Would the panel consider that to be a fair estimate?
Mayur Amin: It is an estimate that was made. It is an estimate of the non-cash costs-the cost of the reviewers’ time. Yes, on the basis of an estimate, it is a reasonable estimate. The issue is that it is the time spent by reviewers on behalf of others in the academic community. It is a cost that is neither paid nor charged for in the system. It is a service to the academic community as a whole.
Q101 Gavin Barwell: Does everyone take a similar view to that?
Dr Godlee: I have no doubt that peer review is an enormously expensive process. It is expensive for publishers and it is an investment that is made with a return on the investment expected through a number of revenues and also the reputation of the journals they publish. The unaccounted cost is the peer reviewers’ time. One of the questions is how we make that more of a professional activity for which they get academic credit rather than something that gets no credit. We need to make sure that it is understood to be part of an academic’s role in contributing to the forwarding of science. That is largely how it is viewed, but it may not get the credit that it deserves.
Dr Campbell: The Nature journals are working on giving more credit privately to referees directly at the end of every year, letting them know what they have done for us on the record. In my conversations with senior people in universities, they recognise that they could do more to give their academics credit. Academics themselves don’t think about it much. They do take it very much for granted. In a very competitive academic world, when you are going for tenure or for some other promotion, to be able to have something like that stated on the record is helpful.
Q102 Gavin Barwell: That leads me quite neatly into my next question. In 2010, the Joint Information System Committee reported that UK higher education institutions spend, in terms of staff time, between £110 million and £165 million per year on peer review and about £30 million on the work of editors and editorial boards. Does the panel think it is fair that higher education institutions absorb this cost on behalf of publishers? Should reviewers be paid for their time?
Dr Campbell: Yes, I do, but I would change the question. It is on behalf of everybody. Of course, you could get into a situation where publishers would start being the intermediaries that pay, but we don’t charge authors to submit papers. At least, there are some systems where that happens, but we don’t hand on the cost of peer review, in so far as it costs us anything. Were that to come in as a charging system, there is no way that the publishers could absorb that. I return to my primary point that everybody sees all sorts of peer review, for journals, funding agencies and, informally, between colleagues, as part of the business of doing science.
Dr Sugden: It is, essentially, a reciprocal process. Authors are reviewers as well. It is two sides of the same coin, essentially.
Mayur Amin: It is a service that the higher education system provides to others within the higher education system globally. It is not a countrywide system. In the UK, for example, and certainly within Elsevier, we find that we publish about 6% of the papers that are published out of the UK and 6% of the reviewers are from the UK. So there is a balance. It is a service to the community itself.
Q103 Gavin Barwell: To pick up on the point that Elsevier stated in the memorandum it submitted to the Committee, it says: "Publishers have made significant investments into the peer review system to improve efficiency, speed and quality." Can you give the Committee an idea of the scale of those investments in recent years and the kind of things you were referring to?
Mayur Amin: Overall, one of the biggest investments for everyone in the publishing industry in the last decade or so has been migration to some of the electronic platforms. Across the industry, our estimate is that somewhere in the order of £2 billion of investment has been made. That includes the technologies at the back end to publish the materials as well. The technology has included submission systems, electronic editorial systems, peer review support systems, tracking systems and systems that enable editors to find reviewers. It is not just a question of their friends; they have systems so that they can find newer reviewers that they don’t know about. There are also support systems, in terms of guidelines and signing up editors to committees like the Committee on Publication Ethics. There are a number of different ways, such as training sessions and workshops for authors, editors and reviewers. Those are some of the ways.
Q104 Chair: To clarify, did you say £2 billion?
Mayur Amin: Across the industry, in terms of all the technology investments.
Q105 Gavin Barwell: My final question is, particularly, for Dr Godlee. The BMJ Group told us in their submission that "little empirical evidence is available to support the use of editorial peer review". How should a programme of such research be organised, and who would fund it?
Dr Godlee: It has long been felt that a system as important as peer review to most known science is remarkably under-evaluated. There have been studies. There has been an editorially led or research-led approach to this, and some of that funding has come from the NIHR in the UK. We have been very grateful for that. The overall level of evaluation of peer review is very poor-not only journal, editorial peer review, but grant peer review, which is right at the beginning of this process and has an enormous amount of influence on what does and doesn’t get funded. I am sure we should have it. The UK could lead on this. As to where the funding should come from, you could say that it is a combination of the journal publishing world, the grant-giving world, industry, but also public funding. It is a very important part of what we do. We can improve it; there are huge flaws. Lots of good things are going on and there are many new experimental ways of going about things. We need to evaluate these so that different specialty areas can take on different approaches as appropriate. A lot could be done with some decent funding.
Q106 Stephen Metcalfe: Good morning. Dr Campbell, you mentioned that you wanted a robust peer review system. What do each of your individual journals do to ensure that the process of peer review is both ro bust and delivers high quality?
Dr Campbell: We talk to each other a lot about the way we do the process. Senior editors on Nature-this would happen equivalently on the other journals-and I will look at individual manuscripts. Whenever there is any sort of complaint, I take personal responsibility for ensuring that it is looked into. In terms of external responses, we always respond as quickly as we can. In terms of due diligence internally, we have the discussion groups and we will look at particular cases where a manuscript may have caused certain types of difficulty. Above all, I rely on the team editors to be looking at every decision that is in any way controversial. Several editors will be involved in discussions about their position. Within the team, there is a quite a degree of transparency and oversight.
Dr Sugden: The system at Science is very similar. Editors will always confer with each other about any decision. No decision is made in isolation.
