Debbie Knight

Arsenic and old lace

In observation on February 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm

A news story in the February 25 edition of Science News caught my eye.

The story, “Arsenic-based life finding fails follow-up tests: microbe doesn’t use toxic element as a building block,” offered the findings of a new report by microbiologist Rosemary Redfield’s group that perhaps the bacteria dubbed GFAJ-1 was able to tolerate the presence of arsenic but not incorporate it into its DNA.

The follow-up story placed this new report in context with the resounding splash of the journal article by Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al published in Science online in December 2010 and in print June 3, 2011. That article, “A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus,” was very controversial and, like any scientific finding that goes against what is currently “known,” it received much attention and criticism from the scientific community.

But it was the source of the Science News story that caught my attention. It wasn’t until I read the last paragraph, that I realized Redfield’s report had not undergone the scrutiny of other scientists (i.e., peer reviewed) nor had it been published in any scientific journal. Instead it was a manuscript that had been posted onCornellUniversity’s Library website, an open access e-print service called arXiv.org on January 31, 2012. On the website, it was noted that the manuscript had been submitted to the journal Science on January 30, 2012.

So this manuscript is now out in the public domain (the Internet) without having been put through the rigors of the peer-review process.

As a scientist, I have a real issue with this.

But first let me explain how the peer-review process works.

After scientists have studied a phenomenon through experimentation, they write up a technical report, a scientific manuscript. This manuscript is sent to a scientific journal for consideration for publication. In top-tiered journals such as Science or Nature, it is the editor that makes the initial assessment whether the manuscript’s topic, breadth, and timeliness (among many other criteria) is appropriate for their journal. This decision is made pretty quickly. If the editor says “yes,” then he or she will select two or three scientists (sometimes on the editorial board and sometimes not) who can offer an expert critique of the manuscript. These “peers” in the peer review process carefully read the manuscript for its scientific merit and provide feedback to the editor as well as the manuscript’s authors.

The reviewers are anonymous to the manuscript’s authors.

If the manuscript is rejected by the reviewers or the editor, the authors will generally submit their manuscript elsewhere for consideration. This is the most painful outcome.

Sometimes only a few tweaks in wording or an additional experiment is requested before the reviewers and editor will give it a thumb’s up for publication.

And sometimes, they want major revisions. This is also painful because it often involves doing several additional experiments to prove the results shown in the manuscript are real. After the sting of the rebuff has worn off, you put your nose to the grindstone and do those experiments. Of course there are a couple of alternatives. You can withdraw the manuscript and submit it elsewhere, but then you have to go through the review process all over again. Or you can write a well-crafted rebuttal to reduce the number of experiments that need to be done. This route runs the risk of angering the editor or the reviewers, so it’s best to pick your battles carefully if you want your manuscript published.

Is this peer-review system perfect? No, it’s not perfect. Occasionally even a seasoned expert reviewer can miss a detail. And in a rare instance, an anonymous reviewer may be a fierce competitor of the authors and he or she may not give the manuscript an entirely fair assessment.

And the entire review process takes time. With some journals, it can take up to a year from submission and acceptance to publication.

But the system does allow for powerful scrutiny (with a fine-tooth comb and everything) and rigorous review of the research study before it is printed for public consumption.

Even though I have 20 years of research experience, I know I’m not qualified to say if Redfield’s study is robust enough. The general public is even less qualified to do so.

While her motives may have been honorable and the result unintended, Redfield has circumvented this peer-review process by posting her manuscript on arXiv.org. And because it is now in a way “published,” I’m not sure she hasn’t shot herself in the foot. Scientific journals want exclusive rights to a manuscript and will not consider work published elsewhere. It seems likely that posting the manuscript on the website may count as “publishing” and it may somehow void its exclusivity. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
(Update July 9, 2012: The article was accepted and published online by Science on July 8th)

With the scientific community under increasingly powerful scrutiny from scientists as well as the media and public, its members need to be good stewards of science. They need to stop trying to win the science race at any cost and focus on the quality of their research (I’d like to believe most scientists do the latter)

But two resounding questions remain. Like the arsenate used in Redfield’s study, will posting the manuscript on an open-access website “poison” its acceptance into a peer-reviewed journal? And does such a posting do science a disservice? Only time will tell.

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