Traditional peer-reviewing system by the journal will continue

Posting of papers by authors on the journal's preprint server is not compulsory.

Any scientist can scrutinise papers posted on the preprint server.

CALL IT the Hwang Woo Suk effect, the journal Nature has effective June 5, started a new approach, on a trial basis lasting for three months, providing an opportunity for papers submitted for possible publication to become open for public scrutiny. Though the journal does not in any way say that its latest decision has in any way been influenced by the Hwang episode, one may not be totally wrong in concluding otherwise.

Ill equipped

Hwang's case involving fabrication of data on human cloning, among others, shows how vulnerable and ill-equipped even reputed peer-reviewed journals are in detecting scientific fraud and deception committed by authors. It may be recalled that the two papers that Hwang published in Science were later found to contain fabricated data (The Hindu, December 29, 2005). The matter would have never come to light but for the messages posted on an Internet message board questioning the veracity of one of the papers. In another case, according to The Scientist, several papers published in many journals by a professor have been found to contain at least one figure that was questionable. The professor in question is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States. Much like Hwang's case, it was not the journals that detected the fraud; students working at her laboratory had alerted the University. The new initiative by Nature would to a large extent put an end to such papers ever getting published in journals. But Nature contends that the new initiative does not in any way imply that the current peer reviewing system is inadequate.

Improving service

"There has been much discussion in the community about peer review system. ... Nature is always looking to improve its services to readers, authors and reviewers," the journal notes. Under the new initiative, lasting for three months, papers posted on the Nature preprint server will be open for scrutiny by the scientific community. Though the journal will continue with its traditional peer-reviewing system, comments posted on the preprint server will help the Editor check for all details missed by its reviewers. It has its limitations though - posting papers on the preprint server is not compulsory and the decision to post it is left to the authors. Critics may still point out that making it optional still does not help journals detect papers that contain fabricated data. But it is too early to draw any conclusion on the merits of this endeavour.

Final decision

The journal would take a decision "Depend[ing] on the popularity of the trial with authors, and whether comments received have helped the editors to make decisions about publication," it notes.The system is seen as a way to ensure that outsiders have a chance to scrutinise papers posted on the preprint server and at the same time permit the authors to respond to such comments posted and also get in touch with those who have posted the comments. The journal Biology Direct works on such open reviewing of papers. It marks a paradigm shift in the way papers are reviewed and published. Here the authors of papers have to choose their own reviewers from the editorial board. This makes sure that reviewers are no longer anonymous powerful persons sitting in judgment on the merit of the papers. This is just one of the advantages. The reviewers' comments are also published alongside the authors' responses giving readers more insight into the paper.Writing in the online issue of Nature.com, Eugene Koonin and others note that the open model is aimed at "revitalizing the culture of scientific debate that is waning in the uneven duel between omnipotent, anonymous reviewers and helpless authors." "Our online trial opens up a parallel track for peer review for submitted papers for authors willing to go down that route," notes the Nature Editorial published online.

Not mandatory

While opening up a parallel route to peer reviewing is encouraging, not making the posting of papers on the preprint server mandatory is not. Only such a move will really become effective in preventing papers that contain fabricated data, as in the case of Hwang, from getting published. "At the close of the trial, we will assess the value of public comments overall as well as the practicalities of their inclusion on a longer-term basis," notes Nature's preview to the peer review trial. R. PRASAD

in Chennai