Adam David and Knight, Jonathan. "Publish, and be Damned..." Nature 419 (24 October 2002),
You browse through the latest issue of a journal and find a paper describing work from a
competing group that you know is riddled with holes. Your hackles begin to rise. Were the
referees asleep? What was the editor thinking of?
Sometimes, it's only with hindsight that such feelings kick in. When a prominent researcher is
accused of fabricating data, for instance, you might look back over the contested publications and
see warning signs in almost every paper. In retrospect, those data really were too good to be true.
So why did no one question their veracity when the papers were being reviewed?
Over the past few months, a series of high-profile controversies has brought such questions to the
fore, throwing a spotlight on the workings of the journals that published the contentious work.
Competition between scientists can tempt some individuals to conduct ‘quick and dirty'
experiments, rather than doing the job properly, in the hope of being the first to unveil startling
new data. In extreme cases, less scrupulous researchers may commit outright fraud. But are
leading journals exacerbating the problem by competing to rush ‘sexy' findings into print?
Accusations began to fly in March, when Science published a report from scientists led to Rusi
Taleyarkhan at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who claimed to have triggered
nuclear fusion in a beaker of organic solvent. The paper appeared to howls of protest, both from
leading physicists who were sure that the authors were mistaken and from other researchers at
Oak Ridge who had examined the work and claimed to have uncovered serious flaws.
A month later, Nature printed a brief statement effectively disowning a paper it had published the
previous year, which suggested that DNA from genetically modified maize had invaded the
genomes of nature Mexican varieties of the crop. The original paper, by Davd Quist and Ignacio
Chapela of the University of California, Berkeley, provoked a political storm in Mexico. But
after publication, other experts argued that the findings were probably experimental artefacts.
In those two cases, researchers are arguing over whether papers' conclusions are justified by the
data they contain. There is no suggestions of any misconduct. But it is a scandal surrounding the
work of Jan Hendrik Schoen of Bell Laboratories in Murrey Hill, New Jersey, that has really set
tongues wagging. Schoen's research on molecular scale electronic devices and induced
superconductivity in carbon ‘buckballs' led to an avalanche of stunning papers many in leading
journals including Nature, and Science. But we now know that he was the perpetrator of the
biggest fraud ever to take place in the physical science, fabricating and misrepresenting data on a
massive scale. And some researchers argue that the journals must shoulder some of the blame,
for failing to scrutinize more closely the extraordinary claims coming from Schoen's lab.
Each or these controversies has its particular set of circumstances. But collectively they are
causing scientists and interested observers to ask whether erroneous or downright fraudulent
papers are becoming more likely to be published; and whether editors and referees are doing
enough to prevent the pollution of the scientific literature. After the Schoen verdict, for instance,
an article in The Wall Street Journal alleged that Science and Nature "are locked in such fierce
competition for prestige and publicity that they may be cutting corners to get ‘hot' papers."
These are tough issues to address, because hard facts are difficult to come by. The US Office of
Research Integrity did find more cases of misconduct in the biomedical sciences in 2001 than at
any time since monitoring began in 1997, but this may simply be down to increased vigilance.
And the frequency with which flawed, rather than fraudulent, papers are entering the literature is
almost impossible to quantify. Certainly, few become a matter of public record. In the year to the
end of September 2002, for example, Nature published just one retraction and two corrections
that significantly altered a paper's conclusions.
Editors of leading journals reject the suggestions that standards are slipping in the face of
heightened competition. "Nature has nothing to gain by the pursuit of glamour at the expense of
scientific quality, considering, not least, the criticisms, corrections and retractions we 3ould then
habitually be forced to publish," argued this journal in an editorial comment earlier this month.
And many researchers who were interviewed for this article agree that the system is still working
tolerably. If it ain't broke, the say, don't try to fix it.
But in the wake of the Schoen scandal, critics of the status quo are speaking out. One of the most
vocal is Nobel physics laureate Robert Laughlin of Princeton University in New Jersey. "In this
case the editors are definitely culpable," claims Laughlin. "They chose reviewers they knew
would be positive." Laughlin suspects that it was because of his open criticism of Schoen and his
co-authors, for failing to provide sufficient information about the methods to others who wanted
to replicate the work, that he was not asked to review any of the papers. "It was well known that I
was angry at those guys who not allowing their experiments to be reproduced," Laughlin says.
Such charges are difficult to prove or disprove, given the confidentiality of the review process.
