The Royal Society is considering a clampdown on the publication of questionable science amid growing anger over the media storms that such results provoke.
A Royal Society review, announced this week, will look at ways of ingraining a culture of strict adherence to the peer-review system that validates research, with a suggestion that academics who flout the rules should be named and shamed.
The review has been triggered by controversies such as the public storm over the study by Andrew Wakefield that claimed a link between the MMR jab and autism in children in 1998.
The impact of such events can be serious and long lasting. Research published in the journal Science this week shows a significant rise in outbreaks of measles in England and Wales between 1999 and 2002 after a decline in the uptake of the MMR vaccine.
Sir Patrick Bateson, vice-president of the Royal Society, told The THES : "There has been a growing feeling that stories about science that are really very badly done are likely to get into the media as people wanted that story. The triple (MMR) vaccination is a good example."
A review panel will be set up comprising academics, industrial scientists, journalists and academic publishers. The group will look at how and when scientists communicate the results of their research to the public, and whether more rigorous reviewing is necessary.
Sir Patrick advocates strict adherence to the peer-review system. "We have all had papers back from referees that have been enormously improved. This can uncover quite serious mistakes. If the MMR and autism paper had been looked at by serious statisticians, it would never have been published," he said.
But Sir Patrick admitted that the system was not foolproof and some scientific papers approved by referees and published in leading journals had been proved to be false or poorly interpreted in the past.
The working group is likely to recommend a culture change rather than to call for official regulation of science.
Sir Patrick said one effect of increasing competition in science was a feeling that researchers had to get their results out extremely fast, possibly disregarding the proper review process.
He said: "In these cases, we ought to name and shame them. We could make it a very undesirable thing to give a press conference on a preliminary finding with serious public health consequences without talking to colleagues."
The review will also consider whether research results are suppressed for commercial reasons.
Should non-peer reviewed science be published? www.thes.co.uk/commonroom
A RIGHT TO KNOW NOW OR WAIT FOR ALL THE FACTS?
* Isabella Thomas, a spokesperson for Jabs, a support group for parents who believe their children were damaged by vaccines, said the public had a right to know if research was raising new questions. Two of her sons were involved in Dr Wakefield's study that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism.
"All Dr Wakefield said was we need caution and we need to look at vaccination, and all hell broke lose," she said.
* Epidemiologist Vivek Muthu, who works for a healthcare research company, conducted a review of 2,000 research studies to examine the effectiveness and safety of the MMR vaccine. This discounted the research linking the vaccine with autism.
Dr Muthu said: "The research by Dr Wakefield was a preliminary study that raised a particular question. It was not reliable enough to answer that question. The study was elevated to a status it should never have had."
SHOULD THEY HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED?
* A study of 12 autistic children by Andrew Wakefield at the Royal Free Hospital, in 1998, noted that the onset of the condition in eight of them followed the MMR vaccination. Attempts to replicate the results have failed and the research has been widely discredited
* Online science journal e-biomed published a paper by the American biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology in November 2001, claiming it had created a human clone
* Last December the Raelian sect announced the births of human clones without evidence via press conference, avoiding peer review completely.
Both claims were dismissed as having no scientific value, but spread like wildfire across the world's media.