Science in Society Archive

Letter to Nature Biotechnology: Prepublication Review Yes, But Review Panel Must be Balanced

Letter to editor Andrew Marshall in response to the call for suggestions in the December 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology

Dear Andrew Marshall:

I am writing in response to the invitation in your note in the December 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology.

Selecting papers at least partly for reasons other than their strictly scientific impact is surely not a new departure for Nature. Much of the current interest in aspects of molecular biology, for example, has at least as much to do with their perceived commercial importance as with their intrinsic significance within science.

There would be a change, however, if you decided you would now publish some papers which are of sufficient interest on social or other grounds but which would not pass normal peer review. There might, for example, be a clear indication of something important but not enough data for statistical significance. An example would be any of the papers that were published (in other journals) about the relation between food additives and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These results were clearly worth disseminating and taking seriously before the recent more definitive paper appeared. (D. McCann, et al, The Lancet, published online 6/9/07.) Indeed, that work might never have been commissioned if the earlier results had not been published.

There are also cases such as the harm caused by Bt pollen in the Philippines, where the research was terminated due to lack of funding and probably could not be followed up now even if organisations such as Monsanto and the Philippine government were now to offer support. Yet the information that was obtained ought to be available somewhere. (See M.W. Ho, Science in Society 29, 26-27, 2006)

Such work would seem appropriate for Nature Precedings. It would be helpful to readers if the papers included explicit statements of where they fail to meet the standard that both you and the authors would normally expect and also whether more work is being done and, if not, why not.

Where the initiative comes from the journal rather than from the researcher, as with the Ermakova article, I suggest the format used by Behavioral and Brain Sciences and others: a target article by the researcher, a commentary by a mixed panel of experts, and then a response by the author. The original author should have the last word, but that need not be the end of the matter, for the discussion could be continued in subsequent issues of the journal.

The members of the panel can be chosen in a number of ways – some suggested by the original author, others by the editor and colleagues, perhaps, as in the American Journal of Bioethics, by a number of individuals being invited to see the target article in confidence and submit very short abstracts of what they propose to write.

By a mixed panel, I mean one that includes some who are inclined to support the work and others who are likely to be sceptical. When there are controversies, the scientists who are involved tend, like other people, to take up positions on one side or the other of the debate. They may hold their positions in good faith and on the basis of the evidence as they see it, but they do have positions, and an editor must not take at face value a claim that they are unbiased and “only interested in science” -- and, by implication, that those on the other side are not.

Peter Saunders.

Article first published 09/01/08

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