One of the glowing chunks of fallout from the South Korea stem cell scandal is the handling that Science gave to Hwang's two retracted papers. It's no secret that the top journals compete to see who can publish high-profile papers, and for research like this it's pretty much down to Science or Nature. As fate would have it, Nature got the one of Hwang's recent papers that actually doesn't have to be retracted - whether that's a coincidence or not, I don't know. But the scientific publishing world is no doubt speculating about that, and you can already see some uncharitable comments surfacing. For example:
"It sounds as though their processes were rather sloppy," said Dr. Benjamin Lewin, the founder and former editor of Cell, a biology journal known for its rigor. "At a minimum, Science should have been more careful and should never have reached the stage of publishing a paper with identical photos," he said, referring to the fact that some photos of cell colonies in Dr. Hwang's 2005 article were duplicates of one another.
Dr. Lewin said that a journal editor needed to develop an intimate knowledge of his reviewers' strengths and weaknesses, and that "Nature and Science don't have the reputation for rigorous review."
Meow! I have a lot of respect for Lewin, but this sort of thing isn't going to burnish his reputation. (Update: His deep admiration for the folks at Science turns out to go back a long way). The response of my fellow scientists has been to suggest that he try publishing in one of those non-rigorous journals under a pseudonym and see how far he gets. I guess it depends on how you define "rigorous", though, and it's true that there are other definitions besides rejecting 90% of all the papers submitted. The journal may well have rushed these hot papers through the process, since they were clearly the sort of thing that would be worth publishing. (See some thoughts on this here). The reviewers for both papers have no doubt been involved in some difficult e-mail exchanges in the last few weeks. . .
The danger with comments like this, though, is that every journal that publishes papers worth reading has published papers worth retracting. And that includes Call, naturally, although their most recent one was (weirdly) done without the lead author's consent. (Thanks to Ivan Oransky's blog at The Scientist for this). And in a fraud case that I missed last fall, Luk Van Parijs of MIT was fired after faking loads of data in several research papers. New Scientist found, while looking through his publications on their own, that one of his papers (in the journal Immunity) almost certainly contains faked flow cytometry data. The graphs shown are just too similar, and that's not a technique that churns out exact duplicates of anything, ever.
This is quite similar to the problem with Hwang's stem-cell illustrations, which Lewin is saying should have been caught. But Immunity, like several other single-noun-title journals is published by. . .Cell Press. That's the problem here. No one comes out of this business looking good, even if they try.