Dr Godlee: The same is true at the BMJ. Any of the large journals with a big internal team, as we, Nature and Science have, will have a similar process. There is a lot of consultation, and a lot of expertise is brought in from outside, through a series of stages, trying to make sure that we reject papers that are not for us very quickly, so as not to delay their moving on elsewhere and to keep the science moving, but also to make sure that those we do pass through to final stages get very heavily scrutinised.
I want to say here-it may come up later-that we are reliant on what the authors send us. We have to acknowledge that peer review is extremely limited in what it can do. We are sent an article, effectively, sometimes with datasheets attached. We have to go with what is sent to us. A vast amount of data do not get through to journals. We know that there is under-reporting, misreporting and a whole host of problems, and journals are not adequate to the task that they are being given to deal with at the moment.
Q107 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you sometimes send those back, and does the reviewer say, "Can you do some more work or experiments on this?"
Dr Godlee: This is not true of different peer review systems, but in the systems you are hearing about here, all papers will be revised before acceptance.
Q108 Stephen Metcalfe: Are the reasons why you are asking for the additional information, experiments to be conducted, et cetera, always made clear to the researchers who are doing the work?
Dr Sugden: Yes. It is made clear to them through the reports that they get from the reviewers and the editors and accompanying recommendations that go with that. They will always know why they are being expected to do something.
Q109 Stephen Metcalfe: Do they get an opportunity to challenge back and say, "I don’t think this is worthwhile"?
Dr Sugden: Yes.
Dr Campbell: There was a recent discussion in the pages of Nature. Somebody whom we published said that editors on journals such as Nature can be rather supine in accepting the demands of a peer reviewer and not protecting an author from excessive demands of that sort. I went back to all of my editors and asked for examples where we have not been supine-recent publications which had had to be revised, but where we had made a judgment that in this particular case this request for extra work was not required. That is an example of the robustness of the discussions that take place.
Dr Sugden: Often you will get two or three referees’ reports on a paper, but those referees may not agree with each other. It is the editor’s job, if they consider the paper worth pursuing, to then make a recommendation as to which of those referees’ revisions they should follow and which they should not, and maybe do some extra ones, too.
Mayur Amin: In addition to the vigilance of the editorial teams, there are in-house editorial teams on large journals or editorial boards within smaller journals. Certainly within Elsevier-and I think other publishers do the same-I do that, because it is my responsibility to get feedback from the researchers, authors, reviewers and the editors on the processes. We have so far collected something like a million items of response from the community. That gives us another measure of whether reviewers, authors and even editors find that certain aspects of the processes are failing. So, as publishers, we can take that on board and present it to an editor or a journal and say, "Look, a whole lot of authors are getting displeased about the way the process is working. We need to modify the process." That is another process-level procedure that we have in place.
Q110 Stephen Metcalfe: Mr Amin, is it correct that, prior to 2005, you had a number of publications that looked like journals and sounded like journals but in fact were a collection of re-published papers that had been sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, and that the data and the articles within the publications came out in support of those particular sponsors? Is that true?
Mayur Amin: Yes. That was a case from early 2000 to 2005 in a division of Elsevier that is not part of the formal peer review process. They are the custom publication division in Australia. I would say that the failure there was of the publishers not to hold the standards that we have. I stress that it was not a peer-reviewed journal. The issue was that there was not sufficient disclosure or sufficient clarity about what the nature of the publication was. When we found out, we acknowledged that. An internal review was done and a completely revised procedure was communicated internally and also externally. It is available on our site.
Q111 Stephen Metcalfe: So you would say that that would have fallen short of publication ethics.
Mayur Amin: It fell short of custom publication ethics. It was not a peer reviewed journal at all.
Q112 Stephen Metcalfe: How do you that happened imagine within a respectable and large organisation? You said "failure", but it must have been a systemic failure.
Mayur Amin: From our investigations, it is a relatively isolated case. I suspect in any human endeavour, in a large organisation, that there will be some failings. The important thing is what we do when we recognise and identify those failings. We have taken action to put procedures in place to minimise those in the future, and also we went public about this as well.
Q113 Stephen Metcalfe: What are those procedures to minimise it in the future?
Mayur Amin: I don’t know every single one off the top of my head, but they are in the public domain and I am happy to circulate those procedures to you.
Q114 Stephen Metcalfe: That moves us on to the wider point of where sponsorship comes into this. Presumably, there are people who still want to get sponsored publications out into the public domain. How do you identify those? How do you make sure that there is a clear difference between something that is a peer-reviewed journal and something that is sponsored by someone who wants to get a message across?
Mayur Amin: I learned a lot about total transparency and total disclosure about any such sponsorship. That is what it clearly states. There must be total transparency.
Dr Godlee: I think we enter a very tricky area here. We have to acknowledge, and I am sure my colleagues on this panel will be willing to acknowledge this, that the publishing industry has a number of revenue streams, one of which, certainly in medicine, is the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical industry, for every good reason and lots of bad reasons, wants to get their results out into the public domain. The journals provide them with a very efficient route to do that. Depending on their rigorous attempts to prevent this, journals are variously used by the pharmaceutical industry, the devices industry and other industries to get their points across. That is not to say that there aren’t hugely wonderful things going on in the pharmaceutical industry that need to be disseminated, and perhaps we could do a better job where those are concerned, but there are also extremely dubious practices. The journals are largely naïve on them. We do our best. I don’t know the extent to which this happens in biomedicine as opposed to clinical medicine, but it is certainly a major problem in clinical medicine. Sponsored publications can be very blurring at the edges. The reader may not be aware that this has been conjured up within industry and then sold to a publisher to publish to clinicians and others. Even if the publisher tries to make it obvious, it may not be as obvious as they think.
