After 3 years in the shadows, the anonymous founder of a popular and controversial website that allows users to critique published research has revealed himself. “I’m a bit nervous … I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker,” admits Brandon Stell, a 41-year-old neuroscientist and the main force behind PubPeer, which has become an influential outlet for identifying flawed—and sometimes fraudulent—studies.
The site’s practice of allowing anonymous postings, however, has also drawn a lawsuit from a cancer researcher who claims PubPeer comments cost him a lucrative job.
Stell, an American who works in a brain physiology lab at the University Paris Descartes, never imagined that PubPeer, which was inspired by paper discussion groups he attended in college, would attract so much attention so quickly. Stell and his friends decided when they started PubPeer in 2012 that they would remain anonymous until they saw how the site evolved.
This morning they went public with an announcement on PubPeer, after deciding they want to seek philanthropic funding to improve and expand the website. The two other founders are brothers Richard and George Smith, but Stell said they prefer to share only their names and no other identifying information. Stell says Richard Smith worked in his lab in Paris for a few months as a graduate student. George Smith is a web developer who handles the site’s technical elements.
Joining them in the limelight are two of Stell’s friends who have acted as informal confidantes and advisers: Boris Barbour, another neuroscientist in Paris and a running buddy of Stell’s (and also an occasional PubPeer commenter), and Gabor Brasnjo, who was in graduate school with Stell and later became a patent attorney. He now works at a law firm in San Francisco.
The team is revealing itself because it wants to raise money for The PubPeer Foundation, which was quietly registered in California this past December. Stell says the foundation will: encourage and support postpublication peer review; improve PubPeer’s transparency; and allow those running it to enhance the site, such as by hosting the many scientific images that are posted there, rather than relying on a third party. It’s impossible to legally register a nonprofit with no names attached, and so Stell’s group had to make a choice, he says. Forming a foundation also sends “a signal that this is a community effort,” Stell says. He notes that some funds could be used for legal assistance, so that PubPeer is not entirely dependent on pro bono representation, as it is now. In addition, The PubPeer Foundation’s board—composed of the five individuals named in today’s announcement—will, Stell believes, make it “difficult for people to put pressure on us” because they can act as a group. (Brasnjo is on the board in an individual capacity and not as a representative of his law firm.)
Stell says the idea for PubPeer dates back to his undergraduate days at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he began attending journal clubs at which recently published papers were dissected. “Whenever I left the journal club, I thought, ‘people in that journal club eviscerated that paper,’” he recalls. “It would be very interesting to know what the authors think of that.” He imagined similar small gatherings in labs worldwide, and began hatching the idea of a virtual, global journal club open to all.
The concept incubated for years. After finishing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, Stell moved to Paris for what he thought would be 2 years as a postdoctoral fellow. Love intervened. He married a Parisian woman and settled in the city.
He launched PubPeer in late 2012. The site allows users to post under their own names or anonymously; even Stell and the Smith brothers don’t know who the anonymous users are, only their IP addresses. “We didn’t know how the site was going to develop, what it was going to be,” Stell says. “I wasn’t sure I wanted my name attached to it until I had any confidence where it was headed.”
Within a year, PubPeer’s profile shot up, in large part because commenters flagged apparent duplicated images in a high-profile cloning paper (Science, 31 May, p. 1026). Since then, comments on PubPeer from mostly anonymous contributors have prompted numerous corrections and retractions. The popular blog Retraction Watch set up a “PubPeer Selections” archive to try and keep up. There are currently more than 35,000 comments on PubPeer and it has upward of 300,000 page views a month.
In 2013, Science published a feature story about PubPeer, its impact, and the heated debate over anonymous commenters criticizing papers whose authors were named (Science, 9 August 2013, 606). Stell was happy to speak to this reporter for that story, but was exceedingly careful to shield his identity. He used a temporary phone number for interviews and an anonymous email account. “I don’t want it to impact my scientific life or my personal life,” he explained then, though he also conceded, “I think it’s going to be very hard to stay anonymous forever.”
As it turned out, anonymity wasn’t a panacea. In October of 2014, a cancer researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, filed suit against anonymous commenters on PubPeer, alleging their negative appraisals of his work had resulted in a university rescinding a job offer. PubPeer’s lawyers are currently appealing a judge’s ruling that it must hand over identifying information from one anonymous poster. (Read more about the case here, here, and here.)
The unveiling is unlikely to have an impact on the lawsuit at this stage, says Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City who is representing PubPeer. But the decision to go public carries uncertainty. “They’re concerned” about outing themselves, Abdo acknowledges. “They’re all at fairly early stages of their careers.”
At the same time, Abdo believes, “their anonymity, although it’s protected them in some sense, has limited their ability to participate in the conversation.”
At least one of Stell’s mentors is unfazed by the disclosure of this secret life. “He told us he wanted to discuss” something, says Isabel Llano, who leads the lab on brain physiology where Stell works. Over cups of espresso, Stell broke the news of his side project to Llano and his co-lab leader, Alain Marty, with whom he leads a team, late last week. Llano hadn’t heard of PubPeer, but in some respects isn’t surprised Stell would be behind it. He’s a congenial and creative scientist, she says, but also has frustrations over funding and publication pressures and the problems he believes they spawn. “I think ethics may be a part of” Stell’s motivation for creating PubPeer, Llano says. “If knowledge is not transmitted directly and with real honesty, then there is not a basis for science … This is his way of reacting, of saying, ‘OK, I will do something about this.’” And Llano says she wishes him good luck.