Pre-publication peer review can fall short anywhere

The other day I wrote about a recent experience participating in post-publication peer review. Short version: I picked up on some errors in a paper published in PLOS ONE, which led to a correction. In my post I made the following observation:

Is this a mark against pre-publication peer review? Obviously it’s hard to say from one case, but I don’t think it speaks well of PLOS ONE that these errors got through. Especially because PLOS ONE is supposed to emphasize “a high technical standard” and reporting of “sufficient detail” (the reason I noticed the issue with the SDs was because the article did not report effect sizes).

But this doesn’t necessarily make PLOS ONE worse than traditional journals like Psychological Science or JPSP, where similar errors get through all the time and then become almost impossible to correct.

My intention was to discuss pre- and post-publication peer review generally, and I went out of my way to cite evidence that mistakes can happen anywhere. But some comments I’ve seen online have characterized this as a mark against PLOS ONE (and my “I don’t think it speaks well of PLOS ONE” phrasing probably didn’t help). So I would like to note the following:

1. After my blog post went up yesterday, somebody alerted me that the first author of the PLOS ONE paper has posted corrections to 3 other papers on her personal website. The errors are similar to what happened at PLOS ONE. She names authors and years, not full citations, but through a little deduction with her CV it appears that one of the journals is Psychological Science, one of them is the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the third could be either JPSP, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, or the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. So all 3 of the corrected papers were in high-impact journals with a traditional publishing model.

2. Some of the errors might look obvious now. But that is probably boosted by hindsight. It’s important to keep in mind that reviewers are busy people who are almost always working pro bono. And even at its best, the review process is always going to be a probabilistic filter. I certainly don’t check the math on every paper I read or review. I was looking at the PLOS ONE paper with a particular mindset that made me especially attentive to power and effect sizes. Other reviewers with different concerns might well have focused on different things. That doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands, but in the big picture we need to be realistic about what we can expect of any review process (and design any improvements with that realism in mind).

3. In the end, what makes PLOS ONE different is that their online commenting system makes it possible for many eyes to be involved in a continuous review process — not just 2-3 reviewers and an editor before publication and then we’re done. That seems much smarter about the probabilistic nature of peer review. And PLOS ONE makes it possible to address potential errors quickly and transparently and in a way that is directly linked from the published article. Whereas with the other 3 papers, assuming that those corrections have been formally submitted to the respective journals, it could still be quite a while before they appear in print, and the original versions could be in wide circulation by then.