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Talking Peer Review: Q&A with Retraction Watch

We're nearly halfway through our Talking Peer Review series... And that means, not long to go until our Sentinel Award announcement on September 19. Yuss!

Up today, we have the research integrity news website, Retraction Watch.

Here's one the of the reasons our panel of judges nominated Retraction Watch for the Sentinel Award - for outstanding advocacy, innovation or contribution to scholarly peer review:

"We can safely say that we would not be talking about the importance of transparency in peer review the same way if Retraction Watch had not been there over the last 7 years."

We asked the team behind Retraction Watch, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, a few questions:

Can you tell us a bit about Retraction Watch?

We launched Retraction Watch in 2010 as a website devoted to reporting on retractions and other events in scholarly publishing. Since that time, through the generosity of donations from our readers and grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Arnold Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, Retraction Watch -- and its parent non-profit organization, the Center for Scientific Integrity -- has grown to include four full-time employees. Over the past seven years, we have published more than 4,000 posts, on thousands of different retractions. We also have begun work on a database of retractions that currently includes more than 10,000 entries and growing. We estimate there are about 15,000 retractions at the time of this writing -- many more than we and others previously thought.

Who or what inspired your work in this area?

We decided to launch Retraction Watch in the wake of the scandal involving Scott Reuben, an anesthesiologist in Massachusetts who fabricated data in more than 20 papers. We believed that retractions were not only interesting from the standpoint of journalists, but they could offer a glimpse of how science works -- and sometimes doesn’t. We quickly realized that the way journals handle retractions, from the notices they issue to their policies regarding when and what to retract, vary dramatically. That inconsistency represents a significant area in which to develop and promote best practices.

What does an improved peer review process look like to you, and how is Retraction Watch working towards that?

In our view, improving peer review starts with the acceptance of the notion that the process works best when it is continuous. In other words, pre-publication peer review is critical but only part of the equation. We believe post-publication peer review is an equally essential element in effort to ensure that the scientific literature is rigorous and reliable. Therefore, we have been strong advocates of outlets like PubPeer and PubMed Commons that offer opportunities for post-publication peer review.

What does transparency in peer review (the theme of this year's Peer Review Week) mean to you?

As we have written, peer review tends to be needlessly opaque. As a result, when things go wrong -- either through the acceptance of articles tainted by misconduct or the publication of shoddy research -- it’s easy to point to the review process as ineffective. Journals could improve the transparency of their review processes fairly easily, by providing readers with information about everything from the typical number of reviewers per manuscript and how they are selected -- did authors recommend names, for example? -- to the manuscript acceptance rate and details of the appeals process. Open peer review is another, albeit controversial, way that publishers could approach the transparency problem.

What are your plans for the future?

We are continuing to build and refine our database of retractions, which we hope will be a valuable resource for scholars, journalists and others interested in retractions and related publishing events. In addition to our regular reporting, we are involved in many other writing projects, such as long-form journalism in outlets such as Science. We plan to continue and expand those efforts in the coming years. We also have embarked on an initiative to look more deeply at the intersection between law and misconduct. As part of that project, we have been ramping up our efforts to obtain and report on misconduct reports from universities and other institutions.

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