How Should Scientific Journals Handle ‘Big If True’ Submissions?

Scientific journals are littered with embarrassing publications. Perhaps the most consequential and disastrous example is from Lancet’s 1998 publication of a vaccine denial paper that was only retracted 12 years later. Other noteworthy examples are a 2011 article on extra-sensory perception (ESP) appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) and a 1994 article on a purported “Bible code” published in Statistical Science.

Each of these papers spawned definitive refutations; for example, see the articles by Laura Eggertson, Daniel Engber, and Brendan McKay et al. Indeed, all these articles were notorious in large part because they were considered implausible or outlandish, even at the time they appeared, and this raises the question of why reputable journals published them in the first place. I can’t be sure, but my guess is the motivation was a mix of aversion to censorship and some fear of missing out in the unlikely event the papers represented real research findings.

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