Academics should have their university colleagues review their papers before submitting them to journals, a Nobel laureate has argued, because this is a surer way to avoid damaging scientific “blunders”.
In 2011, Dan Shechtman won the prize in chemistry for discovering quasicrystals, structures that do not repeat themselves, overturning a long-held assumption about crystals.
It took him two years to get the results published in a peer-reviewed journal, only to met by scepticism from some when his paper appeared in 1984. He was branded a “quasi-scientist” by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, but ultimately hailed as having made a major breakthrough.
Now distinguished professor emeritus at Technion Israel Institute of Technology and distinguished professor at Iowa State University, he said he was “100 per cent sure” that he was right when he sent his quasicrystal discovery to a journal because it had been through a rare system of internal peer review at the US-based National Bureau of Standards (NBS), the institute where he was based at the time.
“Our monitoring system of bad science is not working very well,” Professor Shechtman told Times Higher Education at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual conference for prizewinners and young scientists held in southern Germany in July.
The problem lies with the fact that peer review tends to be done solely through journals, he said, which send out articles under consideration to other specialists in the field.
“But the best scientists do not have time for this [peer-reviewing others’ papers],” he argued, “so the ones who have time for it…are not necessarily the best experts.”
This is why papers need to go through an extra layer of internal scrutiny before they are even submitted to journals, Professor Shechtman recommended. Colleagues check his papers before they ever leave the institute, he explained, and he does the same for them.
“They will make my paper better. I don’t have to pay anything, I don’t have to put their names on my paper,” he said. This system is “very good”, but is in use “only in very few institutes around the world”, he added.
The NBS – now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – still requires a “thorough internal review before publication”, a spokeswoman confirmed. An author’s work is reviewed by two “technical experts” from NIST staff as well as their entire chain of command, sometimes all the way up to the lab director, she explained.
The point is to make sure that information disseminated by NIST is “presented in a clear, complete and unbiased manner”, the spokeswoman said. Reviewers verify that a paper’s conclusions are supported by the data and observations, but they also polish the writing – by reducing the use of acronyms, ensuring that tables and figures are clear, and checking grammar and spelling, she added.
Such a system “can be copied” by other research institutes, said Professor Shechtman. He did, however, acknowledge that scientists might not want to upset their colleagues by being too hard on their work. “People are not perfect,” he said.
Nor does internal review guarantee that all your colleagues will back you in the face of post-publication criticism. One early sceptic of Professor Shechtman’s quasicrystal work was his own team leader at the NBS, who told him to quit.
In his presentation to scientists at Lindau, Professor Shechtman focused on incidents of “scientific blunder” – supposedly big discoveries that caught the attention of the public but turned out to be illusory under further scrutiny.
Speaking to THE, he suggested creating a numerical “trust credit” score for scientists, and giving academics higher ratings if they repeatedly publish “worthy” papers.
Relying on a scientist’s “reputation”, as most people do now, is “illusive because there is no number of the reputation”, he said.
Criminal consequences were needed for scientists who commit research misconduct, he added.
“There is no legal system to judge crooks in science. You can do nothing if somebody publishes results that are not only bad science, but forged science.” At the moment, he explained: “You can cheat and cheat and cheat, and even if you are caught nothing will happen to you.”
Print headline: Nobelist: fight ‘bad science’ with internal peer review