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Reflections on a foray into post-publication peer review

March 25, 2013

Recently I posted a comment on a PLOS ONE article for the first time. As someone who had a decent chunk of his career before post-publication peer review came along — and has an even larger chunk of his career left with it around — it was an interesting experience.

It started when a colleague posted an article to his Facebook wall. I followed the link out of curiosity about the subject matter, but what immediately jumped out at me was that it was a 4-study sequence with pretty small samples. (See Uli Schimmack’s excellent article The ironic effect of significant results on the credibility of multiple-study articles [pdf] for why that’s noteworthy.) That got me curious about effect sizes and power, so I looked a little bit more closely and noticed some odd things. Like that different N’s were reported in the abstract and the method section. And when I calculated effect sizes from the reported means and SDs, some of them were enormous. Like Cohen’s d > 3.0 level of enormous. (If all this sounds a little hazy, it’s because my goal in this post is to talk about my experience of engaging in post-publication review — not to rehash the details. You can follow the links to the article and comments for those.)

In the old days of publishing, it wouldn’t have been clear what to do next. In principle many psych journals will publish letters and comments, but in practice they’re exceedingly rare. Another alternative would have been to contact the authors and ask them to write a correction. But that relies on the authors agreeing that there’s a mistake, which authors don’t always do. And even if authors agree and write up a correction, it might be months before it appears in print.

But this article was published in PLOS ONE, which lets readers post comments on articles as a form of post-publication peer-review (PPPR). These comments aren’t just like comments on some random website or blog — they become part of the published scientific record, linked from the primary journal article. I’m all in favor of that kind of system. But it brought up a few interesting issues for how to navigate the new world of scientific publishing and commentary.

1. Professional etiquette. Here and there in my professional development I’ve caught bits and pieces of a set of gentleman’s rules about scientific discourse (and yes, I am using the gendered expression advisedly). A big one is, don’t make a fellow scientist look bad. Unless you want to go to war (and then there are rules for that too). So the old-fashioned thing to do — “the way I was raised” — would be to contact the authors quietly and petition them to make a correction themselves, so it could look like it originated with them. And if they do nothing, probably limit my comments to grumbling at the hotel bar at the next conference.

But for PPPR to work, the etiquette of “anything public is war” has to go out the window. Scientists commenting on each other’s work needs to be a routine and unremarkable part of scientific discourse. So does an understanding that even good scientists can make mistakes. And to live by the old norms is to affirm them. (Plus, the authors chose to submit to a journal that allows public comments, so caveat author.) So I elected to post a comment and then email the authors to let them know, so they would have a chance to respond quickly if they weren’t monitoring the comments. As a result, the authors posted several comments over the next couple of days correcting aspects of the article and explaining how the errors happened. And they were very responsive and cordial over email the entire time. Score one for the new etiquette.

2. A failure of pre-publication peer review? Some of the issues I raised in my comment were indisputable factual inconsistencies — like that the sample sizes were reported differently in different parts of the paper. Others were more inferential — like that a string of significant results in these 4 studies was significantly improbable, even under a reasonable expectation of an effect size consistent with the authors’ own hypothesis. A reviewer might disagree about that (maybe they think the true effect really is gigantic). Other issues, like the too-small SDs, would have been somewhere in the middle, though they turned out to be errors after all.

Is this a mark against pre-publication peer review? Obviously it’s hard to say from one case, but I don’t think it speaks well of PLOS ONE that these errors got through. Especially because PLOS ONE is supposed to emphasize “a high technical standard” and reporting of “sufficient detail” (the reason I noticed the issue with the SDs was because the article did not report effect sizes).

But this doesn’t necessarily make PLOS ONE worse than traditional journals like Psychological Science or JPSP, where similar errors get through all the time and then become almost impossible to correct. [UPDATE: Please see my followup post about pre-publication review at PLOS ONE and other journals.]

3. The inconsistency of post-publication peer review. I don’t think post-publication peer review is a cure-all. This whole episode depended in somebody (in this case, me) noticing the anomalies and being motivated to post a comment about them. If we got rid of pre-publication peer review and if the review process remained that unsystematic, it would be a recipe for a very biased system. This article’s conclusions are flattering to most scientists’ prejudices, and press coverage of the article has gotten a lot of mentions and “hell yeah”s on Twitter from pro-science folks. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that that contributed to it getting a pass, and that if the opposite were true the article would have gotten a lot more scrutiny both pre- and post-publication. In my mind, the fix would be to make sure that all articles get a decent pre-publication review — not to scrap it altogether. Post-publication review is an important new development but should be an addition, not a replacement.

