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USDA Scientists Must Say Published Research Is “Preliminary”

A memo distributed to employees of the US Department of Agriculture requires them to include a disclaimer that their peer-reviewed work doesn’t represent agency findings or policy.

Apr 22, 2019
Ashley Yeager

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Update (May 13): The USDA will no longer require researchers to include a disclaimer on peer-reviewed research papers that says the work is “preliminary,” The Washington Post reports. Now, when disclaimers are necessary, papers will include this statement: “The findings and conclusions in this [publication/presentation/blog/report] are those of the author(s) and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or U.S. Government determination or policy.”

Last summer, scientists at the US Department of Agriculture received a memo ordering them to label their peer-reviewed research as preliminary, The Washington Post reported last Friday (April 19).

Published manuscripts, according to the memo obtained by The Post, must include the following disclaimer: “The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.” The disclaimer has been used on several studies dating back to at least November.

When The Post asked for more information on the requirement, USDA scientific integrity officer William Trenkle released a statement saying that “outside scientific publications can be factual presentations of data that do not present any policy or position of the federal government.”

The “potentially misleading” language of the disclaimer may prevent USDA scientists’ research from being published, Christine McEntee, director of the American Geophysical Union, tells The Post. If a research paper is labeled preliminary, a journal editor may think the paper isn’t ready for publication and reject it. “We hope that it’s not interfering with the dissemination of scientific findings that are important for the public,” McEntee says.

Even after publication, the boilerplate disclaimer might lead to misunderstandings of the research. “Any scientist reading a journal, seeing that, would be very confused by this statement,” Ed Gregorich, editor of the Journal of Environmental Quality, which frequently publishes research by USDA scientists, tells The Post.

The USDA plans to update the phrasing of the disclaimer soon, according to Trenkle’s statement.

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