Even on the peer-reviewed side of things, it has been said that the journals are the marketing arm of the pharmaceutical industry. That is not untrue. To a large extent, that is true. Much as I hate to say this and much as it distresses me, we, as a publishing industry, have to acknowledge that and must have many more better systems for making that clear to clinicians and preventing it from happening on the scale that it is happening at the moment.
Q115 Stephen Metcalfe: Can you give an example of how that situation might be addressed? What sort of things should be done?
Dr Godlee: All efforts for transparency are good. Some people think that people pushing for this have gone too far. I personally don’t think we have gone far enough. We need centralised systems for conflicts of interest to be declared. In the States, for example, if you are at the Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic as a clinician or researcher, your conflicts of interest are posted and updated every year. It becomes much easier for people to become accountable for the funding they might get. I don’t think we have such good systems in the UK. Obviously, journals and journal editors need to be vigilant about this. Open access to research and data deposition, mandated, eventually, if we could find good systems for doing that, will help. Trial registration has been very important, but we need to push further on that so that the results are made available.
This is a big conversation to be had. It is absolutely not in the pharmaceutical or device industries’ best interests in the long term to be involved in the scandals that have been a major part of their lives, certainly in the States; less so here, but is that because the practices aren’t happening here or because we don’t know about them? It may be a combination of both of those things. It is not in the industries’ best interests and it is certainly not in the public interest that data on patients and the public as participants are not made available, are not properly reported and are misreported. Evidence-based practice, which we all want to see in medicine, becomes impossible if guidelines have been created based on distorted evidence. It sounds an extreme point of view. The evidence shows that it is not extreme and we have to begin to acknowledge this situation and take action to avoid it.
Dr Campbell: In the areas in which we publish, we have some clinical review journals, but predominantly, we are in the life sciences and physical sciences. I wouldn’t use that language at all. I feel very secure in the internal boundaries and in the transparency that we try to instil. We have internal guidelines that we make available to people. This is not in relation to original research, but where there is sponsored publication there are absolute and rigorous Chinese walls between the interested parties. Editors have the final say on what is published. We have statements that make that absolutely clear. It is essential. I recognise completely that in the clinical world, the pressures and boundaries can be far more difficult to police.
Robert Campbell: We heard from COPE that there has been a huge change in the last 10 years. There is much greater awareness throughout the editorial and peer review community. There has been a very good editorial in learned publishing just last month by Diane Scott-Lichter, using the analogy of the mitigation of cancer with publishing ethics. Better education and better screening can reduce the incidence of cancer, and she made that analogy with publishing. If we do more in terms of education, screening and training, we will reduce the problems later on.
Chair: I am afraid that we are going to have to move on. This is a fascinating area, but we have huge other areas to cover.
Q116 Roger Williams: We are told that some of the top journals may reject 95% of the papers that are submitted to them. Can you tell us why journals like the ones that you edit are so selective in dealing with these applications?
Dr Sugden: Part of it is simply that they are weekly magazines with a print budget. We are publishing 20 papers, say, a week, and a lot of people want to be published in them. We are receiving 10 times as many, roughly. That is the straightforward answer. We need to publish in a timely manner. We want to showcase the best across the range of fields in which we publish, so we have to be highly selective to do that.
Dr Campbell: That is an interesting question. As we move online and as the prospect of the decline of the print journal happens, that pressure is lessened. I still think that we would publish the same number of papers that we publish, pretty much. We are receiving increased numbers of submissions because the output of the scientific community is going up. It might go up for that reason, but the proportion would stay the same. It is to do with our judgment of what is really important.
Q117 Roger Williams: With so many journals publishing peer-reviewed work, does almost all research get into a peer-reviewed journal at some stage?
Dr Sugden: The evidence is that it does. We heard that said earlier. More than 80% of what passes through our hands will get published somewhere, and mostly somewhere quite good.
Q118 Roger Williams: Does everybody agree with that? Do researchers have multiple submissions? Are they allowed to submit to more than one journal at a time?
Mayur Amin: No.
Dr Sugden: That is absolutely not on.
Dr Campbell: Not at the same time. I have no idea-it would be an interesting statistic; maybe someone else on the panel knows-if you looked across the UK research community, what the average number of submissions per paper is before it gets published.
Dr Godlee: Just to go back, the reasons for publishing so few have changed. As Phil says, print is no longer the constraint. Editorial resource is obviously a constraint, and for a general journal, so is wanting to capture the very top-what we consider to be the top. Impact factor is an issue. Certainly a lot of journals find that if they reduce the number of research papers they publish, their impact factor creeps up quicker. That is a commercial reputational issue.
As to the question about where stuff goes if it doesn’t get into one of the high-end journals, increasingly people are going straight into one of the big open access journals, such as PloS ONE. BioMed Central has one. BMJ Group has one, as does Nature Communications. A lot of the publishers are beginning to open up so that people can get speedy publication if they haven’t got into the journal of their choice. That is a good thing. That means we will see authors being able to move on to the next thing rather than spending a lot of their time adapting a paper for yet another journal which is going to reject it and then move on. That is an improvement, in my view.
Q119 Roger Williams: Do you, as individual journals, have some sort of time target by which you will reject their articles, to be fair to the people who are submitting?
Dr Godlee: Absolutely. Again, it is a market. We will try and be as quick as we can so that authors want to send us their next paper. That is an author service that we want to provide.
Robert Campbell: Editors are screening a higher percentage. Where initially they are saying, "This is out of scope for the journal", they send it straight back, so the author is only losing days.
