Punching down; In defense of PubPeer

Today marked a new low in the depths to which publishing industry will sink to maintain their outdated business model.  I’m talking about a piece of literary detritus entitled “Vigilante Science” published in Plant Physiology and penned by its editor in chief Michael Blatt. It’s a classic punch-down piece from a journal editor having a hard time coming to terms with the death of the publishing industry as we know it.

Readers of this op-ed masquerading as serious discourse will rapidly learn that the popular post-publication peer review portal PubPeer (8 Ps – count em!) is a mere “by-product of the social media age”. Straight away, he starts out dissing it as side-issue, as opposed to what it really is – a potential solution to a rampant problem foisted on academia by multi-billion dollar publishing corporations (one of which he happens to work for).

Readers are then treated to (wait for it…) the two-fold problems with PubPeer…

Problem 1 is simply stated as “Most commenters take advantage of the anonymity afforded by the site in full knowledge that their posts will be available to the public at large”.  There is no further attempt to explain why this is a problem, we’re just asked to assume that it is.

Problem 2 is stated bluntly as “The vast majority of comments that are posted focus on image data (gels, blots, and micrographs) that contribute to the development of scientific ideas but are not ideas in themselves”.

After stepping back from my monitor to avoid spitting coffee at it, I read that sentence again, and have read it several times since, and I can’t even begin to understand how someone purporting (pretending) to be a scientist could think in such a way?

To borrow another of Dr. Blatt’s phrases – “Let’s not mince words”.  What we’re talking about here is the editor of a major journal, claiming that problems with data are not a big deal, as long as the underlying ideas are OK.  Hopefully I don’t need to explain how dangerously at odds with the scientific method such a viewpoint is (hint – it’s all about the data; anyone can have ideas, but without data to support them, ideas are worthless).

Taken together, the two-fold problems (anonymity and mostly petty issues with figures) pose fundamental paradox:  If PubPeer is really as unimportant as he claims it is, why bother with an editorial such as this?

The good Dr. Blatt’s justification for his tirade against commenters who have an eye for dodgy data, is that “no journal club I ever organized or contributed to was so obsessed with the minutiae of data presentation”.  My only response can be to suggest he find a better journal club!

The article moves on with a series of poorly informed opinions. Take for example this gem…

“While there is no danger of public embarrassment for the commenter, likewise there is no opportunity to gain from a personal exchange with the author.

Does Dr. Blatt even consider the possibility that many commenters on PubPeer have already exhausted the polite channels he espouses?  Does he consider the fact that when confronted with problem data, many authors simply ignore, obfuscate, or go on the offensive (often hiring lawyers)?  The opportunity to interact with authors is presented as a panacea, failing to acknowledge the reality that such interaction is often fruitless.

He continues…

What is the rationale? Given that the majority of comments show the most petty kind of scientific criticism, can there be any doubt that the intent often is to pillory”.

Does it even cross his mind that a possible motivator might be the integrity of the scientific record? Does he stop to think that commenters may be tired of trying to compete with cheats?  No, it’s far easier to write it all off as a bunch of disgruntled scientific competitors whose sole motivation is the satisfaction of tanking someone’s career!  To put it mildly – many of us have bigger fish to fry (i.e. our own science).

This little gem seeks to put pre-publication peer review (i.e. the bread-and-butter of his journal) on a podium, somehow better than post-pub…

“I accept that there is a case for anonymity as part of the peer-review process. However, the argument for anonymity in postpublication discussion fallaciously equates such discussion with prepublication peer review.”

Given that many of the cases on PubPeer have found problems that should have been discovered during pre-pub’ peer review, there is a strong argument to be made that post- review is not only equal to pre-, but better!  Considering that both exercises are conducted for free, but the only one making a profit on the back of free labor is the pre-pub’ variety, perhaps we should equate them by paying people for post-pub’ peer review?

It goes on… he sides with Hilda Bastian in espousing “the importance of assessing whether commenters are outside their areas of expertise”.  This is a classic prat-fall of the entitled.  I’ll re-phrase it into plain English – Your opinion only counts if I deem you important enough to have an opinion.  Witness this discussion between myself and a senior scientist on PubPeer, in which my scientific credentials were considered as a topic worthy of discussion, instead of the actual data in question.  Quite simply, there are no rules regarding who is qualified to comment on science. Anyone who claims otherwise is engaged in protectionism/racketeering.

He then adds this beauty…

“So, whatever the shortfalls of the peer-review process, I do not accept the argument that it is failing, that it is a threat to progress, or that, as scientists, we need to retake control of our profession. Indeed, if there is a threat to the scientific process, I would argue that, unchecked, the most serious is the brand of vigilante science currently facilitated by PubPeer.”

So let’s get this straight – the problems facing science today are not: (i) a lack of funding,  (ii) rampant fakery, (iii) politicians seeking to defund things they don’t like, (iv) inadequate teaching of the scientific method in schools, (v) proliferation of the blood-sucking profiteering publishing industry, (vi) an obsession with impact factor and other outdated metrics, (vii) a broken training to job pipeline in academia, (viii) insert your favorite #scipocalypse cause here.

No, the #1 threat to science right now is vigilantes on PubPeer! Of course… if only we could just get rid of the idiots on PubPeer, the most serious threat to science would disappear and we could all go back to living the high life!  Sign me up!

He then issues a dangerous call to action…

“I urge scientists publishing in Plant Physiology and other reputable scientific journals not to respond to comments or allegations on PubPeer”.

My only suggestion here would be to ignore this “advice”, unless of course you plan on a long and protracted series of legal challenges or online battles, resulting in an institutional investigation and your eventual firing.

The way that “real” scientists respond when their data is questioned, is to answer the damn question!  Show the data. Produce the originals.  In case you hadn’t noticed, the front page of PubPeer cycles once every 3-4 days – if there’s an innocent explanation, you WILL be vindicated and your career will not end if you engage with the commenters.

To cap it off, in the ultimate punch-down, Dr. Blatt accuses the founders of PubPeer of unmasking themselves solely for the purpose of making money. This neatly sidesteps the huge amount of personal resources they poured into the enterprise from the beginning, and of course ignores that they will not gain anything personally from this new effort, because the organization is a 501c3 non-profit foundation.

It takes an exquisite amount of hipocrisy, to speak from the bully pulpit of an entitled publication, part of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, punching down at a non-profit foundation, and accusing it of being money-hungry.  The only possible motivation I can think of for this Op-Ed, is an editor and an industry witnessing the slow decentralization of their control over information (for massive profit), seeking to discredit an upstart grass-roots organization that might disrupt the status quo.

What a sad sad display of the death throes of an empire.

Such events usually do not end in the emperor’s favor.