Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

Private investigations

Posted by rpg on 20 January, 2010

One of the really great things about science is its potential for self-correction. If you have an hypothesis, a result (strange or otherwise), a set of data, it can be tested by anyone. This is encouraged, in fact: when you publish you’re not just saying ‘look how clever I am’ but also ‘here’s something new! Can you do it too?’. This philosophy is diametrically opposed to that behind Creationism, say; or homeopathy. In those belief systems whatever the High Priest says is of necessity true, and experiment must bend around them until the results fit.

This means that, in science, a finding or publication that people get very excited about at the time can be shown to be wrong—either through deliberate fraud, experimental sloppiness (although the boundary between the two can be fuzzy) or simply because we’re as scientists wiser now than we were then. This happens, and it’s normal and part of the process. We should welcome it; indeed, my friend Henry Gee has claimed that everything Nature publishes is wrong, or at least provisional.

So what we have to do is be completely open about this, no matter how embarrassing it is for the journal that published the work in the first place.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

It was Derek Lowe who first alerted me to a paper published in Science last year, with the ome-heavy title Reactome Array: Forging a Link Between Metabolome and Genome. This was flagged as a ‘Must Read‘ (free link) back in November, because according to our reviewer Ben Davis

If this worked it could be marvellous, superb.

However, as Ben said in his evaluation,

this work should be read with some caveats. Try as we might, my group, as well as many colleagues, and I have tried to determine the chemistry described […] In my opinion, this is a work that deserves a “Must Read” rating and I strongly encourage the reader to read the source material and reach their own conclusions.

And as Derek points out, Science published an ‘Editorial expression of concern‘, noting a request for  evaluation of the original data and records by officials at the authors’ institutions, as well as mentioning it on their blog. Heavy. Immediately I saw this, I let our Editorial team know we might have a problem and we published a note to warn our readers that the work described in the paper was suspect.

Today we published a dissent to the evaluation from Michael Gelb, who says

There are many reactions shown that seem unusual and controversial […] My colleagues and I have tried to decipher the chemistry shown in Figure 1 of the main text and in the supplemental material. Many of the indicated reactions seem highly unlikely to occur, and the NMR data showing that some of the structures that were made are confusing and controversial.

We’ve also published a follow-up from Ben:

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in the Dissenting Opinion. The chemistry presented in this paper and in the online SI has varied in its description and content worryingly over the last 2 months.

and, rather tellingly,

as yet no chemical samples or key reagents have yet been made generally available.

(One of the usual conditions of publishing in reputable journals is that you make reagents available to other scientists, so that they can repeat your work. Failing to honour this commitment is not playing to the rules.)

It’ll be interesting to see when, not if, the original paper is retracted; and by whom.

And this, people, is the self-correcting wonder of science. Remember this, next time someone starts rabbiting about scientific conspiracies, or sends you their new theory of general relativity, or anything else that sounds crazy. It probably is.

Beloqui, A., Guazzaroni, M., Pazos, F., Vieites, J., Godoy, M., Golyshina, O., Chernikova, T., Waliczek, A., Silva-Rocha, R., Al-ramahi, Y., La Cono, V., Mendez, C., Salas, J., Solano, R., Yakimov, M., Timmis, K., Golyshin, P., & Ferrer, M. (2009). Reactome Array: Forging a Link Between Metabolome and Genome Science, 326 (5950), 252-257 DOI: 10.1126/science.1174094

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3 Responses to “Private investigations”

  1. Da Wintle said

    Fascinating story.

    I’m glad I get email alerts, because this blog is impossible to find from the f1000 pages proper, as far as I can tell.

    • rpg said

      Yeah, unfortunately you’re right. That’s because we’re in the middle of a redesign (BIG changes!) and the blog isn’t linked from the current site. We basically have no time to do it!

  2. Jim said

    Like fossils, I consider all papers to be transitional 😉

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