Mayur Amin: Ultimately, good science will find an outlet. To follow up on Fiona Godlee’s point, the important thing is to speed up the process-the waiting time between going from one journal to another.
Q120 Roger Williams: So most of your initial decisions are based on an editorial view-on what will have the biggest impact and interest-rather than on the quality of the science.
Dr Sugden: On both.
Q121 Roger Williams: You have already talked about the model that will publish everything that is scientifically sound, regardless of impact and interest. Is there any evidence that that is expanding, in terms of the opportunities for research?
Dr Godlee: I don’t know about the scientific reports that Nature is launching, but the model of BioMed Central, PLoS ONE, BMJ Open and other people who are doing that is very much to say, "We, the editorial group managing these bigger online repository-type journals, will not make a decision about editorial relevance." If it is relevant to two people in the world and can help them with their work, then that is fine, with no limitation on space. We want to make sure that it is properly reported and is valid science. That is the bar that peer review will help us to achieve. It is not an editorial decision but a science decision.
Dr Campbell: In my conversations with scientists, there are people who are sick to death of editors and who value something like, in our case, scientific reports, which have, as Fiona said, no editorial threshold but do have a peer review process just for the validity aspect of it. There are others who want to be a part of the "badge of honour", if you want to use that phrase, of one of the big journals. They will therefore submit themselves to editors.
Q122 Roger Williams: In this initial sorting out of submitted papers, what are the benefits and disadvantages of editorial boards against staff editors?
Dr Godlee: Cost.
Dr Sugden: We don’t pay our editorial boards. Most of our submissions will go to one or more members of the board in the first week they arrive. Then the staff editors will make their decision based partly on that advice.
Q123 Roger Williams: Do you all have editorial boards as well as staff editors?
Dr Campbell: Nature and the journals do not have editorial boards. We make extensive use of the peer review advice, of course, that we get. We never have had editorial boards. I guess, therefore, that I haven’t lived with an editorial board. All I can say is that our ability to act quickly is helped by the fact that we develop our own standards and depend on them.
Dr Godlee: The BMJ has a similar process.
Q124 Roger Williams: As staff editors, you have built up terrific expertise and a broad knowledge, but you are miles away from having done the science. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage? Does it give you more objectivity?
Dr Campbell: We are miles away from having done a very particular piece of science, but we have well over 150 post-doctoral editors that we have working for us. They have all done research. They all go to meetings and to labs for several weeks in a year. I think they have a better overview and a better sensitivity to what is important, but we absolutely depend on the peer review expertise even of distinguished scientists. We are more likely to want to go to the post-doc in the lab of a distinguished scientist, because they are the people right now at the cutting edge of fast-moving techniques.
Q125 Stephen Mosley: In previous evidence we have heard claims that the peer review system is in crisis. Professors Fox and Petchey said: "Scientists face strong incentives to submit papers, but little incentive to review." Would you agree with those sentiments?
Robert Campbell: There is no quantitative evidence that it is in crisis. I think the peer review system, as a whole, is more robust than ever. In our submission, we gave you some data that in 2010 we had about 12% more submissions. There was no impact on publishing schedules and no added delays, although we only published 2% more articles, so the rate of rejection was higher. A study has been published in Nature by Tim Vines and colleagues where they did try to quantify this issue and tracked all the reviewers. They found that the population of reviewers is increasing with the 3% to 4% increase in the research community, as you would expect. Therefore the load on each reviewer is, if anything, slightly less than 10 years ago.
Q126 Stephen Mosley: I know that in the written evidence, Dr Sugden, you put forward some evidence which said: "For an editor, the process of finding referees can be time-consuming", et cetera. You implied that it can sometimes be difficult to find reviewers. Is that the case?
Dr Sugden: Yes. It is usually because they are over-committed. It is not usually because of an underlying unwillingness to review or about not having an incentive to review. It is simply because they are doing too many other things at the time. It may take us a week or two to find the three referees that we need for a paper sometimes. It is rare that it takes much longer than that.
Q127 Stephen Mosley: You say they are over-committed. Has that changed in recent years or is it the case that it has always been that way?
Dr Sugden: I don’t have quantitative data on that. I haven’t noticed a particular change in the situation. Others may have.
Mayur Amin: I would agree with Bob Campbell that the potential pool of reviewers has increased in proportion to the number of researchers, because the reviewers come from that research community. There may be issues, I suspect, with geographical imbalances. If you take somewhere like the USA, which produces about 20% of the output of papers, it conducts something like 32% of the reviews in the world, whereas China is producing something like 12% to 15% of the output of papers but is probably only conducting about 4% to 5% of the reviews. This is just a transitionary thing. China and India have grown very fast in the last few years; there are a lot of young researchers who will come up and take their place in peer review and start peer reviewing papers. It is incumbent upon publishers to help out here, both in terms of technical infrastructure to help editors find a broader pool of reviewers, and also in terms of training needs, appointing editorial board members in those developing countries as well as running workshops and providing literature to help train new and young reviewers to come on to the system.
Dr Campbell: As I said in our submission, we are not experiencing problems in finding reviewers for the most part. Interestingly, Nature and the Royal Society co-hosted a discussion of Royal Society research fellows. They are the young researchers who have been given prestigious positions by the Royal Society. There was definitely a sense that their lives were getting more burdensome. Although the numbers are indeed growing, and although some of us are not having this difficulty, the time that academics have available for refereeing is under pressure. That is, therefore, all the more reason for us to support peer review by giving appropriate credit and so on.
