Science by press release

Hot on the heels of my post the other day, this is a subject that has been raised before by many and is a multi-layered thing as there are lots of ways of giving the public the impression that there is a solid bit of science when in fact it is not there. This is obviously problematic as a pattern since those scientists who refuse to play such games (as they all should) can easily risk losing an argument before they know they are in one (and as far as I”m concerned public opinion and education are really important and should be engaged) or can plod through the mechanics of thrashing a poor paper in the literature to an unenthusiastic response from the media while the other side continue to champion their cause.

There are two main ways of doing this and both are in evidence if you compare actual research papers with media stories:

1. Bring out a paper and then use the press release to refer to things that are not in the paper. This can be wildly tangential or actually quite closely related but allows you to mention stuff that does not actually feature in the paper as part of your new study and of course you can take pot shots at other researchers / hypotheses with no-one to question you. Easy!

2. Base your press release around some unpublished work be it something that’s in review (or even rejected),  or a nice abstract. Since no-one knows what the as yet published paper actually *says* and there’s no data attached to the abstract you can say what you like and no-one can take you to task on it. Brilliant!

While both of these have (sadly) tried and tested histories, another possibility has now reared its head. Longtime Musings commenter Jerry Harris pointed me towards a paper on dinosaurs in the journal ‘Medical Hypotheses’ this week. Now I should point out that I have not read the paper in question and I am not specifically targeting it for criticism, merely using it as an example of what could happen. Medical Hypotheses as a journal is NOT peer-reviewed so basically things get published there with a certain and general lack of quality control over the content and style of the papers they publish, something that has allowed some highly-questionable-at-best-and-downright-terrible-at-worst papers to be published there (which is not a good start).

However, given that it seems that journalists are quite happy to publish all manner of questionable things that scientists say in interviews when exploiting the science-by-press-release loophole (and even distort the actual good science and quotes researchers do provide), it seems to me worryingly possible that the next thing for dishonest researchers to do will be to cram papers into this journal or those like it. They can then pretend they have a fully published and ‘proper’ paper and then go to town on the press front. Similarly as I noted yesterday this can act as a forum for people to splurge out hypotheses just to have them in print with their name on in an attempt to gain credit for ideas or concepts with some supposed credibility and support and dodgy taxonomists can slide in lots of new names in an archived library source.

In short, be wary. While this practice has gone on before, and thankfully remains rare, this is a possible avenue of future problems. Journalists must be more careful and actually read the papers they are quoting from – if the researchers are trying to play games then don’t let them. If the paper is ‘actually’ only an abstract, is in some non-reviewed or unrecognised journal then pick another source for your article, or speak to a few other researchers and find out what is going on. And finally, on a related note, since it is apparent that a dinosaur paper can get into Medical Hypotheses, I can’t wait for a paper on thorassic surgery to appear in Paleobiology. It seems only fair after all, or rather – why on Earth did they even take this? Has a journal ever published a paper with less in common with the journal’s official title?

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2 Responses to “Science by press release”

  1. 1 Jerry D. Harris 09/11/2009 at 2:19 am

    as a journal ever published a paper with less in common with the journal’s official title?

    Yes. — although this is a remarkably parallel case of an inappropriate paper published in a completely bogus journal of crap

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