A tangent related to the primate cloning paper has understandably received less attention, but deserves its own thread. In the same issue of Nature containing that paper, an accompanying editorial described how Nature, for the first time, implemented a relatively new policy by seeking the independent confirmation of this particular “high-risk” finding (or “strong claim”) during the review process.
Obviously, successfully cloning a primate is a strong claim. This policy is mainly in response to the travesty that occurred over fraudulent claims by South Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang that he and his team had cloned human embryonic stem cells (published in Science in 2004 and 2005). That prompted Science to adopt a risk assessment template to target those findings that could be false, and thus necessitate further inquiry prior to publication. The Nature policy is similar. Therefore, when these top journals decide that a certain study is bound to have an astronomical impact, extra care and effort to scrutinize the original data, even independently replicate the findings, are required to avoid potential damage to the scientific community.
The Hwang affair no doubt damaged the community and was a complete embarrassment for Science. So this idea seems like a win-win situation for all involved – the journal, the authors, and the public. But I am a bit troubled over the idea of weighting certain discoveries and fields as being more important than others. I understand that stem cell cloning technology trumps rodent whisker barrel physiology in the eyes of the public, the politicians, and (arguably) the entire research community, but it seems like these types of policies have the potential to start as a trickle and eventually become more of an alarming flow. Once this procedure begins to demonstrate its merits and ease of implementation, what’s to stop the editorial board from casting a wider net with the strategy and start loosening the definition of “extraordinary findings”? I guess I am just uncomfortable with the bizarre scenario of journals soliciting experiments and orchestrating scientific research between groups, just to make sure that they are not embarrassed.
Don’t get me wrong, this policy will save a lot of people a lot of grief, if wielded with a strong and disciplined hand. I just don’t want it to become a regular part of the review process.