Scientific Misconduct and Editorial and Peer Review Processes

Article excerpt

During the last fifteen years, hardly a year has gone by without the surfacing of a notorious case of misconduct in science: Soman's fabrication of data and his retraction in 1979 of twelve papers, the majority published in collaboration with the holder of an endowed chair at Yale University Medical School; the biologist, Alsabti's rash of plagiarized papers, which came to light in 1980; Spector's unreplicable explanations of virus as a unified cause of cancer, aired in 1981; the unfolding in the same year of Darsee's fabrication of data which resulted in the publication of over one hundred papers while at Emory and at Harvard; the 1986 announcement of a University of California-San Diego committee that nearly half of the 147 articles (137 published) of a rising radiologist, Slutsky, were found to be "fraudulent" or "questionable"; the cases of Glueck's misrepresentation of data on cholesterol and heart disease and Bruenig's articles, based upon nonexistent experiments of psychotropic drugs to control behavior of the mentally retarded within institutions, both of which came to light in 1987; the seemingly endless (1986--92) affair of the disputed paper in Cell by Imanishi-Kari with Nobel laureate David Baltimore as one of five other coauthors; and most currently, the federal Office of Research Integrity's (ORI) 1992 finding that Gallo, codiscoverer of the cause of AIDS, had falsely reported a critical fact in his (1984) scientific paper in order to gain credit for himself, followed in 1993 by its dropping charges because of the more stringent standards for assessing misconduct in the Department of Health and Human Services under which ORI operates.

Yet despite the surfacing of these cases of misconduct and the volley of responses and counterresponses between the principals, the federal government, and the scientific community at large, few new mechanisms are in place to identify and correct scientific misconduct. To a large extent, scientists continue to rely upon "routine processes of self-correction" in science [(6) p. 134]. Chief among these are the editorial and peer review of journals.

If peer and editorial processes are relied upon as "the linchpin of science" [(32) P. 148], then it is critical to analyze the roles of editors and peer reviewers in detecting and sanctioning misconduct, the structural problems inherent in review, and the best means of enabling peer and editorial roles as corrective processes in scientific misconduct. These are the concerns of this article. In addressing them, I argue that the editorial and peer review process can play a part in responding to misconduct, but that it is a limited corrective role.

At the onset, it is important to recognize the roots of scientific publishing. Before the middle of the seventeenth century, scientists communicated through correspondence, exchange of findings, and private printing of results. The communication was informal, haphazard, and without editorial intervention or authority. In 1655 the first scientific journals, the Journal des Scavans and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, appeared. Journals provided wider access to new scientific work, helped verify findings, laid claim to priority and credit for discoveries and advancements, and provided permanence (archiving) of contributions (33). In this way, the "mere printing of scientific work" was transformed to "publication" [(33) p. 462]. These original functions of publication have been retained and provide a basis for publication as the central social process of science (8).

Because journal publication is central to the normative conduct of science, it is understandable that it might be regarded as a means for addressing misconduct as well. It is here that editorial and peer review practices come into play. Since the time that the first journals were published by scientific societies, articles have borne some authority of the scientific community.(34) Consequently, from the beginning, editors and reviewers performed a role in published work. …