Open letter to Senior Editors of peer-review journals publishing in the field of stem cell biology

10 Jul 2009
Emma Kemp

Stem cell biology is highly topical and is attracting great interest not only within the research community but also from politicians, patient groups and the general public. However, the standard of publications in the field is very variable. Papers that are scientifically flawed or comprise only modest technical increments often attract undue profile. At the same time publication of truly original findings may be delayed or rejected. At the recent EuroSyStem/EMBO Conference on Advances in Stem Cell Research there was much discussion about the peer review process. Peer review is the guardian of scientific legitimacy and should be both rigorous and constructive. Indeed most scientists spend considerable time and thought reviewing manuscripts. As authors we have all benefited from insightful referee reports that have improved our papers. We have also on occasion experienced unreasonable or obstructive reviews.

We suggest a simple step that would greatly improve transparency, fairness and accountability; when a paper is published, the reviews, response to reviews and associated editorial correspondence could be provided as Supplementary Information, while preserving anonymity of the referees. We note that this procedure has recently been adopted by The EMBO Journal. We wish to encourage other journals to follow suit and would like to hear your considered opinions.

This letter and your replies will be disseminated via the EuroSyStem website ( and You may post your comments directly at

If you wish to make any comments privately to the signatories,  please send them to Austin Smith

Yours sincerely,

Austin Smith, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom (Conference Organiser and EuroSyStem Project Coordinator)
Yann Barrandon, University of Lausanne, Switzerland
Margaret Buckingham, Institut Pasteur, Paris France
Connie Eaves, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Tariq Enver, Weatherall Institute & Oxford University, UK
Margaret Fuller, Stanford University, USA
Thomas Graf, Center for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona, Spain
Gerald de Haan, University Medical Center, Groningen, Netherlands
Ihor Lemischka, Mount Sinai Medical Centre, New York, USA
Shinichi Nishikawa, RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology, Japan
Freddy Radtke, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland
Guy Sauvageau, Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, Montreal,Canada
Azim Surani, Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, UK
Shinya Yamanaka, Kyoto University, Japan

UK news programme highlights peer review issue

The UK's BBC has highlighted the concerns raised in the open letter published above. On Tuesday, 2nd February, the prime time morning radio programme "The Today Programme" featured a news piece describing the concerns of some leading stem cell scientists about problems with peer review.

Read more about the news story

EMBO Journal Transparent Review Process

EMBO Journal has put in place a transparent review process for all manuscripts submitted for the first time after 1st January 2009. Under the new process, all articles published in The EMBO Journal now have a supplementary Review Process File (RPF) accompanying their online version, containing the timeline and all relevant communication from the review process, including referees' comments, decision letters and the responses from authors.

This process started as an experiment to promote transparency and good editorial processes overall, but according to the journal: "uptake suggests the experiment has been successful. We therefore hope that other journals will now move into the same direction with similar initiatives."

Read more about EMBO Journal's transparent review process


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I am a medical research scholar

I am a medical research scholar and is doing research on this topic. I read you article and found it very useful for completing my projects. I have searched almost everywhere about the stem cell biology but found your article very useful as you have elaborated it in a different way which is very informative for me. Thanks for sharing your views and thoughts on this comprehensive topic. I really liked your article.

I find it interesting how

I find it interesting how your stem cell research differs from what I hear in class in the States. Hopefully I can corporate this information into my term paper I would be very interested in whatever else you have published so that I can further my knowledge of stem cell biology.

I must agree!

I must agree! From what I've learned, there are a lot of differences to be found in stem cell research in the United States and stem cell reseach overseas. It's very interesting to say the least.


Rachel | IAQ Source

I think it’s extremely

I think it’s extremely important for all stem cell researchers to discuss this issue and find a consensus. Over-hyped scientific competition for money and reputation is disgracing the field of stem cell research and causes decreased reproducibility and reluctance to openly exchange data. In the article, experts offered some solutions to solve this problem and they are open to your comments. Michael Braun, tankless water heater

The importance of peer review

As Paul Courant mentions in his blog post on this topic, it is imperative that all published documents need to be peer-reviewed. When this is done properly, the industry self-regulates and self-corrects and misguided research. However, when this process fails to be followed, miscreants can run amuck. This what I'll call the "golden rule" of research journals -- research unto others what you would have them research unto you.

The EMBO Journal reflects on transparent review process

Earlier this month, Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO Journal, reflected on two years of transparency in peer review at the journal (Nature 468, 29-31, subscription required).  Read our summary here.