4. Where to stop? Finally, one issue I faced was how much to say in my initial comment, and how much to follow up. In particular, my original comment made a point about the low power and thus the improbability of a string of 4 studies with a rejected null. I based that on some hypotheticals and assumptions rather than formally calculating Schimmack’s incredibility index for the paper, in part because other errors in the initial draft made that impossible. The authors never responded to that particular point, but their corrections would have made it possible to calculate an IC index. So I could have come back and tried to goad them into a response. But I decided to let it go. I don’t have an axe to grind, and my initial comment is now part of the record. And one nice thing about PPPR is that readers can evaluate the arguments for themselves. (I do wish I had cited Schimmack’s paper though, because more people should know about it.)

6 Comments
  1. March 25, 2013 11:31 pm

    PLoS One does not seem to be any worse than standard journals in the pre-publication—a lot of serious errors seem to slip past editors’ and reviewers’ scrutiny. One major issue seems to be that authors are not required to release data with the paper; I have asked authors for their data in the past, but in most cases I get responses such as: we lost it (or variants on that statement), or sorry, our university doesn’t allow release of data, or no response at all.

    So, PLoS One seems to come out better than standard journals in that it at least allows post publication comment. But you’re right that the post publication review system depends on readers taking action. I read an article recently on PLoS One that was riddled with errors, but I don’t want to respond because the authors don’t like to be contradicted; they would take it personally. So I let it go. I predict that what will happen next is that that paper will be ignored in the field. But this now means that citation statistics will be the metric for judging the merit of a paper. I’m not sure I am too excited about that, given that so many people cite papers just because someone else (who’s famous) cited them, without reading them.

    • Sanjay Srivastava permalink*
      March 26, 2013 11:42 am

      I have complicated feelings about posting data. On the whole I think it’s a good idea. But in my field, there are people who do technically demanding and labor-intensive data collection — longitudinal studies, difficult methods, etc. And sometimes the exact same data can be analyzed different ways to answer different questions. If we start requiring people to post data publicly, we need a way to make sure that people get credit for creating datasets that others find useful. (Traditional authorship doesn’t cut it for public datasets.)

      I also considered the reputational issues — how would it make the authors feel to contradict them publicly? How might they react? But as I said in my post, science needs to get to where open, polite and frequent disagreements are a normal and acceptable part of discourse. And if people like me aren’t the ones to challenge the old norms — people with tenure and other comforts of seniority — then who is? Grad students, who have enough to worry about with their futures already? And in this case, I can’t speak to what the authors privately think about the whole thing, but in our interactions they were very responsive, open, and civil.

      • March 27, 2013 10:15 pm

        If the data are so hard to gather, I would think there is even more reason to release it. I do agree that the experimenters should get credit somehow (maybe payment for datasets?). I always felt that if data have more than one interpretation, it should at least be discussed. The pressure to publish decisive studies is such that people end up distorting their claims, making them look more definitive than they really are. One strategy is to not discuss the uncomfortable aspects of the data, in the hope (often realized) that reviewers will not notice. I find it very hard to name a published paper with truly conclusive results, but these papers don’t give the impression that there is more than one interpretation possible.

        I notice different kinds of problems in published work, in some cases it really is a question of how you interpret the published result, but in other cases (I suspect this is more common) it seems to me that statistical analyses are simply inappropriate (the commonest is in my field is not checking model assumptions—there is a prevalent belief that it doesn’t matter whether model assumptions of normality of residuals etc are not satisfied, “due to the central limit theorem”). This kind of misleading result needs to be pointed out.

        Luckily, in my field, nobody is going to die if a result comes out one way or another; but in fields where it is a matter of policy or life or death, a lot more has to be done. For example, I am very much affected personally by the research on dialysis (as I’m on dialysis myself), and if researchers start bringing out (as has been happening recently) a slew of very badly done studies “showing” that daily dialysis doesn’t provide any benefit over three times a week regimens, and may even be harmful, this could affect policy dramatically, and people are going to die. Someone needs to take these scientists on, politely or not.

  2. March 26, 2013 8:56 am

    “The authors never responded to that particular point…

    But a subsequent reader, perhaps less knowledgeable about that particular issue than you, can know that there might be something amiss, and that alone is worth the comment. On a related note, would you advocate publishing the pre-pub peer reviews (anonymously) as another part of a more open process?

    • Sanjay Srivastava permalink*
      March 26, 2013 11:46 am

      I favor bold empiricism with reform proposals. If someone thinks that publishing pre-pub reviews is a good idea, they should convince a journal to try it and see what happens. I could imagine it cutting different ways. Maybe it would make reviewers feel more accountable. Or maybe it would make them bloviate for an imagined future audience instead of trying to help the review process. My own hunch would be the latter, but it’s an empirical question.

  3. Phyllis Patterson permalink
    March 29, 2013 1:37 pm

    Unfortunately, most journals don’t allow for comments and those that do prevent anonymity. I think this discourages a lot of people from sticking their neck’s out and writing something that could stick on the internet forever. It’s a shame because PPPR could make a huge difference if it was more heavily adopted. PubPeer is a new centralized platform that collects PPPR across all journals and allow anonymity. It’s only a few months old but so far it is completely civilized and productive: pubpeer.com/recent.

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