But Karl Ziemelis, chief physical sciences editor at Nature, denies that referees were cherry-
picked to ensure Schoen's papers safe passage. "I can absolutely guarantee that we did not
choose reviewers on the basis that we knew they would be positive," he says. Science's editor-in-
chief, Donald Kennedy has also rejected accusations that the Schoen case reveals any
shortcoming in the review process. But candidly, Ziemelis admits that Nature's editors - like
many physicists - were enthralled by Schoen's work. "Given the exciting nature of the claims
made by the papers, we were certainly hoping that the outcome would be positive," Ziemelis
says. But that is not unusual, he says, and tough refereeing ensures that "we are often
The success rate of Schoen's submissions to Nature was "far from 100%"; Ziemelis adds. Of
those that were eventually published, he says, the referees delivered fundamentally possitive
reports, although they did take issue with some aspects of the papers - which were revised
accordingly. But given that Nature's editors were enthused by the claims coming from Schoen's
lab, would they ever have been willing to gloss over negative reviews and publish a paper
"It depends entirely on the basis of the negative comments," says Ziemelis. There are essentially
two types, technical and editorial. Ziemelis says that referees pointing out technical flaws that
undermine the work will sink a paper - unless other reviewers who expertise is sought on this
specific point disagree. But when it comes to deciding whether a paper is interesting or important
enough for Nature, editors might overrule a reviewer's negative comments. "The distinction
between editorial and technical decisions is an important one, but it is often misunderstood,"
Ziemelis says. "On the editorial matters we have overruled both negative and positive referees."
But the controversy surrounding Teleyarkhan's fusion paper blew up because of accusations that
Science's editors had overrules referees' technical criticisms. Four of the referees asked by the
journal to review the paper have taken the highly unusual step of speaking publicly about the
confidential reports they supplied. "My problem with the paper was clearly technical - that the
authors failed to provide sufficient evidence for what they were claiming," says William Moss, a
physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who reviewed two
different versions of the paper.
Another of the referees, Seth Putterman of the University of California, Los Angeles, goes
further. "The earlier version of the paper had information that I claimed disproved their results
and I pointed that out," he says. But he claims that the offending data were simply removed from
their final version.
Putterman and two other referees - physicist Larry Crum of the University of Washington in
Seattle and chemist Ken Suslick of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - have even
released their own critique of the weork on the arXiv physics preprint server. "Somewhere out
there is a positive report from someone," Puttereman says. "Science should publish that report
because then we'll see what kind of information they went on to overrule four negative
That isn't going to happen, says Kennedy. "We maintain our end of the confidentiality bargain
about peer review," he says, "so I can's discuss the process specifically, except to say that the
positive reviews outweigh the negative ones. Why else would we publish the paper?" Critics
suggest that the kudos to be gained by the journal if the paper's findings had been shown to be
valid might have been a factor in the decision - a view that draws a forthright denial from
Kennedy: "We at Science emphatically reject such charges."
The top journals, rarely reticent in publicizing their latest hot paper or soaring impack factor,
make easy targets for criticism when a paper subsequently comes under attack. But editors who
have worked for these journals argue that scientists must share responsibility for nay problems
that exist. "There is sometimes pressure on referees to be quick rather than thorough," says Philip
Ball, a Londoj-based science writer and former physical sciences editor for Nature. "That's an
issue for the journals but also for the scientific community in general," he says, noting that some
authors try to play one journal off against another to get their papers published as quickly as
Despite such concerns, standards of editing and refereeing are generally agreed to be higher at the
elevated end of the scientific-publishing food chain. Further down the scale, fewer questions are
asked. "There is an awful lot of literature pollution,: says Caro-Beth Stewart, an evolutionary
geneticist at the State University of New York in Albany. "If people get rejected at Nature, they
just work their way down the ladder, often ignoring all the reviewers' comments."
Damage limitation Ultimately, it is to everyone's advantage to keep ‘bad' results out of the
literature. Both scientists and journals rely on their reputations, and no one wants to have to
retract a paper. Sp, in the light of this year's controversies, could the system be tweaked to
protect all involved from embarrassment?
Journals manage their editorial processes in subtly different ways - with one important issue
being whether they employ professional editors, or get working scientists to fulfil this role (see,
Who should sit in the editor's chair? [sidebar]). But journals rely heavily for quality control on
the efforts of the specialist referees asked to review individual papers. They are "unsung heroes,"
says Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Most scientists agree that the feedback from a careful referee is invaluable, regardless of the final
decision on publication. "Many scientists don't have the ability to step bak from their own
work," says Anne Weil, an anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But
the refereeing process is meant also to spot crucial flaws in a paper that might affect its
That apparently failed to happen with Quist and Chapela's paper. The Berkeley researchers used
two techniques to look for transgenic contamination in Mexican varieties of maize. The first was
the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method for amplifying and detecting tiny
quantities of a specific DNA sequence. The second, a variant called inverse PCR (I-PCR), was
used to examine the DNA flanking these sequences to reveal their location in the genome. And it
was the authors' claim that I-PCR had shown the transgenes to have fragmented and scattered
throughout the genomes of the native maize varieties that caused such consternation. Groups
opposed to agricultural biotechnology seized on the result, whereas scientists who are supportive
of the technology began poring over the results in search of flaws.
