by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

The Nature blog, The Great Beyond, has an interesting although not surprising report of accusations on BBC that a cabal of researchers has been impeding publication of important stem cell research to help themselves or help their friends:

Truly innovative stem cell research is being suppressed by a clique of peer reviewers for high profile journals, several researchers claimed today.They told the BBC that the problem lies with those responsible for producing the reviews of research that journals such as Nature use to decide whether to publish the work.

Two scientists told the BBC they believe that in some cases reviewers are submitting negative comments or demanding additional and unnecessary experiments to delay publication and allow their friends to publish first. (Daniel Cressey, Daniel Cressey, The Great Beyond

It’s interesting because Nature’s blog is in essence calling out Nature, the journal, although it’s not the journal’s sole responsibility. As a journal editor myself, it’s not easy to police behavior of this type, assuming it’s true. And that’s the “not surprising” part. I don’t know if it’s true or not but if it were, I wouldn’t be surprised. Getting published in a high profile journal like Nature is good for one’s career in a way that publishing the very same paper in an excellent but lower profile specialty journal isn’t.

For its part, Nature and similar Big Time journals like Science and The New England Journal put a premium on publishing results first. All three journals published so-so papers on swine flu because they were the first papers on swine flu. In some instances the papers added little to what we knew already. It was a race for high visibility and press coverage. These journals are too often interested in newsworthiness than science worthiness. They have active media operations and tantalize journalists and reporters with embargoed papers, making them think that because they are embargoed they are getting some kind of hot science news and with it visibility. The more a journal is mentioned in the news the more scientists want to publish there first, thus setting up the kind of dynamic at issue here.

Nature, Science and The New England Journal are among the most important scientific journals in the world. I subscribe to the first two and read the third at work. But they are also businesses. Sometimes business works with science and sometimes against it. This appears to be a case where the business side has indirectly worked against the science side. The indirectness, though, makes the effect more insidious and pervasive than just the stem cell story.

Remember you heard it here first. Well, not exactly. You heard it on Nature’s blog, first. Just goes to show you.