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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 15, 2010

Stem Cell Politics

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Posted by Derek

There have been complaints that something is going wrong in the publication of stem cell research. This isn't my field, so I don't have a lot of inside knowledge to share, but there appear to have been a number of researchers charging that journals (and their reviewers) are favoring some research teams over others:

The journal editor decides to publish the research paper usually when the majority of reviewers are satisfied. But professors Lovell-Badge and Smith believe that increasingly some reviewers are sending back negative comments or asking for unnecessary experiments to be carried out for spurious reasons.

In some cases they say it is being done simply to delay or stop the publication of the research so that the reviewers or their close colleagues can be the first to have their own research published.

"It's hard to believe except you know it's happened to you that papers have been held up for months and months by reviewers asking for experiments that are not fair or relevant," Professor Smith said.

You hear these sorts of complaints a lot - everyone who's had a paper turned down by a high-profile journal is a potential customer for the idea that there's some sort of backroom dealing going on for the others who've gotten in. But just because such accusations are thrown around frequently doesn't mean that they're never true. I hate to bring the topic up again, but the "Climategate" leaks illustrate just how this sort of thing can be done. Groups of researchers really can try to keep competing work from being published. I just don't know if it's happening in the stem cell field or not.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. Sili on March 15, 2010 10:10 AM writes...

I just don't know if it's happening in the stem cell field or not.
Do we have any evidence that any such thing actually had an impact on what climate research was published? One thing is for scientists to shoot off their mouths in frustration, something else entirely to actually go through with subversion of the peerreviewprocess.

If this is happening the editor(s) must either be in on it (cf. climate 'science', El Naschie) or asleep at the wheel (Acta-effing-E).

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2. Anonymous on March 15, 2010 10:42 AM writes...

I wouldn't be surprised. I've spent enough time around top-level academics in my grad school days to tell you most of them would shoot their own mother if it would advance their career somehow.

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3. gibby on March 15, 2010 10:58 AM writes...

I know of at least a couple instances where the delaying of publication by reviewers was done to help a friend or the reviewer themselves publish first. This was in the synthetic field.

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4. Palo on March 15, 2010 11:00 AM writes...

I agree with Sili #1, the journals have editors, if someone suspects corruption, as implied here, the editor can take it away from the reviewer. This is a bogus claim.

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5. TFox on March 15, 2010 11:03 AM writes...

It's always reviewer #3: .

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6. Anonymous on March 15, 2010 11:17 AM writes...

I cannot comment on what happened with the climate research publications, but I have seen this happen in the synthetic chemistry field to others, and I believe it has happened to me personally, and although the evidence is circumstantial, it was compelling enough to consider action.

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7. Rick on March 15, 2010 11:25 AM writes...

I think, unfortunately, this is not limited to climate and stem cell research. We are hearing about it in these cases because of the controversial nature of these fields. Very few editors seem to be willing to stand up to reviewers, especially powerful, famous ones.

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8. Sebastian H on March 15, 2010 11:44 AM writes...

This is related to the worry I have about proposals to have the government take over most research "to avoid waste". It will make thigs even ore political than they are now.

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9. John Harrold on March 15, 2010 11:48 AM writes...

It's been a while since I read through the climategate stuff. From what I recall, the scientists were unsuccessful in preventing the inclusion of the specific papers in the IPCC report. So it would appear that the climategate leaks demonstrate how this is difficult to accomplish.

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10. Sigivald on March 15, 2010 12:05 PM writes...

John: But the relevant thing here was journal publications, not the IPCC report.

It will be nearly impossible to prove that they actually had an effect on publishing anything, of course, because nobody will ever admit to it, and non-publicly-funded journals have no FOIA coverage.

It sure seems likely that someone sympathetic-minded might let their pleas influence publishing, though - without the slightest conscious awareness that they were doing anything scientifically disreputable.

That's the real killer problem - a few people consciously trying to manipulate the system can have a disproportionate effect if nobody suspects manipulation. Confirmation bias alone will lead people not actively trying to counter it vulnerable to reinforcing a perceived consensus and viewing contrarians as hacks or freaks.

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11. SRC on March 15, 2010 4:09 PM writes...

I agree with Sili #1, the journals have editors, if someone suspects corruption, as implied here, the editor can take it away from the reviewer. This is a bogus claim.

Please. This sort of thing happens all the time; it's why knowledgeable authors often specify individuals whom they do not wish to have as reviewers, with the proviso that if the editor does not wish to comply, he should return the MS unreviewed.

Editors are human too; busy, distracted, sometimes inattentive, and sometimes have their own ax to grind. If you doubt this, ask yourself why editors didn't insist on deposition of the data behind the climategate papers, as required by their journals?

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12. Skeptic on March 15, 2010 4:27 PM writes...

The international oligarchy is a lot like RNA interference: International Researchers are mysteriously turned off.

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13. Jonadab the Unsightly One on March 15, 2010 5:28 PM writes...

> I just don't know if it's happening
> in the stem cell field or not.

Oh, probably. I don't know much about stem cell research, but I don't need to. I know what human nature is like.

Of course, any specific accusation against any particular reviewer may be completely invalid. (The complainer, after all, is human himself, and obviously biased in favor of his own research.)

But in general do reviewers sometimes abuse the system? Count on it: some of them do.

> I think, unfortunately, this is not
> limited to climate and stem cell research.


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14. Skeptic on March 15, 2010 6:19 PM writes...

At least in Stem Cell publications, reproducability and interpretation is tractable and refereeable. Who cares what is published in these medchem journals when in the sphere of therapeutics, the issue of interpretation is difficult to resolve. Read Christopher A. Lipinskis views on medicinal chemistry and ask yourself What the heck is this magical "biomedical pattern recognition"

Lead-Seeking Approaches

Springer @ 2010

"First of all; what is a medicinal chemist? A
medicinal chemist is not the
same as a synthetic organic chemist. Consistent with the years of experience cited
for expert witnesses in litigation an expert medicinal chemist might be expected to
have at least 10–15 years of relevant biomedical pattern recognition superimposed
on a solid synthetic organic synthesis background. The pattern recognition is the
linking of biomedical information to chemistry structure. Chemical structures
associated with emotionally significant events (compound activity success or failure)
are stored in the medicinal chemist’s amygdala and are instantly available for
retrieval. This is an example of a very high order of pattern recognition found in humans (and other mammals) that is evolutionarily selected for because of its
survival value. Most highly skilled professions exhibit some sort of very high order
of pattern recognition as exemplified in the book ‘‘Blink’’ by Malcolm Gladwell [1].
This pattern recognition is mostly a blessing but occasionally a problem. The
blessing is that this skill is at the core of medicinal chemistry competency. The
problem is that this skill is very difficult for non-chemistry professionals to understand.
In particular, biologists may not understand how a skilled medicinal chemist
can make a ‘‘snap’’ and accurate judgment about a compounds quality simply by
viewing the compounds chemical structure.

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15. Lu on March 16, 2010 10:13 AM writes...

I've witnessed several unreasonable requests for experiments myself.
The most insane was fluorescence experiment on protein binding in cell lysate.

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16. sciguy on March 21, 2010 4:00 PM writes...

I am in the stem cell field. This doesn't happen any more here than in other fields: in fact, I think it might happen less. These guys publish well all the time (that is, the ones complaining). In fact, in my opinion, they've gotten away with quite a bit where reviewers should have asked and expected more of them.

Regarding the "skeptics" comment above, (s)he must not be aware of the "nuclear transfer human ES cell" scandal of a few years ago. This happened precisely because it can become so technical that no one else can do it. So tractable and refereeable aren't necessarily terms I would use.

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