Late in 2013 I posted an entry to this blog which described PubPeer,
the newly implemented system for post publication peer review. In that blog I raised the question whether this is a good
idea compared to other opportunities for post publication commentary such as
letters to the editor or even new publications which would either support or
challenge previously published research. The system has been going for a bit
over a year now and I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the question
of promise or chaos.
One of my principal concerns related to the ability of
anyone who met the qualifications to comment to jump in and comment. The necessary
qualifications are quite easy to meet and quite arbitrary. Anyone who has been
funded to do research by the National Institutes of Health (US) or the Wellcome
Trust (UK) is considered qualified. I have no idea why someone funded by the
National Science Foundation (US) or the National Research Council (Canada) is
not qualified. But I suppose this is why
they invented the word arbitrary. Anyone who has published a paper cited in
PubMed who can get a recommendation from a qualified colleague is also
qualified. It is not a requirement to know anything about the area of research
upon which you are commenting. As an investigator who has been supported by the
National Institutes of health and has a bunch of PubMed indexed articles I am
“qualified”. I can comment on any article indexed in PubMed. The problem, of course,
is that I am, in fact, not qualified by knowledge and experience to offer peer
review on the vast majority of the articles indexed in PubMed. I intend to
exercise the self-control necessary to make certain that I do not comment on
any article I am not qualified to peer review. This will be easy as I have not
yet offered any post publication peer review and do not really have any plans
to do so.
If I did decide to offer any such post publication peer
review my identity would be protected by a shroud of anonymity. This protection
allows me broad latitude to make comments but would also allow me to avoid
responsibility for my comments. Such is the case with the current controversy
now facing the PubMed post publication enterprise.
As was reported in Science Magazine and elsewhere, this shield of anonymity is now protecting commenters whose
postings lead to the rescinding of a prestigious and lucrative job offer to a
well-known investigator. PubPeer is itself legally protected from lawsuit. They
have refused to identify the anonymous commenters who some consider defamatory.
PubPeer may very well have considered these defamatory as well since they have
deleted some of the comments. This
investigator has not been found to have committed research misconduct.
It may be too early to decide the answer to the question
raised: promise or chaos. There certainly does appear to be some chaos apparent
here. Perhaps the answer is both.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.