Before long, the doubters found a problem. Close examination of the sequences amplified by I-
PCR, deposited in the GenBank database, suggested that some were probably not associated with
transgenes after all. Quist and Chapela then produced other evidence to support their original
claim. But when this failed to conveince one of the referees consulted by Nature, the journal
published the exchange with its controversial note concluding that "the evidence available is not
sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.
Crucial details Johannes Futterer, a plant scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in
Zurich, was a co-author of one of the critiques pointing out the problem with the sequences
amplified by I-PCR, and claims that Nature's referees were remiss in letter the original paper
through. "In this case, the sequences were the only piece of data that could prove what the
authors claimed and they should have been checked," he says.
Ritu Dhand, Nature's chief biology editor, is reluctant to criticize the referees. "It was an
unfortunate incident that bypassed us all," she says. Maybe so, but given the political sensitivity
of the work, an awful lot of trouble and embarrassment would have been saved if at least one of
the referees had followed the path that Futterer suggests.
Quist and Chapela's paper as bound to become a focus for the contentious debate over
genetically modified crops. Less obvious to those outside the Berkeley campus was the fact that
the pair had campaigned against a multimillion-dollar deal between the university and the Swiss-
based multinational Novartis - subsequently inherited by the spin-off agriciotech firm Syngenta -
that gave the company privileged rights to exploit Berkeley's plant-science research. And the
authors of the two published critiques of Quist and Chapela's I-PCR analysis included current or
former Berkeley colleagues who backed the Novartis deal. In retrospect, given these
circumstances, the paper was always likely to be combed for any flaws that the referees had
Whatever checks are applied, some papers are published when the referees, editors and even the
authors suspect problems. David Lindley, a science writer in Virginia who previously worked oas
an editor for both Nature and Science, recalls one such Nature paper in 1991 - the first discovery
of a planet beyond our Solar System. The planet appeared to complete a full orbit around a pulsar
in exactly half the time taken by Earth to orbit the Sun. "The authors said: ‘We know this is odd,
but we can't find an obvious mistake.' One of the referees agreed there was something fishy,"
Lindley says. "But you can't refuse to publish something just because it doesn't feel right." Six
months later, the red-faced authors discovered an error in their calculations. There was no planet
and the paper was retracted.
In this case, Lindley sayd that it was impossible for him or the referees to discover what was an
honest mistake. But what if authors are less than honest? Many editors have encountered papers
that look "too good.' Gene Wells, editor of Physical Review Letters for two decades until his
retirement in 2001, recalls one case in which the referees all noted that the data seemed
unnaturally free of noise. The manuscript was rejected, and Wells never heard about the paper
Wells' referees were alert to the possibility of data manipulation. But many scientists argue that
referees cannot and should not be expected to view each paper they receive as a crime scene
awaiting investigation. Unless thee are obious grounds for suspicion, "I never question the
authenticity of the data," says Bert Vogelstein, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University
in Baltimore, who has a reputation among editors as a thorough referee. "If a clever person
waznts to manipulate the data, it is hard enough to catch in the lab, let alone in the paper."
But according to researchers h=who have investigated scientific misconduct, fraudsters aren;t
always so clever. Ulf Rapp, a cell biologist at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany, headed
the inquiry into one of the most spectacular cases of scientific fraud in recent times: that
perpetuated by cancer researchers Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, who worked at the
Max Delbrueck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin in the early 1990s. Rapp's task force
examined 347 publications and concluded that data in 94 od them had either definitely or "highly
probably" been manipulated. He now says that, in many of these cases, referees and editors
should have spotted the apparent duplication of data. "Some cases were clearly a failure on the
part of the reviewer and the journals. They were very superficially evaluated," Rapp says.