Q128 Stephen Mosley: Does the type of peer review that you do have any impact on the number of reviewers you have? I know that the BMJ uses signed open peer review. Other organisations, like PLoS Medicine, tried it and then discontinued it a few years ago. I know that in the BMJ evidence, you talk about a survey that says that 76% did prefer the double blind system. Does the type of peer review have an impact on the supply and number of people who are willing to review?
Dr Godlee: On that, we found that reviewers are willing to review openly and sign their reviews, that authors very much appreciate that and like it. It has been helpful in revealing some undeclared conflicts of interest amongst reviewers. It is a very important process that works well for us. But we are a general medical journal; the point was made in the last session that specialist journals might find it more difficult. We do have people who decline to review for us openly, which is fine, but we haven’t found it a problem in terms of recruiting reviewers. One of the aspects of the open review process is that it is part of the credit system. We are beginning to post those online as well so that the reviewers get a credit for that.
Probably it does add a burden. It means they have to do a better job, which is why we do it; that is a good thing. I take Phil’s point entirely: scientists are under a lot of pressure on a whole host of things, such as getting funding and the bureaucracy surrounding scientific research, and peer review is just one other thing. Going back to the previous point, the more we can do to make it something that they gain proper recognition for, the better.
Q129 Stephen Mosley: We are going to be moving on to that point in the next question. I will move slightly away from that. We have had some conflicting evidence on cascading of reviews between publications. Do you have any strong views one way or the other?
Dr Sugden: In the sense of sharing reviews between us?
Stephen Mosley: Yes.
Dr Sugden: We haven’t done that so far, but we have had conversations with other journals about possibly doing it. We have not taken that leap so far. Within Science and its two sister journals, there is the possibility of sharing.
Dr Godlee: Within the BMJ and its sister journals, we do the sharing. Some journals are a bit squeamish about the idea of acknowledging that the paper went somewhere else before it came on to them and would rather not know, but we are very happy to receive a paper. If it has been elsewhere and it is a good paper, we would like to see the reviewers’ comments from the previous journal. We also would probably seek our own comments. There is no doubt that there is duplication of effort. That is the point of the question, I suppose.
Dr Campbell: The sharp edge of this issue is whether competing publishers are willing to share their signed referees’ reports internally, even if they don’t reveal to the authors who the referee was. We have a journal, Nature Neuroscience, that has participated in such an experiment. The neuroscience community has done so. We did it with some misgivings because, as I said in our submission, we invest a lot in getting editors out into the field and using referees whom we value because of the relationships that we have developed with them. To hand on, as it were, the outcome of that relationship to a competing publisher is something that hurts slightly. At the same time, you do have this competing interest of the research community to save people work. We found that the uptake of this facility, where authors can elect to have the referees’ reports of the rejecting journal handed on to the next publisher, is not very great.
Dr Godlee: They are hoping that the next reviewer will be more positive. That is the answer.
Dr Campbell: Of course, they may decide that they want to have a different set of reviewers anyway.
Mayur Amin: We participate in that same neuroscience consortium. Yes, the results are mixed. There is generally willingness amongst the publishers and editors to participate, but the authors are somewhat reluctant at the moment. There are also some successes. PLoS ONE is a good example of one where they are cascading material from their other PLoS journals into it. There are other journals such as Cell. I think Nature practises it. Internal cascading is working. We are trying out a number of areas, largely to reduce the burden on referees and reduce that time.
Chair: We must move on fairly rapidly because we are going to lose a few Members to Welsh Questions; they have come up in the ballot today.
Q130 Gavin Barwell: I want to pick up on an issue that has just been touched on in response to Stephen’s questions and to my earlier question as well. Some of the people who submitted to us said that a lack of formal accreditation for peer review is a problem. Several times, in answer to other questions, it has been touched on that some way of recognising those people who are giving their time to this process would be a good thing. Dr Parker of the Royal Society of Chemistry told us last week that , because of the very large numbers of reviewers that journals use , it would be very "challenging" to have an accreditation system. What do the panel members think about that?
Dr Campbell: In principle, I don’t think it is. A manuscript tracking system can be easily programmed. If what is needed is that the referees themselves get a proper statement of credit, that is fine. It is equally easy for a journal to decide to publish a list of everyone who has peer reviewed for them over a particular period. Again, a manuscript tracking system should be able to do that very easily. I don’t think in principle it is difficult.
Mayur Amin: I would agree. Individual journals practise this already in terms of listing the referees that they have used over the year, particularly recognising the ones who have done a lot of work. Some I know recognise them at conferences and they acknowledge their efforts. With the advent of ORCID, which is this unique author identifier, publishers are all working together to support this system. That may give us an opportunity also to be able to track with an unique identifier those people who have refereed and acted as referees. That may help to provide a stronger accreditation platform than is currently possible.
Dr Sugden: In a journal for which I used to work, I published a list of referees at the end of the year and received a rather anguished phone call from one of them saying, "Now the author", whoever it was, "will know it is me." There can be a downside to that, too.
Q131 Gavin Barwell: Dr Sugden, can I pick up next on something you said in your submission? You said: "We would recommend that journal editors and academies work together to produce guiding principles for the peer review process that can be adopted and used for instruction at the institutional level." Do you think there is a will among publishing organisations to work together to do that?
Dr Sugden: I don’t know. It is something that we think would be a good idea. I don’t know whether there is a wider desire for that. It springs from the evidence that we have that the quality of peer reviewing is quite variable. That may well have its roots in the quality of training that scientists get, not just between countries but within countries as well. I know that some institutions and some publishers are working on this kind of thing. There was some evidence from the Institute of Physics last week, wasn’t there, on this matter? It is a general recommendation.
