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Peer Review failure: Science and Nature journals reject papers because they “have to be wrong”

The peer review system has decayed to the point where the culture of the two “top” science journals virtually  guarantees they will reject the most important research done today. It is the exact opposite of what we need to further human knowledge the fastest. Science and Nature are prestigious journals, yet they are now so conservative about ideas that challenge dominant assumptions, that they reject ground-breaking papers because those papers challenge the dominant meme, not because the evidence or the reasoning is suspect or weak.

Watts Up drew my attention to an extraordinary paper showing that billions of dollars of medical research may have been wasted because researchers assumed mice were the same as men. Dr Ronald W. Davis from Stanford comments: ““They are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans.” He found that 150 drugs were tested that in hindsight, were guaranteed to fail in humans. People didn’t understand that mice have a very different response to sepsis (which is any overwhelming blood-borne bacterial infection). Sepsis kills around 200,000 people in the US each year and costs an estimated $17 billion a year. Mice are already resistant to huge numbers of bacteria in their blood whereas humans overreact, our capillaries leak, our organs run short of blood, mass organ failure ensues, and we can die. While mice may have an answer to deadly sepsis (how do they resist it?) we weren’t looking for that in our experiments, we were testing drugs on mice that were never going to help us. Now we understand why.

The peer review system is failing us — Science and Nature missed a whopper of a study

The editors must be kicking themselves now. But what a classic case study of the way the peer-review-establishment responds to a contentious idea. Here was information that could potentially save lives that was dismissed and delayed for the most unscientific of reasons.

 The study’s investigators tried for more than a year to publish their paper, which showed that there was no relationship between the genetic responses of mice and those of humans. They submitted it to the publications Science and Nature, hoping to reach a wide audience. It was rejected from both.

The data was described as persuasive, robust, and stunning. Yet both prestigious journals tossed the drafts out. The best excuse they can give is that they reject lots of papers. Oh, well that’s ok then…

Science and Nature said it was their policy not to comment on the fate of a rejected paper, or whether it had even been submitted to them. But, Ginger Pinholster of Science said, the journal accepts only about 7 percent of the nearly 13,000 papers submitted each year, so it is not uncommon for a paper to make the rounds.

Still, Dr. Davis said, reviewers did not point out scientific errors. Instead, he said, “the most common response was, ‘It has to be wrong. I don’t know why it is wrong, but it has to be wrong.’ ” [See page 2 of the story]

If you do revolutionary work, send it somewhere else

My advice to scientists with groundbreaking results is not to even submit papers to Nature or Science any more. If the information you have is important and will ruffle feathers (and what groundbreaking research doesn’t?) why delay it? There are plenty of alternatives:

The investigators turned to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As a member of the academy, Dr. Davis could suggest reviewers for his paper, and he proposed researchers who he thought would give the work a fair hearing. “If they don’t like it, I want to know why,” he said. They recommended publication, and the editorial board of the journal, which independently assesses papers, agreed.

The clues were there all along — mice often live in filthy conditions and eat food that would make us sick:

Yet there was always one major clue that mice might not really mimic humans in this regard: it is very hard to kill a mouse with a bacterial infection. Mice need a million times more bacteria in their blood than what would kill a person.

“Mice can eat garbage and food that is lying around and is rotten,” Dr. Davis said. “Humans can’t do that. We are too sensitive.”

If researchers had questioned their assumptions twenty years ago, how many lives might have been saved? Perhaps it would only have made a few years difference — because genetic techniques were used (and they were so basic 20 years ago) and the study took ten years in any case. But for twenty years money and brain-power were used to study drugs that were never going to work. Imagine what else we could have learnt?

It’s a reminder that the wrong assumptions can kill despite years of hard work, good intentions and honest research. What is science if is not constantly testing the base assumptions? It’s a faith-based-project.

Anyone who claims peer-reviewed research is rigorous has some kind of delusional faith that humans aren’t human.


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