There is an update (30/04) here.
An editorial in Nature Immunology last week announced “updated editorial policies [that] aim to improve transparency and reproducibility [of articles published in Nature and Nature journals]“.
The editorial is spot on. It describes new data sharing possibilities (some mandatory, some optional) that NPG is introducing. It also includes this piece of wisdom:
Those who would put effort into documenting the validity or irreproducibility of a published piece of work have little prospect of seeing their efforts valued by journals and funders; meanwhile, funding and efforts are wasted on false assumptions.
And this conclusion:
We trust that our authors will grasp the significance of this step, and we hope that other publishers will adopt similar initiatives. Because what is ultimately at stake is public trust in science [emphasis mine].
The stakes are high indeed. Raising standards (and trust of authors) depends on policies but also, critically, on whether those policies are enforced. Concerns have been voiced before about the lack of enthusiasm of NPG (and other journals) to correct the scientific record.
We have now evidence that NPG does not enforce consistently its existing policy. The Availability of data and materials policy stipulates:
A condition of publication in a Nature journal is that authors are required to make materials, data and associated protocols promptly available to others without undue qualifications.
As reported previously, since mid-December 2012, Philip Moriarty has been trying -unsuccessfully- to obtain from Francesco Stellacci data related to two Nature Materials articles published in 2004 and 2012. On the 6th of February 2013, Philip wrote to Vincent Dusastre, Editor of Nature Material, who replied (19/02):
We do acknowledge your concerns and we will recontact Prof. Stellacci about his obligations to provide the requested data.
So far so good. Note the word “obligations” in line with NPG policies. End of March however, Philip had not received the data, nor any update from Vincent, so he wrote to Vincent again and received (28/03) this astonishing response:
I have heard from Prof. Stellacci and in essence here is what he had to say.
Due to the nature of the controversy he has decided not to engage in the public debate but to ask independent scientists to reproduce his work. He has sent his old work to an independent group to be analyzed. These findings will soon be published and following publication he will put all of the analayzed images online on a database for everyone to see them.
I hope that clarifies the matter.
All the best,
Needless to say, this does not clarify the matter.
Obligation of authors of NPG publications to provide data in a timely manner? gone.
Instead, undue qualifications such as sending data to an ‘independent’ (i.e. chosen by Francesco Stellacci) group and a future sharing of an unspecified set of data following a future unspecified publication are accepted as valid reasons not to share data which underpin two published Nature Materials articles.
In his response, on the same day (28/03), Philip asked:
As per the NPG guidelines above, do you plan to refer the matter to the authors’ funding institution and/or publish a formal statement?
Vincent did not reply.
On the 5/04, Philip Moriarty wrote again, this time copying in Philip Campbell, Nature Editor-in-Chief, who, among other responsibilities must ensure the ‘long-term quality of all Nature Publications‘.
Nearly three weeks later, there has not been any replies from Philip Campbell nor Vincent Dusastre. A charitable interpretation of this silence is that they are busy reconsidering their views and preparing a plan of action. I leave it to the [uncharitable] reader to propose other interpretations of this silence.
Note (added 24/04): in this particular case, essential claims that underpins these two articles are based on data not shown. One very disturbing aspect of the stripy nanoparticles controversy is the publication in respected journals of a number of claims with literally no experimental evidence at all, or extremely little evidence. Examples from the above articles for which primary data cannot be obtained are discussed in the following posts:
- Scientific claims should be supported by experimental evidence  (relates to electron microscopy, very little data, Nature Materials 2004)
- Scientific claims should be supported by experimental evidence  (relates to non-specific interactions claim, no data, Nature Materials 2004)
- Gaping holes in the gap (relates to Nature Materials 2012, article based on new stripy nanoparticles, no data).