Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – December 30, 2014

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D

photo credit: Synapse journal via photopin cc

The Peer Review Process

Peer review – reviewed. Top medical journals filter out poor papers but often reject future citation champions

The peer review process for publishing scientific work was itself examined in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, led by sociologist Kyle Siler of the University Of Toronto, Canada, used a previously compiled database of manuscripts and reviewer reports to follow-up on 1,008 manuscripts submitted to 3 top medical journals, the Annals of Internal Medicine, the British Medical Journal, and The Lancet. Only 63 of the papers were accepted, while 757 were later published elsewhere. By examining the reviewer’s reports and number of subsequent citations received, the study found that those with the most positive reviews did indeed have a greater number of citations, but surprisingly 12 out of the 15 most-cited articles were ‘desk rejected’ by at least one of the journals. Siler suggested this could reflect a fear of “unconventional research” while Michele Lamont, a Harvard University sociologist, suggested that both a sensitivity to market dynamics that favor sameness and editors that lack a sense of what is “truly creative” in scientific research could be influencing the journal’s selection process. Editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee, countered that a paper “might be rejected simply because it falls outside the journal’s clinical focus” and expressed unease at the use of citations as a measure of scientific excellence. In agreement with these sentiments, a Nature survey found that the most-cited papers were frequently about commonly employed methods rather than truly ground-breaking science. Daniele Fanelli, an evolutionary biologist who studies publication bias, recommends evaluating the quality of published papers by performing a second round of peer review and/or by determining whether the results were successfully replicated or translated into the clinic, but admits this would be a very time consuming process. (Nature, Mark Peplow)


Stem Cell Research

Discredited STAP cells were likely embryonic stem cells

Numerous independent research groups as well as a verification team from Japan’s RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) failed to reproduce results of two articles published online by Nature January 29th describing the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) method for generating stem cells. An investigating committee recently released a report stating that the STAP-derived stem cells, chimeric mice, and teratomas purportedly formed from those cells “all originated in cultures contaminated with (embryonic stem) cells.” The committee concluded that the 3 STAP stem cell lines generated were in all likelihood not the result of adult cell reprogramming, but rather due to contamination with 3 previously established embryonic stem cell lines. Although suspected, no evidence for deliberate contamination was found. Haruko Obokata, lead author on the STAP papers, was however found guilty of “research misconduct involving fabrication” of two images for which no supporting experimental data was found. This is in addition to 2 previous counts of misconduct for fabrication and falsification of images reported by a separate committee on April 1st. In July Nature retracted the papers. Obokata resigned December 19th after trying and failing to reproduce her results while working with CDB’s verification team. In addition to Obokata, the committee laid significant responsibility on two senior researchers, Teruhiko Wakayama and Yoshiki Sasai for poor oversight. Sasai committed suicide in August. Although no longer working at RIKEN, who has cut CDB’s staff by half in the wake of the stem cell controversy, Wakayama is willing to accept disciplinary action for his part in the debacle. (ScienceInsider, Dennis Normile)


Global Health – Ebola

Ebola’s lessons, painfully learned at great cost in dollars and human lives

Over 7,500 people have died from the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although still far from being resolved, the epidemic has taught us a number of valuable lessons. Chief among these lessons is the realization that our global health organizations are woefully unprepared for a pandemic. The extreme difficulty of resource distribution in resource-poor areas is one glaring deficiency. Many other the lessons learned stress the necessity of acting locally: gaining trust by involving local leaders, listening and responding to people’s concerns, and respecting traditions and cultural norms as much as possible. Switching from black to white body bags, white being the traditional color of mourning; and designing Ebola treatment units to be more like a hospital and less like a prison by replacing walls with fences and adding windows were small changes that made a difference to a suffering community. Speed and agility are often more effective than size. Just as the United States began construction of 17 large treatment units in Liberia, the infection rate there dropped and rose in Sierra Leone. Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development noted, “You can get a strategy and it becomes and immovable constraint . . . You have to be adaptable to the course of the disease.” Rich countries need to care about what is happening in the developing world, and all countries need to improve monitoring and responsiveness to outbreaks. Congress recently approved over $5 billion for emergency Ebola aid and $800 million for the Global Health Security Agenda to help thwart future outbreaks. Although proactive funds are less immediately attractive, it is much easier and cheaper to stop an outbreak early. The Predict project’s disease surveillance program, funded in large part by USAID, has identified approximately 800 previously unknown viruses and uses mathematical models to predict where the next epidemic may strike. Finally, it is important prevent hysteria by keeping fears grounded in reality through education and effective communication. (The Washington Post, Lena H. Sun, Brady Dennis, and Joel Achenbach)



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in Linkposts

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