2 November 2021
by Marcia Triunfol
On August 31st, 2021, a group of five panelists at the 11th edition of the World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences responded to the question: “Proof in animals: Has journal editorial policy fallen behind advances in human-based approaches?”
One of the panelists, Pep Pàmies, chief editor at Nature Biomedical Engineering, recalled Betteridge’s law of headlines, “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But as it turns out, the question raised here does not have a clear, one word answer, even though recent evidence from 90 scientists responding to our survey points towards a practice of ‘publication bias’ in which specialized journals request that animal data be provided to validate studies produced using human biology-based approaches, such as organoids and organ on a chip. According to many scientists, such requests cannot be justified and illustrate widespread resistance to full acceptance of non-animal methods. The fact that some editors and/or peer-reviewers continue to regard animal model data as the gold standard and in many cases make acceptance for publication conditional on providing “proof in animals” (which may involve performing new animal experiments), can become a barrier to scientific progress.
In his remarks, Pàmies shared his view, as an editor of a prominent, high-impact journal, on the subject. Below are the answers he provided.
What advice do you have for authors who have received a request for adding animal data when they do not agree with the request and find no scientific justification for such?
It’s probably best to write back to the requester, stating the scientific arguments clearly, providing existing evidence of the suitability of the microphysiological system, and referring to the principles of the 3Rs. I feel it’s also important to be explicitly open to hearing more about the arguments for the request. These sorts of discussions are often not clear-cut, and we can all learn from constructive discussion.
Do you think it would be useful to reevaluate the current scientific policies of journals, in terms of requests for good principles and practice in animal research, reporting, ethical treatment of animals, etc.?
It would certainly be useful to first carry out a survey of the relevant policies for the journals publishing in this area; then, on the basis of the findings, specific action can be prompted.
If the journals won’t disclose that the animal data was requested by reviewers, would you suggest that authors proactively make disclosure in the manuscripts? Would that interfere with anything? Are there pros & cons?
There is increasing transparency in peer review, and more journals will be publishing the reviewer reports when authors agree (the reviewers have had to agree to such a possibility before agreeing to review). Also, some authors write informally about their work (often as a blog post), and this could be used as an opportunity for discussion of the pros and cons of having done, or not done, the animal work. It is important to keep in mind that authors are responsible for their work; a reviewer request should not be interpreted as a mandate. And if an author finds that a journal’s editor(s) or their reviewers are intransigent regarding the authors’ manuscript, the author can always withdraw the manuscript and attempt to publish it in a perhaps more appropriate or willing journal.
As an editor, do you think it’s possible to identify when a reviewer is biased towards animal studies and has difficulties in accepting alternatives due to lack of knowledge on how these alternatives work?
I believe practitioners and editors with sufficient experience and context in this area would be able to identify most such shortcomings or biases.
Pàmies believes that we are still undergoing an adoption curve with non-animal methods and technology, where initial hype and fanfare gives way to mature reflection, discussion and adoption. We at Biomed21, believe we are just reaching this point. For some editors, reviewers and other stakeholders the usefulness, efficiency and value of new technologies that do not rely on animals are still not clear. For others, because we are still in the early stages of our comprehension and appreciation of microphysiological systems, there is something of a time lag. Nor can we for now disregard the fact that some defend animal reliance as a matter of tradition.
In any event we need to pick up the pace. It is important to remember that patients, their families, and society at large are anxious for new and effective treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and the many types of cancers that are killing millions of people every year worldwide, among many other conditions. We have an obligation to these parties to identify, develop and implement the most effective methods and technologies available. It is time to set new strategies to educate the part of the scientific community that is unaware of or resistant to the benefits of emerging technologies and advances in biomedical research that do not rely on animals, which we believe will soon offer the best shot for delivering the treatments we seek.