Mayur Amin: We are already carrying out workshops and trying experiments of training and support. We would welcome and be supportive of any guidelines that come from the industry.
Robert Campbell: It is happening internationally. The International Council for Science is running a meeting later this month on peer review and how it can be improved. The debate is pretty active.
Q132 Gavin Barwell: Mr Amin, Elsevier mentioned in their submission their Reviewer Mentor Programme. How well received was that by higher education institutes? If it was well received, what plans do you have to scale-up that pilot?
Mayur Amin: There was a small-scale pilot where one or two editors and a single institution took on a few post-docs and encouraged them, in a test environment, to peer review and then they were given guidance. That was a manual hands-on approach. That pilot was received very well at that institution and by the people involved. We are now currently looking at how to scale that up and make it much more of an electronic and online system. We are hoping that by early next year we might well have a system to be able to start scaling that up.
Q133 Gavin Barwell: A final question from me, Chairman. Lots of people who gave evidence referred to the way in which peer review publication is being used as a metric in the Research Excellence Framework. Does that put undue pressure on publishing organisations? Has it affected the number and quality of submissions that you have received? Is it a concern on which any of you would like to comment?
Dr Godlee: We definitely see a spike in the months before the deadline. In that sense, yes. We welcome it. From our point of view, it has not been an overwhelming burden. These are good UK papers. All of us would say that we want to attract the best papers and this is a route to doing that. From our point of view, the answer is that it is not a problem.
Dr Campbell: Without wishing to seem flippant, the biggest pressure point of that sort comes in the summer when everybody sends their paper in, goes off on holiday and is therefore unavailable to peer review.
Q134 Graham Stringer: Dr Campbell, a Nobel Laureate has said in the literature that, in this commercially competitive world, top journals such as Nature and Science are "cutting corners" in looking for positive reviewers of the articles. Is that fair? What are your comments about that?
Dr Campbell: That is completely wrong. I totally refute that statement, as you would expect me to, I am sure. It is not in our interests to cut corners. As I said before, we have one of the most critical audiences in the world, and any paper that makes a strong claim is going to be absolutely hammered in the form of testing in the laboratory or scrutinised in terms of discussions at journal clubs, within universities and so on. It is simply not in our interest, for our reputation in the long run, to publish papers that have any degree of cutting of corners in the assessment process. I am not sure if it was the same person, but someone else also said that we would select reviewers, because we wanted to publish the paper, who would help us publish the paper by being soft. That, again, I refute in exactly the same terms.
Q135 Graham Stringer: Staying on this line for a moment, if you get a hot paper-maybe something confirming cold fusion-which would have worldwide interest, how does that affect your sales?
Dr Campbell: It doesn’t have a direct effect on sales. It is another hot paper. Of course, if there is an immediate stream of interest, the chances that people will subscribe to Nature or buy a copy of that paper may go up. In no sense, even implicitly within the company, is that particular sort of relationship seen as a measure of success. There is a big barrier of independence, institutionalised within the company, in fact, between the commercial side and the editorial side. I am absolutely charged with making sure that the reputation of the journal is upheld at whatever cost.
Q136 Graham Stringer: We have had discussions in this Committee about published articles. It is fundamental to science that the science that is done is reproducible, yet we found in other inquiries that computer codes are not always available. What is the attitude of the different journals represented here to the complete reproducibility of the science that is described in articles?
Dr Campbell: This is a hot issue as far as I am concerned and it is one where we do need to do some work with the communities. Journals like Science and Nature will work with the research communities to enforce deposition in databases, for example, if they are publicly available. When it comes to something like software, if you take a discipline like climate change-
Graham Stringer: That is the debate we were having it about.
Dr Campbell: Right. I was talking to a researcher the other day and he had been asked to make his code accessible. He had had to go to the Department of Energy for a grant to make it so. He was asking for $300,000, which was the cost of making that code completely accessible and usable by others. In that particular case the grant was not given. It is a big challenge in computer software and we need to do better than we are doing.
Q137 Graham Stringer: It rather undermines the science if it can’t be reproduced, doesn’t it?
Dr Campbell: Yes, but there are other ways of doing that. You can allow people to come into your laboratory and use the computer system and test it.
Q138 Graham Stringer: Do you believe that all journals should publish a publication ethics policy?
Dr Campbell: Yes.
Q139 Graham Stringer: Do you?
Dr Campbell: If you look in our Guide to Authors, we certainly do have statements about ethics in terms of declarations of conflicts of interests and such things.
Dr Godlee: The BMJ Publishing Group has a policy of transparency. I know that Wiley-Blackwell has an openly published policy. We all hope for a forward-looking, rigorous and ethical policy on transparency. That is one of the big things that journals and publishers should take on as their responsibility because we have the ability to put pressure on the research community to raise their game in a whole host of ways.
Q140 Graham Stringer: Should there be consequences if the policies are not followed?
Dr Godlee: Yes, and there are consequences.
Q141 Graham Stringer: What are the consequences?
Dr Godlee: It would depend on the ethical breach. If it was a plagiarism, then the paper might be retracted or there might be a statement of the offence. The institution would be informed. The author would be penalised via the institution. If it was a duplicate publication or a conflict of interests that was undeclared, all of these things have very straightforward remedies both through the journal and through the institution. The understanding of how to deal with what are now pretty standard ethical breaches is very well developed. More difficult is what you were discussing earlier where institutions or journals fail to pursue something adequately. The scientific community is probably not doing enough. There may be a further discussion, but the fact that we don’t have a proper research integrity oversight body in the UK is a real scandal.
