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Peer review: “Conspiracy of hope” plays role in the problem of retraction-worthy papers


From a Guardian editorial:

In June, the BMJ was plunged into a public row over two papers it published last year questioning the benefits of prescribing statins and suggesting that the side effects could outweigh the health advantages. The papers have been under attack for a while, and the Oxford professor of medicine Sir Rory Collins now says the flawed research risks putting people off statins when they could be life-saving. He wants the BMJ not merely to put out a correction – as it did in May – but to withdraw the papers altogether so that they are not erroneously quoted in further research (as they have been already, according to the website Retraction Watch). The BMJ has instead instigated an investigation to adjudicate on the matter.

Nature and the BMJ, like all serious scientific journals, rely on peer review to establish the authority of the papers they publish, and peer review, it appears, is less reliable than it sounds. Some journals rely on too narrow a group of reviewers who are all too human. In highly specialised fields, self-interest may influence their review. Peer review anyway has limits. Reviewers are not expected to check the raw data, only the way it has been used. And then there is the conspiracy of hope. It is only human to want there to be, say, a way of stimulating ordinary cells so that they behave like stem cells (the research Nature has had to retract).

See also: Peer review: Think a dog can’t get a degree? He can, on the basis of “previous experiential learning.”

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