Additional thoughts on Bible-flu and the retraction

PZ has some additional thoughts on the Bibleflugate retraction up at Pharyngula. Choice quote:

This is a serious concern, to my mind. Scientists are expected to be open and communicative about their work, explaining all the details about how we achieve our results. Yet then we hand that work over to a publisher (usually a for-profit organization), where it is subjected to an arcane process cloaked in mystery that they call peer review. And every once in a while, some strange fluke exposes the inherently arbitrary and chaotic nature of that process, everyone asks “how the hell did that get published?”, and some guy in a business suit steps out to unconvincingly tell us “oops” and reassure us that all is well in the machineries of their journal.

I don’t think it’s enough. If a publisher wants to manage this profitable business of publishing science journals, there ought to be an expectation of transparency — a fuller explanation of how submissions are handled, and when mistakes are made, a more thorough explanation of exactly how it happened. Without an open explanation of how such mistakes occur, I can’t have any confidence that efforts will be made to correct the process that led to them.

He also notes the lead author responded to a request for comments, basically saying he was surprised at the response and was only meant to be “thought-provoking.”

Biblical flu paper going bye-bye

Well, that was quick. Yesterday’s post highlighting a really terrible paper in BMC’s Virology Journal drew a lot of comments here and at Pharyngula, and attention at the journal (where it currently stands as the 5th most-accessed article in the last 30 days). The journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Robert F. Garry, this in the comments section to my post:

As Editor-in-Chief of Virology Journal I wish to apologize for the publication of the article entitled ”Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time”, which clearly does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report and does not meet the high standards expected of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Virology Journal has always operated an exceptionally high standard of thorough peer review; this article has clearly not met these thresholds for balance and supporting data and as such, the article will be retracted. I should like to apologize for any confusion or concern that this article may have caused among our readership, or more widely.

Whilst only ever intended as an opinion piece and also a bit of relief from the ‘normal’ business of the journal, the speculations contained within this article clearly would be better expressed outside the confines of a peer-reviewed journal. Biomed Central does not support any views outlined in this article.

He also noted that the retraction will appear shortly. (This comment also appears in the comments section of the paper itself).

While saying it’s “only opinion” and removing the paper is a good first step, it’s still unclear to me how this passed peer review in the first place. I have a ton of opinions that have way more scientific support than that manuscript did, but I’m sensible enough to realize that they still won’t be able to pass any rigorous peer-review muster–that’s one reason I have a blog, after all, is to air these random musings. Articles that are a bit more amusing and a departure from the norm of the journal are all well and good (check out this article, for example), but for the “Biblical flu” one, either the reviewers/editor got conned or really let something slip through the cracks.

Either way, the retraction is a deserved result and a quick response by the journal and Dr. Garry, but something that really shouldn’t have been fodder for me to mock in the first place.