U.S. scientists invite careful scrutiny

In the United States, reputable scientific journals set a high bar for scientists angling to publish their work, and for good reason. The journals don’t want to be duped into trumpeting bad science.

Take Science Immunology, one of several peer-reviewed journals published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest, multidisciplinary scientific society. (Note: As a freelancer, I have written for AAAS’ member newsletter and social media platforms.)

Science Immunology publishes between 5 and 10 percent of what’s submitted, says its editor, Dr. Ifor Williams. It receives submissions from around the world, with the U.S., mainland China and Europe taking the top 3 places among submitters, Williams says.

“Many papers just get read and looked at, and the editors decide it’s not got a chance to survive peer review,” a prerequisite for publication, Williams says. Authors surviving that first read can expect additional scrutiny.

At times, an advisory board of experts in immunology reviews a paper to determine whether it qualifies for an in-depth peer review. If the answer is yes, the journal invites several experts to conduct the peer review and issue written comments to the authors and the journal.

Reviewers are encouraged to tell editors whether a paper should be considered for publication or whether it has serious flaws. Editors assemble the reviews and decide whether a paper deemed not ready for publication can be revised or has too many complicated issues that would prevent its author from updating it for publication.

Sometimes, a paper’s authors are asked to make minor revisions. Other times, reviewers may ask the authors to conduct additional experiments to build the case for some of the authors’ conclusions.

“Ultimately, the editor has the power to tell [the reviewers] if there’s too much insistence on things the editor doesn’t think is appropriate,” Williams says.

After a couple of rounds of revisions, editors at Science Immunology will publish a paper it has accepted.

Notification that the paper has been accepted for publication triggers Science Immunology’s data-transparency policy. That compels an author to submit (after publication) a supplemental spreadsheet file with all the raw data he or she used for graphs.

The raw data allows other scientists to take full advantage of a helpful breakthrough,  Williams explains. “Most data does deserve to be out where people can access it.”  (The policy doesn’t apply to situations where data disclosure would be unethical.)

The process takes three to six months for non–COVID-19 content. In a world where authors are jockeying to publish their research,  Science Immunology put these processes in place to protect themselves and the science.

“People are competing against each other to make important discoveries and publish those discoveries,” Williams says. “Getting into a peer-reviewed journal, that’s a mark in the sand that if nothing else is published on the same topic in a peer-reviewed journal, you get some primacy on that.”

What shouldn’t happen

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that 121 papers from China-based authors that were published in internationally peer-reviewed journals had reused sets of images. The papers, credited to researchers and scientists from hospitals and medical universities, were likely produced by the same company or a paper mill, according to the reporting.

When things like this happen, the mistrust multiplies, harming the research community and the public. Science makes progress through transparency, and critiques improve research, says Brian Nosek, a co-founder and executive director of the Center for Open Science, based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The entire system is damaged by fraudulent, misleading or misconstrued behavior like this,” Nosek says.