Paper copies Schoen's manipulation and fabrication of data was less obvious. But still, had the
reviewers of his papers, or the editors who handled them, placed the figures they contained
alongside those from work that he had published previously, they might have noticed suspicious
signs of data duplication. After all, when the news first broke that several of Schoen's papers
were under investigation, it didn't take long for physicists to identify more publications contained
Although many journals issue guidelines to referees detailing particular sections of the paper that
should receive scrutiny, few offer specific advice ahout how and what to check and in what level
of detail. So, in light of the Schoen case, should journals require referees to check the data in
papers under review against those from previous publications? An should Nature's experience
with Quist and Chapela's manuscript encourage journals to demand that referees make more
stringent checks on DNA-sequence data to ensure that they support a paper's conclusions?
Most scientists and editors believe that such prescriptive approaches are unlikely to be of much
help, given the huge diversity of data in the papers under review. Leo Kouwenhoven, a
nanotechnologist at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, believes the Schoen
case will make researchers in his field take more care in comparing figures with previously
published work. But he doubts that this, in itself, will do much to prevent future scandals. "This
time it was duplicate figures to look out for, but next time something else will be the problem,"
Rather, most experts believe that it would be more fruitful to consider ways to encourage
improved diligence in general. Almost all editors interviewed for this article said that, in their
experience, the standard of refereeing is extremely variable. "The refereeing process is his-and-
miss, and part of an editor's job is to understand that and choose the right referees," sayd Ball.
Some referees go to incredible lengths and will even re-plot data to check that a paper's
conclusions are correct. In crystallography, for example, some reviewers run structural coordinate
through their own computer programs to vcheck the resulting molecular structure against the one
described in manuscript. Others will return a brief paragraph from which it is clear, to an
experienced editor, that they have given the paper only a superficial read.
"I think one reason that the quality of refereeing often isn't very good is that it's not important to
the referee," says Simon Wain-Hobson, an AIDS researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. "It's
not a priority and people don't break their back over it. I've had colleagues say they can review a
paper in ten minutes."
Burden of trust Skilled editors recognize shoddy refereeing and tend to ask those scientists who
are most conscientious to review more than their fair share of manuscripts. "There is a huge
logistical burden, particularly if someone gets a reputation as a thorough reviewer," says Weil.
But can journals provide incentives to encourage improved diligence across the board? One 3way
might be to pay referees, and a few journals have taken this step. The IBM Journal of Research
and Development, for example, pays a minority of its referees a few hundred dollars per paper.
"We do this for reviewers who have submitted a careful, thorough review," says John Titsko,
editor-in-chief of IBM Technical Journals. "It is essentially a ‘thank you' for a job well done."
Paying referees is more common among economics journals. This partly because - unlike science
journals - they regularly publish papers after their results have been widely disseminated, and so
need incentivesw to hurry referees who feel that there is no rush. Referees for the Journal of
Political Economy, for instance, receive $US40 if they return their report within three months
and $75 if they finish the task within six weeks. Nevertheless, many referees remain unimpressed
by the financial reward and still fail to deliver, says Vicky Longawa, the journal's managing
editor - and much of the cost is passed on to authors, who pay $50 to submit each paper.
Few scientific journal publishers are enthusiastic about introducing a system of payments that
would require the industry's business model to undergo a complete upheaval. And paying
referees may not improve the system says Joshua Gans of the Melbourne Business School in
Australia, who is an expert on game theory - which can help to predict people's behavior when
faced with particular reward schemes. The system works at present because academics feel
obliged to take responsibility, he argues. Paying referees "can motivate an academic but at the
same time take away their feelings of professional responsibility because they know others are
motivated by pay too," Gans claims.
Rewards need not be financial, however. For two decades, the American Geophysical Union
(AGU) has run a scheme to honour excellence in referring for its journals. Those cited by journal
editors get their names and pictures published in the AGU's EOS newsletter, as well as a
certificate and an invitation to an awards dinner. Judy Holoviak, the AGU's director of
publications, says that the system was introduced because some researchers were refusing
requests to act as referees or returning one-line reports. "There are still people who will never
review a paper," says Holoviak. "But it is probably good for the young people coming in; they
see this and hopefully it is setting a standard."
Although such schemes may have some merit, many editors and scientists still feel that the
current system should be left essentially unchanged. Vogelstein paraphrases Winston Churchill's
quip about democracy: "It's the worst system in the world, except for all the others." Rather than
focusing on the problems, suggests Fred Alt, an immunologist and cancer researcher at Harvard
Medical School in Boston, we should remind ourselves of how well the system works. "It is
impressive that the majority of what is published is reproducible and accurate," he says.
Other scientists argue that it would impossible to make the system foolproof - and misguided
even to try. "You're asking for a judgements, an opinion, and it has to stay that way," says Wain-
Hobson. "The most important thing about a paper isn't that it's been peer reviewed but that it's
reproducible. The real peer review only starts when it's published."