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Peer Review or "Cycle of Submission"?

Turmoil at the NAS

by SUZAN MAZUR

"Grants are awarded by your colleagues who sit in Research Councils and Foundations. Most of us, in any establishment, tend to be conservative and to follow what is called the paradigm. This creates a cycle of submission. . . . The disregard for science’s ethical principles is widespread."

– Antonio Lima-de-Faria, Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics, Emeritus, Lund University

Does a science peer review system based on secret submission policies benefit the American public who fund science? A review by this author of correspondence between the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America – the print weekly and online daily research journal (paid subscription) of the National Academy of Sciences – and the authors of several recent scientific papers, most eventually published by PNAS, reveals a nasty back story about submission procedures that in some cases work against the best interests of the public as well as sound science.

The uproar had to do with three papers submitted to PNAS several months ago by NAS member Lynn Margulis, a recipient of the US Presidential Medal for Science. One of them, "Destruction of spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi round-body propagules (RBs) by the antibiotic Tigecycline", the authors say involves an excellent candidate antibiotic for possible cure of the tick-borne chronic spirochete infection Lyme Disease in the US, recognized as "erythema migrans" in Europe and elsewhere. However, the paper was held up because PNAS said it had issues about the way Margulis chose her reviewers on the first (unrelated) paper she presented, that is, Donald Williamson’s "Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis". As a result, all three papers were stuck. The last of the three, also on spirochetes, which Margulis says was properly and favorably reviewed, has not yet been approved for publication as this story goes to press.

Margulis is one of 2,100 US members of the NAS. She does not receive government funding and has further distinguished herself by refusing to take DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) money. Margulis admits she is viewed by some within the NAS as "contentious" but says she "only wants to see that real science, open to those who want to participate, is well done, discussed critically without secrecy and properly communicated".

NAS promotes itself as a private, non-profit organization of distinguished scientists that serves the "general welfare", although it was actually incorporated in 1863 by Congress during the Lincoln presidency with a mandate to further the investigation of and report on science and art whenever called upon by any department of government. And in 1884, it was authorized "to receive and hold trust funds for the promotion of science, and for other purposes" (emphasis added). NAS is joined at the hip to the National Research Council, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine – collectively called, the National Academies.

When a reporter for Times Higher Education in London asked PNAS why the Margulis-introduced papers were on hold, she was told: "The submission process is confidential and we cannot comment on any papers currently under consideration." In reality, a paper on advice to the editor by anonymous expert reviewers can be pulled at any point on its way to PNAS publication.

One of the reviewers Margulis selected for the Williamson paper reported receiving an intimidating call from an editor at Nature magazine and commented, "It sounded like he was trying to discredit the work and that I might have been a weak link."

Margulis then learned that one of these anonymous expert PNAS reviewers was blocking publication of the Williamson paper, although she suspected that this was just the tip of the iceberg. She wrote me to say that she was always surprised that they ever had let her into NAS (elected in 1983). She wondered what the qualifications of the anonymous reviewer were and noted that the delay "was cruel . . . when so many people are suffering Lyme arthritis and this Brorson microbiology paper (that I actually co-author) provides a fine clue to eventual adequate treatment. . . ."

Margulis who had just returned to her teaching position and lab at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst from Oxford University, where she’d spent the 2008-2009 academic year as Eastman Professor, then advised PNAS managing editor Daniel Salsbury of her course of action:

". . . If [PNAS editor-in-chief] Randy Schekman or you or anyone else at the PNAS continues to pit Williamson’s, Robert Higgins’s, Professor Mark McMenamin’s, Oxford Professor Martin Brasier’s and my authority about marine larval evolutionary history against an anonymous expert reviewer and refuses to be satisfied with my reviewing procedure and therefore to block the entirely unrelated Brorson et al. paper, I am going to be forced to request a signed legal statement that Randy Schekman, you and the anonymous outraged reviewer in fact have more authoritative knowledge than we do about these evolutionary lineages. I humbly request that you do not force me into this position as I am not a litigious person. . . . The PNAS arguments are from authority and procedure and not from science. . . . I insist that Dr. Schekman speak to me directly about the quality of the science, that, in the end, you are trying to protect"

While Margulis won the PNAS battle on both the Williamson and Lyme Disease papers, and one outraged critic came to light in a PNAS-published letter — Harvard University’s Gonzalo Giribet — questions remain about just what kind of science is promulgated at PNAS. (Giribet told me by phone he was not a "reviewer" on the original Williamson paper but also that he would never admit to being an "anonymous reviewer" if he were an anonymous reviewer.)

Another NAS member (foreign) has been in the process of suing PNAS for the same sort of last-minute expert board member rejection over a paper of his on nitrite in the water supply and cancer victims in China.

Harvard scientist Richard Lewontin, considered by many to be the "most important evolutionary biologist of the passing generation," resigned from NAS, describing the Academy as a "political organization which is almost quasi-governmental" and "not about to refuse the DOD and military establishment" (2003 interview with Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley). Lewontin left NAS because its operating arm, the National Research Council – funded by federal agencies – had committees that were doing secret war research.

We have no way of knowing if anything has changed regarding secret war research. In 2008, US government agency grants and contracts to the National Academies totaled $192.3 million with unspecified funding from private and nonfederal sources at $52.7 million. Some of those federal grants and contracts came from myriad branches of the Defense Department, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Security Agency and the Executive Office of the President (George W. Bush).

SUZAN MAZUR’s reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr@aol.com