6 months and counting for PLoS to act

As a follow-up to my post from last November about the effort expended trying to get a troublesome PLoS Biology paper dealt with by the journal, I wanted to update on what has happened since (TL,DR nothing!), and address a few peripheral topics along the way…

1) Metrics. At the time of my writing the post, the paper itself had been read 10,000 times and the accompanying PubPeer post 1000 times. So, assuming most people who saw the post on PubPeer clicked through to the article itself, this would suggest  ~10% of the people viewing the paper knew about the problems with it.

A month later (December 10th), the PubPeer page had racked up 2,000 hits and the article itself was at 11,000. In other words, both the paper and the PubPeer page accumulated the same number of hits. Assuming modest overlap, this suggests that in the month after my post, the vast majority of people who saw the paper knew about the problems.

What’s interesting, is although my post generated a modest amount of traffic on Twitter (a dozen or so retweets plus a few responses including from PLoS Biology EiC Theodora Bloom), none of this shows up on the “Discussed” tab at the paper itself. The casual reader would remain blissfully unaware of these problems. I’m sure the journal loves to keep it that way, but it suggests we need better ways of linking social media discussion to publications (note to self – add link to orig’ paper when tweeting about this post).

2) Responses that are not responses.  Within 3 days of my post and the ensuing publicity, PLoS Biology just so happened to publish a blog post entitled “Scientific misconduct allegations: tell me what would you do?“.  It contained some real gems…

I want to be clear that in all the points I make in this post I am not referring to any particular current or past case.

…it is particularly troubling to me that we are seeing a proliferation of websites devoted to anonymous and/or public allegations of misconduct. I am also personally troubled when, as has happened recently, accusers appear to suggest that this journal’s staff are dishonest, lazy, incompetent or otherwise delinquent in our approach to handling these issues, simply because we will not publicly comment on proceedings that, quite rightly, happen in private. My personal request would be that those who consider Twitter or an anonymous blog post the best forum for accusations that may terminate someone’s scientific career instead rethink and try to be patient while investigations take place at an appropriate pace.

Despite the claim that this post was not referring to any particular events, it’s hard to believe it was not motivated in some small way by the specific case I raised just 3 days beforehand.

Naturally, I responded to the post, and PLoS went on the defensive. One specific issue raised was whether they had indeed responded to all my emails. Allow me to clarify… not all of the email correspondence I had with the journal was CC’ed to the EiC Theodora Bloom. Some of it was directly with a senior editor at the journal (who will remain nameless). While the EiC did indeed respond every time (albeit often delayed), the senior editor did not. As outlined in my original post several emails went unanswered.

3) So what now? On December 9th I sent the following email:

It is now 1 month since I wrote a lengthy blog-post about my frustrations with a problematic paper in your journal.  The counter is now at 23 weeks and still there is no word on what’s happening.  When my post was made, the paper had ~10k views and it now has ~11k.  The PubPeer page criticizing it had ~1000 views and now has ~2000.  Another way of looking at those similar traffic levels (1000 views each)…
let’s assume most people who saw the Pub-Peer critique clicked through to the paper itself; that means almost everyone who saw this paper in the past month saw the critique first. Almost no-one is reading this paper “blind” now.

I enjoyed your blog post criticizing certain paths in dealing with problem data, exactly 3 days after I called out these problems on my website and Twitter.  While I realize you may not have been referring to any particular case in your writings, let’s just say it was a curious coincidence.  Referring to one item raised during the ensuing discussion – an apparent disagreement on whether you responded to all emails – checking back through my records, you were not CC’ed on all communications, and there were unanswered e-mails to the Editor (Ines Alvarez-Garcia). Thus, while you personally may have responded, this doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone at the journal.

I think the 6 month anniversary of the publication of this paper might serve as a useful landmark for a follow-up blog post, detailing the lack of action, and the accompanying lack of transparency in this entire process.  It’s OK to take your time, but then it’s also expected you will give concrete reasons for doing so.  I have yet to hear any good reason why this case has not yet been resolved (beyond the classic boilerplate arguments that these things are delicate and take time).  I would hope that by the time I publish a follow up post, there will be some positive results to talk about.

I received the following response from the EiC:

I am currently out of the office at a conference but will ensure we get you a more detailed response later this week.

Followed by this response from the senior editor:

Thank you for your email and apologies for the delayed response. We are actively working on this case and we hope it will be resolved in the near future. However, as we have already mentioned in previous correspondence, we cannot share any additional details with you at this stage.

So much for the extra detail!  That was a month ago and there’s been no word since.  Today is the 6 month anniversary of the publication of the original paper, and we are still no closer to discovering what’s actually going on behind the scenes at PLoS Biology. The take home lesson here is that if you find a problem with published science, you’re better off writing it down on paper and throwing it to sea in a bottle, than you are trying to engage in reasoned constructive conversation with the gatekeepers of information, the journals. It’s 2014 now, and this state of affairs just saddens me.