Lately, there have been increasing numbers of online, unofficial – what might be called vigilante – investigations into published scientific work.
The blog Retraction Watch and its comment section are a good example of this. Commenters, often anonymous, will get onto the trail of a certain researcher (generally following a retraction) and scrutinize their publications (e.g. here) looking for plagiarism, image manipulation, statistically improbable data, or other evidence of bad practice.
Now, when one of these investigations gets underway, a funny thing often happens: someone will ask about the “motives” of the investigators.
Sometimes it’s the targets of the investigation who ask this; sometimes it’s the institution to whom the findings are forwarded; sometimes it’s an anonymous comment. Either way, sooner or later someone will question why someone would want to dig into this issue.
But are the vigilantes really doing something that requires explanation?
All they’re doing is reading papers – carefully. In an ideal world, this is what all readers would be doing – paying close attention, not taking anything on faith, checking the sources. And all writers dream of readers giving their work their full and undivided attention.
What needs to be explained is why most of us don’t do this most of the time. And that’s just when it comes to everyday readers. When it comes to publishers, editors, and peer-reviewers, shouldn’t we be questioning their motives in allowing these problematic papers to be accepted?
The most charitable interpretation is that they just ‘don’t have the time’ to look carefully.
In the case of readers, this is understandable. It would be impossible to perform due diligence on everything one reads, there’s just too much out there. Nonetheless, those readers who aren’t so diligent should be grateful to those who are, and support them. They’re doing a service for the rest of us, at least insofar as they’re getting things right.
It’s not so easy to excuse the lack of vigilance among many peer reviewers and editors. Their job is to scrutinize submitted papers. Every paper accepted despite containing evidence of mischief is a testament to an editor and peer-reviewer(s) who were asleep on watch.
Their duties are hardly onerous – it doesn’t take much effort to run papers through a plagiarism checker, take a good look at the figures for evidence of manipulation, and so forth. It would take a matter of minutes to detect such misconduct. After all, it generally takes vigilantes mere minutes to uncover them, once they’re on the case.
I recently uncovered plagiarized article by taking the first sentence of a paper, Googling it, and finding it identical to another source. From downloading the PDF to smoking gun within one minute! If I did that, anyone could have – editors included.
What motivated me to check that paper? Who cares?
What motivates someone to publish that paper without checking it? Laziness? Naivety? Greed? Now that’s one to ponder.