Robert Campbell: We will see publishers investing more in higher ethical standards because, as we have to set apart what we are publishing from all the social media initiatives and the anarchic approach there, the way we can justify what we are doing and what we are charging for it is to have much higher publishing standards. It is something we will all be investing in.
Dr Sugden: For some years now we ask all authors to declare all conflicts of interest before we can even accept the paper for publication. That is quite tight transparency in our author instructions.
Mayur Amin: I would agree. We have similar policies that are made publicly available. There are, again, consequences where people flout those policies. There are retractions and removals in occasional cases, but we have public retractions so that they are visible and the reasons for the retraction of that article are known publicly.
Dr Campbell: If somebody hasn’t declared a conflict of interest and it is subsequently uncovered or if somebody does not fulfil one of the conditions of our publication, which is that you will make as much of your research materials as is reasonable available to others, then we will publish a statement next to that paper that makes that clear. In really egregious cases we will go to the head of an institution that employs the scientist concerned.
Q142 Graham Stringer: Let me be clear. If you have plagiarism, fraudulent claims or people not declaring important conflicts of interest, will you always publish that in subsequent journals?
Mayur Amin: If it comes to our attention, absolutely, yes.
Dr Godlee: We would publish a correction.
Q143 Graham Stringer: Is that standard throughout the industry?
Robert Campbell: I think it will be. The industry is developing-you may have come across it in the submissions-a new project called CrossMark. Every paper that has gone through the peer review process has the ongoing stewardship of the publisher picking up on retractions or corrections. By clicking on to the CrossMark logo, you can go to the metadata and find out if there have been any updates or even retractions. That is a technical solution which is being launched this year.
Dr Campbell: One of the ways in which you can highlight misconduct is to write about it in our magazine pages. We are constrained in that respect. In a recent case, a retraction had to be issued and the author of the paper wanted to highlight the fact that the reason for the retraction was a misconduct case that had been investigated by the university. We published the retraction but we found that we were not able to include the material about why because of the current libel laws. I do want to impress on this Committee, given the draft Defamation Bill that is under consideration, that it is something that really does affect us in many ways.
Dr Godlee: I would like to make a brief point about the hot papers. I agree with Phil that it is in no journal’s interest to publish hot papers that turn out to be invalid. Editorial decisions are too often directly influenced by reprint revenue. Medical journals publish articles which then get sold on. I defy any editor who is presented with a large drug trial not to know, as they are accepting that trial, that it will generate revenue for their journal. It is an enormous industry. It is an enormous part of the revenue streams of publishers both in the US and the UK. I would say less so for the BMJ but it is an issue. Something that would be really interesting for this Committee to look at would be what is reprint revenue, how does it influence editorial decisions and is it a good thing? Publishers benefit, but I don’t think science benefits.
Chair: That takes us neatly to a question that Stephen is going to ask.
Q144 Stephen Metcalfe: Dr Sugden, in your submission, you referred to the fact that the U S Congress has codi fied the use of peer review in G overnment regulations. Can you explain how that works and what the consequences are?
Dr Sugden: You have got me more or less at the limits of my knowledge on that, I am afraid. This was something that came in, I think, in the early 1990s, with the case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. The result of that was that the Supreme Court decided on the standards of scientific evidence-I am not sure if I am going to get this right-that should be applied in court. That standard was defined, partly, on the basis of it being peer reviewed. I can find out more.
Q145 Stephen Metcalfe: That may well be useful. Do you think there is a need to do something similar here in the UK?
Dr Sugden: I am not sure that it is for me to say. Perhaps my colleague would know if there is anything of that kind here. I am not aware that there is, but I think it would be useful.
Q146 Stephen Metcalfe: You think it would be useful.
Dr Sugden: I think it would be useful, yes.
Q147 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you think it would have any effect on the quality of the publications if you know that your articles are then being peer reviewed but they can then be used in Government regulations or the courtroom? Do you think that drives standards?
Dr Sugden: I honestly don’t know. I am not sure that it would affect it, but I don’t know, because you don’t know what future cases that evidence might be used in.
Q148 Stephen Metcalfe: As far as you are aware at the moment, are any of the UK scientific advisory groups mandated to use peer-reviewed literature?
Dr Sugden: Not that I am aware of.
Stephen Metcalfe: Perhaps it is an area that we need to look at in some detail elsewhere. Thank you.
Q149 Pamela Nash: I am aware that we have only a few minutes left, so I will try and put all my questions into one and I would ask you to keep your answers quite brief. I want to move on to international issues with peer review. Is there any difference between the standards of peer review, both in terms of the journals and the referees, in different countries and areas of the world? Also, do you have any experience of there being an additional burden placed on peer reviewers, either in the UK or in other established scientific communities with the increase in research that is coming from emerging scientific nations, such as China? Are any of your publications involved in training with reviewers from overseas? I know you touched on that earlier, Mr Campbell.
Dr Godlee: One of the issues that I am most aware of, and this is a brief point, is that American peer reviewers are prone to publish and to push for American work. There is a terrific American bias in PubMed, which is hard to address. There are differences in attitude to research in different countries. In terms of the quality, that is a matter of resourcing. Many countries in the world cannot afford the kind of publication processes that we are talking about. That is a big problem. As was mentioned, there will be a transition where the developing world will rely on the developed world for peer review for a while until systems get developed.
Robert Campbell: We have been carrying out a lot of training since 2005 in China, particularly in chemistry. We are increasing the percentage of peer reviewing from China now. It is still not parity but it is moving towards 20% of our papers. I am sure that the others are doing the same thing.
Dr Godlee: Yes. We are involved closely in training in Africa, China and India at the moment. It is exactly similar.
