Nature on Press Releases

Today’s Nature has an editorial criticizing two researchers issuing a press release merely when they submitted a paper for review. Apparently scientists in the field have been protesting. Has anybody seen any climate scientists protesting about Ammann and Wahl’s press release? I guess it depends upon whose ox is being gored.

But the manner in which the Newcastle team made its discovery public has consequences that reach beyond one day’s headlines. As researchers in the field have been angrily informing Nature since the two pieces of work appeared, the approach taken in this case risks damaging science and its public perception.

The Newcastle team submitted its work to an independent Cambridge-based journal, Reproductive BioMedicine Online, which has the unusual policy of making abstracts of submitted papers available on its website as soon as the articles are sent out for peer review. The full paper is kept confidential until it is accepted and published. So science reporters informed of the findings by a telephone briefing had access to an abstract that had not been peer reviewed “¢’‚¬? and to nothing else.It can’t yet be determined for certain if the Newcastle team was intending to ride the wave of publicity for the South Korean paper, or if it simply submitted its paper to the journal at a fortuitous moment. And in an ideal world, science reporters would know the difference between a significant breakthrough and a local, incremental result.

But the premature release of this incomplete information, without any form of peer review and without making it clear to journalists that the work had not been refereed, is contrary to good scientific practice. The paper could, in principle, be revised or even rejected after peer review, in which case the public would have been misinformed. The absence of a paper also prevents other researchers from assessing or responding to the Newcastle results.

Industrial companies already release claims to the media while keeping data confidential for commercial reasons, and that’s frustrating enough. The last thing the science community needs is for publicly funded academic researchers to start playing the same game.


12 Comments

  1. John A
    Posted Jun 3, 2005 at 7:51 AM | Permalink

    …the premature release of this incomplete information, without any form of peer review and without making it clear to journalists that the work had not been refereed, is contrary to good scientific practice.

    Really? For those of us Nature watchers, this comes as something of a surprise…

  2. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Jun 3, 2005 at 8:23 AM | Permalink

    Maybe “good scientific practice” is irrelevant when you have a well-documented “consensous” in the scientific community. And who wants to take a chance and wait for science to sort things out in the first place when you’re talking about potential global doom-and-gloom?

    I think it’s funny how some people try to shrug-off the “hockey stick debate” as being an irrelevant sideshow in the first place, yet these same people celebrate the issue of the press release concerning A&W’s article submission. It’s also amusing to see some people complain about opposing views that have yet to be peer-reviewed (or supposedly slipped through a shoddy peer-review process at an irresponsible journal), yet when an article which has yet to be peer-reviewed fits in with their ideals, it’s “validation.”

  3. Paul Gosling
    Posted Jun 3, 2005 at 8:42 AM | Permalink

    This goes on all the time – conference proceedings? Most recieve only a cursory review if any at all.

  4. Peter Hartley
    Posted Jun 3, 2005 at 9:43 AM | Permalink

    “The paper could, in principle, be revised or even rejected after peer review, in which case the public would have been misinformed.” This puts far too much faith in peer review. As any honest academic will tell you, the journals are full of papers that either should not have been published at all, or at least should only have been published with extensive revision (the MBH paper under discussion on much of this web site being just one example). There are also many documented examples of papers that later became justly famous having been rejected by a number of journals before they ultimately were published. The fact is that academia is full of “clubs” of people who are buddies who meet regularly at conferences and referee each other’s papers. It is very difficult for genuinely novel papers to break through this “consensus view” of the “annointed few” in control of an area of study at any one time. Most papers need to be cast as a “twiddle” on the existing paradigm to be accepted for publciation. Fortnuately, there are many outlets for scholarship (including, today, web sites…) and, in so far as science is concerned, I am confident that theory that does not conform with the evidence will ultimately be discarded no matter how fervently it is believed by its proponents.

  5. Roger Bell
    Posted Jun 4, 2005 at 8:08 PM | Permalink

    I’ve got mixed feelings about this, partly because Nature is involved. I think they went contrary to good scientific practice in the whole MBH98 vs M&M episode – the subject was so important that M&M should have had a rejoinder printed . (Science has dirty hands as well, after Oreskes.)
    I quite agree that it was wrong of the Newcastle authors to have any sort of press briefing before the paper was accepted by the journal. However, knowledge that such a paper had been written might well have been useful to other people, who could then have asked the authors for a copy. In my field there is a lot of sharing of preprints.
    I agree with some of Peter Hartley’s comments about refereeing for journals – a lot depends upon the ability of the editor(s) to pick appropriate referees. It’s even more important for granting agencies to get competent referees.

  6. Louis Hissink
    Posted Jun 5, 2005 at 5:39 AM | Permalink

    Roger,

    that raises the issue of “internet” peer review, but who would police/edit such systems? As we have discovered, censorship is as much a problem in this domain, as in the pre-publication of the printed journals.

    Frankly I can’t see an immediate solution to the problem though publication via transparent media, vis the internent, with perhaps fora to peer review the paper, publicly restricted for practical reasons to the “credentialled” might be one way.

    A pit of vipers we seem to have invented to wander through to reach scientific ends.

  7. Roger Bell
    Posted Jun 5, 2005 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

    Louis,
    What do you mean by internet peer review? I don’t have complaints about the present system.

  8. Louis Hissink
    Posted Jun 7, 2005 at 12:32 AM | Permalink

    Roger,

    If one wanted a paper published on say XYZ journal, XYZ journal might post it on a limited access url, and reviewers could comment on the proposed paper via the internet, comments not being publicly available except to the authors, etc. If the redraft etc is ok, ie reviewers are happy with it, then it should be published, everything else being equal.

    Whether this would be an improvement or otherwise is another matter, of course, and if the majority feel the present system is ok, then sure, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

    My speculative thought may well be, in a practical sense, be unworkable.

  9. Roger Bell
    Posted Jun 7, 2005 at 12:55 PM | Permalink

    Louis,
    Internet review, as described in your message #8, seems to simply be the present system with the postal system being replaced by the internet.

  10. Max
    Posted Jun 11, 2005 at 9:56 AM | Permalink

    Again a prejudice against Industry, by implying that business is secrety stagging information that could be of value to the public. Never should you forget that behind public funding, there is the same agenda, however, there is no control over a government and its spending policy…
    Guess, they believe government is some miracelous good thing, while all major businesses are thieving bast****.

  11. TCO
    Posted Sep 19, 2005 at 8:34 PM | Permalink

    This has long been an issue (PG is right). Something that happens and something that journals complain about (with some justification). I did HTSC work in 1988 and it was readily planned that if we discovered something, we would do a press release (ahead of even writing a paper). And yes, sometimes, these things are wrong. At the same lab where I was, someone did a bad press release on O18 isotope effects on HTSC that got lots of pub and then was found out to be flawed. Still…if you discover a new element are you really going to keep it quiet until it comes out in a journal. Be real.

    Another big problem is people who publish letters and then never publish full papers. Applied Marketing Letters…oops I mean Applied Physics Letters is one of the worst examples.

  12. Posted Oct 4, 2006 at 3:34 AM | Permalink

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