Eur J Cell Biol adopts transparent peer review policy

The editors of the European Journal of Cell Biology ( are pleased to announce that the journal will follow the pioneering footsteps of the EMBO journal in publishing a transparent peer review file as online supplementary material together with the published articles of regular issues. The new policy has been announced in an Editorial available at ScienceDirect (Eur. J. Cell Biol. 89 (11), p. 779, 2010; ) .

About Peer Review

Peer review is commonly accepted as an essential part of scientific publication. But the ways peer review is put into practice vary across journals and disciplines. What is the best method of peer review? Is it truly a value-adding process? What are the ethical concerns? And how can new technology be used to improve traditional models? Jenny

Controversial Topics

Stem cell biology is definitely one of the most controversial subjects at this time. I am involved in the health insurance field, and this is one of the most commmon topics of discussion. I for one, think that it is a great idea but I understand the other side as well. As with most things, there are both advantages and disadvantages to each side and viewpoint.

Just like many growing

Just like many growing sciences, Stem cell Biology is also a growing science which has started to interest many research communities out there. But what sets it apart from other similar sciences in my opinion is that it has started getting attention from patient groups, general public, and even the politicians. But like you said, many flawed papers are very much considered by so many out there where as the original and genuine ones are overruled! Robert Goulet

New Scientist analyses this issue

Triggered by the letter above, New Scientist today published their analysis of "publication dynamics" in the field of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell research, finding that researchers in the US get their papers published faster, and in higher-profile journals, than rivals elsewhere.

Read their analysis, Paper trail: Inside the stem cell wars, and check out the accompanying diagrams.

See also their editorial, Lift the veil of secrecy over peer review.

Ethical judgments

Ethical judgments about the use of embryonic stem cells in research and therapies flow from the status accorded to the embryo. Those who feel that an embryo is a human being, or should be treated as one because it has the potential to become a person, contend that it is unethical to do anything to an embryo that could not be done to a person. 

Adult stem cells are also problematic, as they are difficult to identify, purify and grow, and simply may not exist for certain diseased tissues that need to be replaced.


A Perhaps Unappreciated Advantage

Not only will this step likely improve the transparency of the process, but it will make the reviews themselves subject to (post-hoc) review by the community. I would strongly argue for the publication of reviewer identity as well. While there are inevitable frictions that will result from friends and colleagues rejecting one another's work, we will come to accept such practice as "part of the process". Making this public will help to enforce ethical and professional standards of decency and provide reputation to those who are considered to do particularly careful reviews.

-B. Scott Williams

Associate Professor of Chemistry

Joint Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Pitzer Colleges

Claremont, CA 91711

Transparency in the Peer Review System


Peer review is one of the pillars of scientific objectivity, with judgement decisive for whether or not a research project or scientific line of inquiry is funded or a paper published.

The influence of dominant scientific perspectives and the power of the referee system drive the development both of areas of inquiry and of individual careers. The lack of transparency of or accountability of the reviewers produce leads to a hierarchy within the publishing system. That hierarchy and the decisions as to who reviews what are themselves not based on the principles of peer review or accountability.

In our sociological fieldwork on stem cell research practice we collected many views reflecting how the mechanics of making science are perceived and rated by the actors themselves. The data indicate that the scientists are highly aware of the conflicts of interest that surround the peer review system. They acknowledge that everybody wants to publish in the ‘best’ journals and the best journals want to publish not only the best science but also the flashiest and trendiest science and beat their competitor journals to doing it.

The fact that conflict of interest is a key concept in both submitting and reviewing a paper and that it is possible in some journals to identify by name direct competitors, so that they are not picked as reviewers, acknowledges the inherent flaw in the system: that it is vulnerable to manipulative or destructive action. Ideal peer review is based on a shared understanding of honorable exchange of expertise. The current competitive settings in which science operates, globally and nationally, across and between fields, may not provide the right spaces to nurture and practice this ideal.

Clearly, changes toward a more transparent system of named review would foster a more respectful attitude toward the work of others, upon which excellent science can flourish.

Christine Hauskeller and Jean Harrington

ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter, Email:

Peer Review

While scientists have trusted the peer review system in the past, the problem arises when the findings are given to the public.  When this happens many of the details within the peer review system are not made public causing confusion and, at times, even dissention amongst public readers.  One way of getting around this would be to do just like the European Molecular Biology Organization has done (EMBO).  They have gone to the lengths of making the peer-review system common knowledge, and actually publish the review system alongside the final paper.  Using this could not only increase the trust of readers in the system, but also increase the total number of readers and could be used across such areas as environmental, medical and social fields.  The stronger the trust in the system the better the system will become.  Great info here though, keep up the progress!