Mayur Amin: I would not say, necessarily, that the standards themselves vary internationally across regions, but maybe the practices do. Maybe that is partly to do with experience. Interestingly, in the case of one particular journal, I have an anecdotal piece of evidence. There was a sense that, if we appointed members of the board of a journal in China to peer review material in China, they might be softer on that material. In fact the contrary was the case. Reviewers in China are harder on material that comes out from China than, say, people in the UK were. There is a tendency for people in the UK and the US to be seen to be not overly critical of material that is coming out of scientifically developing nations. My sense is that the developing nations and other nations will come up to a level of practice that is seen in the UK and the US. Certainly publishers and all participants have a role to play in training and also supporting that mechanism.
Dr Sugden: The increased mobility of scientists over the past couple of decades has evened out the quality, in terms of the peer review we get. We try very hard to recruit referees from any good scientific centre, wherever it is.
Robert Campbell: Duplication is also a problem where English is the second or third language. Authors are more inclined to copy text as it gets their message over much more easily than they can by re-writing it. We do pick up more duplication from some areas overseas. As you will have read in the submissions, publishers have set up a system called CrossCheck for picking up duplication. That is being taken up at a good speed. About 20,000 submissions a month are now being processed through CrossCheck. By the end of this year, about 10% of all submissions will be scrutinised through CrossCheck for duplication, which can mean plagiarism.
Dr Campbell: I wouldn’t deny that the countries in which our referees are working are hugely skewed towards the developed scientific nations. I guess that is because that’s where we feel safe. Nationality and the point of origin is never an issue in the choice of a referee. There is no question about that. Also, I am sure we are all aware of the growth of science in China and the way in which that is being spurred by people coming over, having spent time in other countries. We are engaging with the Chinese community in a way that will increase referees from there, especially.
Q150 Chair: I have a final couple of questions. Dr Sugden, you said that there is a challenge in providing confidential access to large and complex datasets during peer review. You touched on this slightly with Graham’s questions about large datasets. Why are there currently no databases that allow for secure posting during the peer review process?
Dr Sugden: I am not sure that I can answer that. The challenge is, essentially, because we use a blind peer review system. We don’t want the author to know who the referee is. If the author is the person who is hosting the dataset, that can be an issue.
Q151 Chair: There are ways round that, surely.
Dr Sugden: There are, but it can be time-consuming.
Q152 Chair: Even in the cases of very large, voluminous datasets, they may not easily be uploaded online, but a DVD could be sent to the publisher and that could be put on a secure site.
Dr Sugden: Yes. There are a number of ways in which it can be done.
Q153 Chair: So there is an answer to the question that Graham raised about the specific issue that cropped up in the climate change inquiries. There would be a way mechanically of doing that, would there not? One of you mentioned a $300,000 grant.
Dr Campbell: That was for software. I understood that question to be about software and not data.
Q154 Chair: What I couldn’t understand about your answer was that that software must exist, otherwise the researcher couldn’t have read his own research.
Dr Campbell: Of course you can just send people the software, but you will find that this is not off-the-shelf software. This has been specifically built for the system. You can’t just transport it elsewhere without doing extra work to make it transportable.
Q155 Chair: That applies just as much for any piece of laboratory equipment.
Dr Campbell: Yes, it does.
Q156 Chair: Lots of laboratory equipment is custom made. You can describe it in your text.
Dr Campbell: You can describe it, absolutely. The policy that we have with a computer code is that you do have to describe the algorithm. We do have a policy of that sort.
Dr Godlee: For clinical data we have a big challenge, but it is one that we must head up. The journals must move to a mandatory approach.
Q157 Chair: Presumably, part of the challenge in clinical data is because of patient confidentiality.
Dr Godlee: That is a challenge, but when one is talking about large datasets, confidentiality has already been dealt with, and we should not use that as an excuse for not looking at this. There are no doubt practical issues, but it would be great if this Committee were to give a push forward for the kind of approach that, nationally, we ought to have systems for data depositioning. The practical problems will be resolved, as with trial registration, which seemed impossible five or 10 years ago, and it is now routine.
Q158 Chair: Do you all offer post-publication commenting for all of your journals?
Dr Godlee: Yes.
Dr Campbell: Only some of our journals at the moment. We are introducing it.
Q159 Chair: If there were a growth in post-publication reviews, would there be a lower expectation of pre-publication review?
Dr Sugden: No.
Q160 Chair: One doesn’t cancel out the other.
Dr Sugden: No, I don’t think so.
Mayur Amin: There needs to be a fundamental difference between first publication commentary as a supplement to the peer review process as opposed to post-publication commentary as a substitute for the peer review process. I don’t think it will act as a substitute because peer review doesn’t just comment on the paper; it helps to improve the paper. But you will end up with less quality or even bad science being made public. People may not comment on it. Therefore, lack of commentary doesn’t mean that the paper is good or bad. It will just stay in the public domain.
Dr Godlee: I wouldn’t want this Committee to go away with the view that because we all nod dutifully and say that we have post-publication peer review, that is the case across the industry. There are great variations. Some journals exercise a liberal view, which is the BMJ’s view. Others have a much more editorially tight control over what gets written, post-publication. In some cases that I am aware of, critical comment about papers does not get out into the public domain. The other problem is that even when it does, the authors often don’t respond. One is left with a situation that is far from perfect. There is a lot of progress with the internet but it is still not perfect.
Chair: Thank you very much. We have at least a couple of promises for some additional information from Mr Amin and Dr Sugden. That would be extremely helpful. Any other comments that you would like to add would be extremely helpful. It has been a very interesting morning. Thank you very much for your contributions.
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