Can Journalists Help Improve Peer Review?

Reporters and journals should partner to upgrade press releases.

By | July 1, 2007

Last year, scientists at Advanced Cell Technologies published a paper in Nature demonstrating proof of the principle that embryonic stem cell lines could be propagated by removing just one cell from a blastocyst. This finding suggested that embryos would not have to be destroyed in the process. A journal press release far overstated the case for the success of the method, however, which led to two clarifications from the press office the same day the embargo broke.

For many seasoned observers of science, major journals risk losing credibility when press releases are issued with added "spin" before publication. When research makes headlines, science journalists facilitate a kind of postpublication scientific review. Their interviews with other scientists, as well as the author, reflect the collective wisdom and opinion of far more scientists than the number involved in the peer review.

Currently the extended review process is left to chance, and often unfolds in parallel with a sensationalist media expansion of the story. The drivers are journalists - and ultimately newspaper editors - with no familiarity with science. The link between the MMR vaccine and autism that Andrew Wakefield suggested, and Hwang Woo-Suk's claim that he cloned human embryos attracted investigative journalists, producing revelations that contributed to the repudiation of both researchers' work. It appears that the journalists did what the research community (or even coworkers) could not do in time.

Despite these cases and others, journals are unlikely to change voluntarily. There are no apparent benefits for individual scientists or publishers in reforming the media-seeking habits of heavyweight journals: probable gain outweighs risk of error or fraud, and the link between media coverage and research funding is undeniable.

All apparently credible and important science deserves publication, but not necessarily media amplification. Can something come between a hot journal article and a press release?

For the public good, perhaps it is time that science journalists routinely and prospectively examine certain research about to be published, instead of leaving examination of misconduct or bad science to investigative journalists and the larger media. The cases would be infrequent, but important.

Respected science journalists - such as national representatives of the European Union of Science Journalists Associations (EUSJA) and key figures of the National Association of Science Writers (USA) - could be given advance access to planned press releases and accompanying articles on topics of high public relevance.

They would be recompensed by philanthropic or scientific foundations for coordinating a broader review than possible via traditional refereeing. The link between foundations and science journalism already exists. Examples are the Whitaker Foundation (USA), which sponsors the AAAS Science Journalism Awards, and the European Science Foundation, which hosts the EUSJA Web site. Perhaps foundations could provide funding for an experiment in extended review.

As well as correspondence with other scientists, this review might include examination of researchers' funding sources and motives. The journalists would be anonymous, and if they sought advantage by early knowledge of the research, they would be dismissed from the group.

Their findings would be communicated to the journal and would include advice on the wording of press releases, and possibly a recommendation not to issue. The journal could continue to publish an article if it wished, but it might decide to rewrite or even cancel a press release. Should the journalists' advice be ignored, they might (via an umbrella organization) issue a press release of their own after the article's publication.

It is high time that scientists, science journalists, and journal editors met - probably regularly - to discuss workable mechanisms to improve the quality of science and appropriateness of scientific press releases that form the basis of public information.

Andrew Moore is the Science & Society Programme Manager of the European Molecular Biology Organization.

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