Christopher Turner: Peer Review is open to Fraud

Summarized from

The writer is the author of the book Convergence at

Scientific fraud and career development

Fraud, by whatever means, can give an individual a huge advantage over those playing by the rules. Whereas the more blatant forms of fraud (such as data fabrication) can cause considerable harm, the more subtle forms of scientific deception (false claims of authorship, intellectual theft and shameless self-promotion, for example) can be just as damaging.

The community will self-correct, right?

That the community will self-regulate is sadly true only for the most blatant of cases and has validity only if the perpetrator is both caught and the deception openly acknowledged (as well as dealt with effectively). Relying on self-regulation to police fraudulent behavior is dangerous, as not only will most fraud thus go unaccounted for but the damage to the victim(s) never gets acknowledged.

Hidden cost of fraud

Even when fraud is somewhat transparent (as in the case of Scott Reuben) it may take a great deal of time before the deception is revealed (12 years in this case, and it’s anyone’s guess just how many other careers were adversely affected in that time). Once embedded as “solid citizens” of the science community, there’s no telling what such fraudulent people will do when they are elevated to positions of influence and power. What is more likely, that they will switch to more ethically-driven behavior after they’ve made it or continue to use the same tactics that got them there in first place?

Peer Review: is it fatally flawed?

How often have you said (or heard a colleague say) “How on earth did that get past the reviewers?”. How often have you been a reviewer of a manuscript and spotted serious conceptual flaws, alarming methodological problems or addled-mindedness about the design, only for the editor to completely over-ride your recommendation (to significantly revise or reject the paper) and instead accept the manuscript essentially unchanged? When editorial discretion borders on nepotism, the peer-review process becomes nothing more than a checked box in an online survey.

Does the current “Peer Review” system invite deception?

As long as publications and grant support are used as critical benchmarks for career progress, the peer review system will remain vulnerable to fraud. There is growing dissatisfaction with this system and the emergence of online “open access” models suggest something better is on the horizon, though for some it may not arrive soon enough. At the moment it appears we are stuck with the classic peer-review system because, much like democracy, it may not always be pretty but what else is there?

Did Reuben fail Science or did Science fail itself?

In a recent article by Adam Marcus, Josephine Johnston (an attorney specializing in research integrity) was asked her opinion about the Reuben fraud: “It’s usually just one article, not a body of work,” Ms. Johnston said. “What’s particularly surprising given the dimensions of the case, is that Dr. Reuben’s research managed to raise no alarms among reviewers”. She added, “…..the peer review system can only do so much. Trust is a major component of the academic world. It’s backed up by the implication that your reputation will be destroyed if you violate that trust.” Expressing surprise that no alarms were raised illustrates why the peer-review system needs to change: we trust it too much yet that trust is violated a lot more than either most are aware or would care to admit.

Fraud of the highest order – should a doctoral degree ever be rescinded?

In one of the more spectacular cases of fraud (see Jan Hendrick Schõn), malfeasance was discovered by scientists doing what they are trained to do: be skeptical. By necessity these days, most research is conducted as a team but, by mere proximity alone, careers can be compromised or ruined because a given research group did not realize they were working with a less-than-honorable colleague.

Closing Statement

Career development in the sciences is based on fractions these days, and most of us are generally as good as each other. So to stand out you need an edge and fraud (subtle or blatant) can give unscrupulous people a huge strategic advantage. We CAN fix the problem of professional malfeasance, but much like Wall Street, we may have to suffer catastrophic collapse before we realize we should have done something years ago.

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