Holden Thorp

After a high-profile withdrawal that followed in-depth investigations by science News team Holden Thorp, the journal’s editor-in-chief, says it’s time to improve the process of proofreading scientific data.

In an editorial published today, Thorp, a former university provost, describes the often time-consuming and frustrating process involving journals, universities and government agencies that are often at odds, or at least have different priorities. Based on the experience of what can seem like gridlock, he calls for dividing the process into two stages:

The first stage should assess the validity of the paper without assigning blame. The university would then feel free to determine the validity of the letter before diving into a lengthy and more complicated investigation of the underlying wrongdoing.

If the card is not valid, then it can be withdrawn much faster. The second stage, with the journals out of the picture, would be for the university to determine whether there was fraud that rises to the level of research misconduct. This plan would accelerate the correction of scientific data.

At first glance, the idea makes sense. It seems like it would be a way to simplify the process, and at least let readers know that a paper should not be supported.

But we had some questions about how this would all work, how many problems it would really solve, and whether it would actually lead to less informative pull notifications. Thorp – who said he was “hoping to start a conversation about how to make things better” – was happy to respond.

RW: Who would do that “first stage” of the review? Magazine? Many say they don’t have the resources (and your editorial says the journals are “not an investigative body”), and that it is the institutions’ responsibility to investigate any claims.

HT: In the first phase, the hope is that universities would be willing to do more (and faster) if staffing issues were separated from determining the validity of the paper. As I say in the article, the alternative is for us to move more aggressively ourselves, but universities have a lot to lose if that’s where it goes. According to COPE, we have the ability to move on our own because it is our job to determine whether universities and authors are giving us a ‘satisfactory’ answer. Most of the time, we can tell when they aren’t, but ‘satisfactory’ is still a pretty subjective term. The hope is that they will realize that we all have a lot to gain in terms of the credibility of science if they will engage more proactively. It will require provocateurs and research officers to have some courage, because general counsels at universities can find a million reasons to get stuck.

RW: Provided the journals have the resources, splitting the withdrawal process into two phases makes sense in theory. But we have already seen countless cases where magazines have done nothing even for years after receiving the final findings from the universities. How would this new process fix it?

HT: The new process would not solve the problem that the journal does nothing even when they have final statements from the university. This is in the diary. We took responsibility for the delay in Signaling science case in your tweet.

RW: Would journals update retraction notices that simply say a paper is invalid, but don’t assign any blame or say what happened? Or universities, most of them, would allow journals do not publish investigative reportsto keep that information hidden forever?

If we receive information from the university that the document is invalid, but nothing about the reasons, we proceed with a withdrawal saying that the university has cast doubt on the paper. One challenge of this, as you point out, is that the origin of the problem may never come out, because once the journal posts the retraction, we’re no longer following the university. But universities can easily hide all this now, so at least we can set the record straight.

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