Brief Enquiries

Can Social Media Enhance the Quality of Research, Ms Shema?

The case of Fazlul Sarkar caused quite a stir. In 2014, the University of Mississippi in the United States withdrew a lucrative job offer it had made to the cancer researcher. The reason: anonymous accusations of fraud on the internet platform PubPeer, where researchers can comment on published studies. Since then, Sarkar has had to recall 18 specialist articles. “This is a spectacular example of the clout of social media,” says information scientist Hadas Shema.

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  • Text: Kristina Vaillant
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Dr Hadas Shema of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, is a Humboldt Research Fellow at ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics in Kiel.

Hadas Shema

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Sarkar’s is not an isolated case. Nowadays, academic journals withdraw articles 15 times more frequently than they did ten years ago. People have long been discussing alternative ways of assuring quality in addition to traditional methods such as peer review. Hadas Shema is a specialist in the role of social media. She evaluates the commentaries on online scientific posts, from blogs to science community networks like ResearchGate and PubPeer. She has ascertained that articles that are published and commented on on such social networks are corrected or even withdrawn particularly frequently. This does not surprise her. “There, thousands of colleagues can read the articles and they certainly discover more errors than the three or four peer reviewers who usually read them,” says Shema.

At present, however, she believes the potential social media offer is not being fully exploited. She argues for recognising online commentaries as a component of quality assurance: as the example of Fazlul Sarkar illustrates, flaws are often first noticed online.

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