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Is stem cell research being sabotaged by a 'clique'?

8 February 2010
Appeared in BioNews 544

14 of the world's leading stem cell researchers have expressed concern that truly innovative research may be being suppressed by a small clique of peer reviewers who are intentionally hampering competitor's work from being published in high profile journals. In July last year they sent an open letter to a number of editors of major peer-reviewed journals publishing in the field of stem cell biology. Frustrated by the lack of response two leading stem cell researchers, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, speaking independently of any institution, and Professor Austin Smith, of the University of Cambridge, decided to make their criticism public by speaking to the BBC last week.

The letter asked the journals to anonymously publish reviewer's comments in the supplementary material online, in order that the peer review process can be made more transparent. Very few scientific journals currently adopt this practice, the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) journal being one of the few exceptions.

Professor Lovell-Badge said: 'It's turning things into a clique where only papers that satisfy this select group of a few reviewers who think of themselves as very important people in the field is published.' He believes that an increasing number of reviewers are asking for unnecessary experiments to be carried out, simply to delay or stop the publication of the research and to get their own work published first.

Dr Philip Campbell, Editor of Nature, one of the leading journals in the field, denied the claim was true with respect to his journals. He said: 'Last year we used about 400 reviewers in stem cell and developmental biology, and we constantly recruit new referees. The idea that there's some privileged clique is utterly false'. Furthermore he stressed that Nature's editors frequently attend conferences and visit laboratories in order to keep abreast of the field and the people in it.

Professor Lovell-Badge claimed that the problem was posing a threat to the quality of research published within his field. He said: 'We are seeing the publication of a lot of papers in high profile journals with minimal scientific content or advance, and this is partly because of these high-profile journals needing to keep their so called 'impact factors' as high as possible. That's determined by the number of citations that the papers have and they know that some of this trendy work is going to get cited and they seem not to care about whether it's a real scientific advance or not.'

Billions of pounds of public money are spent on funding stem cell research worldwide. Generally, the funding is directed to researchers who have their research published in top journals with high impact factors. The process of publication involves sending a report of the research to the editor of a scientific journal. Only if the editor deems the paper as sufficiently interesting, will it be published. His or her opinion is based on the comments of two or three scientists in the field asked to review the research. In some cases these scientists may be rivals of the person who submitted the paper.

Are stem cell scientists sabotaging rivals' work?
New Scientist |  2 February 2010
Bad reviewers block good research, say stem cell scientists
Nature Blogs |  2 February 2010
'Clique' of scientists skewing stem cell research by influencing high-profile journals
The Telegraph |  3 February 2010
Journal stem cell work 'blocked'
BBC News |  2 February 2010
Open letter to Senior Editors of peer-review journals publishing in the field of stem cell biology
EuroStemCell - open letter |  10 July 2009
Wellcome Trust wants scientists who vet peers to have reports published
The Times |  3 February 2010
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