#PeerReviewWeek – Interview with Simon Linacre, Head of Content, Brand & Press at Digital Science

As part of #PeerReviewWeek22, we caught up with Simon Linacre again to hear all about this year’s focus of the week – Research Integrity - as well as how the peer review landscape has evolved over the last two years.

This is a great read for enhancing your own knowledge of the peer review process or indeed a useful resource to share with team members and mentees who are looking to learn more about the field.

1.       This year the theme is Research Integrity. Can you tell us a bit about what is specifically meant by this among the scholarly  community and what the challenges / barriers to achieving integrity are?

In the course of 20 years working in and around scholarly communications, one of the constant challenges I have come across involve research integrity issues. In recent years - through my work on predatory journals, as a COPE Trustee and now working with Ripeta at Digital Science - I have seen first hand the damage a lack of research integrity can cause in the publication process. For me, research integrity itself is the pursuit and implementation of research techniques that lead to reproducible, true and open results. When these are compromised in some way, then you start to get problems. These problems, however, tend to pile up for publishers and universities first before they impact on others, partly because those two stakeholders tend to find out about them first, and also because it can take so long to investigate cases. This in itself is one of the barriers to tackling the problem, and highlighting such challenges is one of the reasons why Peer Review Week is so important.

2.       The world has changed so much since our last interview on the topic in 2020, with the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. What impact has the pandemic had on the peer review process?

That's a big question! Without going into too much detail, I think the impact has been indirect, but could be significant. More articles were produced, skewed towards Covid-related areas, and many of these were made available as preprints. The net results were increased pressure on an already weakened peer review system, and research being made more quickly via preprints, but under less scrutiny as there was less peer review. I don't think we know yet what the full impact has been, but I think it may have both accelerated the use of preprints as a mode of scholarly communication and the number of articles made available with research integrity issues. I have co-authored an upcoming study where we have seen all the Covid conspiracy theories - that it was caused by 5G masts, the supposed success of unproven drugs - published in predatory journals, where no peer review was undertaken. I think Covid has just magnified some challenges that already existed for scholarly communication, but not in a good way for peer review and research integrity.

3.       What should we know about the ‘reproducibility crisis’ and what’s causing it?

One of the Digital Science companies is called Ripeta - 'repeat' in Italian - and it aims to support trust in science by providing users with automated quality checks. The reproducibility crisis is one of the reasons the founders set it up, as they were seeing so much science published - either unwittingly or not - where the positive results being published were not reproducible. Scientists are still driven by the need to get published or win grant funding, and the temptation is there to cheat to secure their careers. However, Ripeta can use a wide range of trust markers to identify iffy research, and flags can be raised about the levels of research integrity in a paper so reproducibility can be checked out. As technology and its use advances, it will hopefully deter people from trying to cheat the system in the future. 

4.       For those of us working in a publishing company, what skills and actions are necessary to ensure we are achieving research integrity?

As you know, workflows in publishing can be long and complex, and from a systems perspective this is both a strength and a weakness. The investment in these processes are part of the added value publishers bring, and ensure their success as organisations. And for 99% of the time the workflows work well and deliver on what users and customers need. However, at each link in the workflow chain there is an inevitable weakness, and sometimes things can break down due to increased pressure. I think the best skill in publishing is to pre-empt such problems by being honest about the pressure building up and working to solve it collaboratively. This is particularly true around research integrity where prompt action is often lacking due to an unwillingness to direct resources to the problem. 

5.       Finally, what is your involvement with Peer Review and any final words of advice?

My experience with peer review now is at once very broad and very narrow. Working at Digital Science, we have Dimensions which is a linked database with information on 130 million publications, so we see data relating to peer review on a very large scale. But at COPE and in my recent experience writing and publishing academic articles, we see first-hand what problems can arise. I think my advice from that is never be surprised at how bad, nefarious or even ingenious some people are when it comes to publishing research. I recently worked on a case that was published in Retraction Watch where one author published scores of articles in just a few years, and a colleague at Ripeta spotted the trends that uncovered what had been happening. Many articles had been plagiarised using special paraphrasing software that had presumably got them through peer review and any anti-plagiarism checks. I have recently written a short book to be published as part of the Charleston Briefings on predatory publishing, and my experience writing that reinforced my view that you should never underestimate the potential for bad, nefarious or even ingenious ways people will try and subvert peer review and research integrity for their own ends.

Simon Linacre is Head of Content, Brand & Press at Digital Science. Previously Simon was Marketing Director at Cabells having spent 15 years in publishing at Emerald, where he had worked journal acquisitions, open access and business development. Simon is also a Trustee of COPE and tutor at ALPSP. His background is in journalism and he has been published in academic journals on the topics of bibliometrics and publication ethics. Simon holds Masters degrees in Philosophy and International Business and has global experience lecturing to researchers on publishing strategies. His book ‘The Predator Effect’ is due to be published in Autumn 2022.

Thank you very much, Simon, for putting the need for Peer Review in the spotlight for us!

We hope you’ve all enjoyed Peer Review Week this year. Do visit our website for the latest jobs in acadmiec and scholarly publishing: https://www.inspiredselection.com/jobs?field_sector_tid%5B%5D=19