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The Online Comments

Two recent publications have highlighted the role of Internet-enabled post-publication review of scientific findings, the Economist says.

Issues with the STAP publications from Haruko Obokata at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology and her colleagues in Nature — which reported that embryonic-like stem cells could be generated by exposing cells to a strong stimulus like low pH — were quickly reported on the web.

"[B]logs and websites published apparent irregularities in diagrams and pictures in the papers, and pointed out that one passage seemed to have been copied verbatim from elsewhere," the Economist notes. Other sites reported being unable to reproduce the researchers' findings.

In April, an investigation conducted by Riken found Obokata guilty of research misconduct, and she has since said that the papers will be retracted.

Web-based criticism also brought up doubts about cosmology paper from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researchers led by John Kovac, reporting interesting patterns in background cosmic microwave radiation that seemed to support the theory of inflation. However, physicists sifting through the data, which was made available online, found that the results may have been contaminated by space dust. Kovac, the Economist notes, was not censured as Obokata was, nor accused of any such practices.

"But both cases reflect the rise of open, post-publication review on Facebook and Twitter, by e-mail, on blogs, and in the comments sections of websites like arXiv, which hosts preprints of papers in physics and mathematics," the Economist says.