Practice imperfect

August 15, 2003

How should scientific results be made public? Patrick Bateson launches a Royal Society probe

Last week's intense media coverage about the risks of breast cancer associated with hormone replacement therapy demonstrated just how much public interest can be generated by the publication of research results in a scientific or medical journal. But the subsequent complaints from some quarters that doctors and the National Health Service should have had advance warning to prepare for inquiries illustrated how challenging this issue can be.

The results of scientific and medical research can have profound implications for the public. Whether it is an advance in quantifying the risks posed to the environment by a new technology or progress in understanding the causes of a dangerous disease, they can cause people to change, sometimes suddenly and substantially, the way they think and act.

But, despite the obvious impact of research findings, relatively little attention has been paid to how and when they should be communicated. In the meantime, we have seen a number of controversies surrounding the processes involved in assessing and publishing research, ranging from the safety of genetically modified potatoes to the superconductivity of organic crystals, prompting recriminations among scientists and generating confusion among the public.

In an attempt to find a way forwards, the Royal Society this week launched an investigation into best practice in communicating the results of scientific research to the public. The working group, which I chair and which includes members from academic and industrial science, scientific and medical publishing, journalism and consumer affairs, is beginning with a call for evidence.

Most research is made public as a byproduct of disseminating results to other scientists. Whether it is a journal paper or a presentation at a scientific conference, the public is often the secondary audience.

Conversely, when researchers announce their results to the public, rather than their peers, there is general disapproval among the scientific community.

The study will examine closely the practice of peer review. It is often said that it is not perfect. True or not, we will seek views on whether there are any other methods of quality control or filter. Equally, we will ask whether peer review could, or should, be changed to provide the public with greater confidence in research results and whether proposed changes in practice might help or hinder.

For example, some journals and archives are now experimenting with a form of "open review", in which papers are posted on the web and reviews are added in real time. It has been suggested that this "less secretive" form of review will benefit authors and referees alike. But what are the implications for the public? Would it mean that more research results enter the public domain before they have been checked for inaccuracies? And, of course, there are claims that peer review is used to suppress controversial new findings that might be of interest to the public, but that the scientific and political "establishment" do not want aired. We would like to receive evidence on whether such claims are justified.

We also want to hear views on whether there is a case for researchers ever announcing their results before they have been subjected to peer review. We witnessed at the beginning of this year a breathtaking circumvention of peer review, when the Raelian cult announced at a press conference that it had successfully cloned a human being. Not a shred of evidence was offered that these unbelievable claims had been checked before they were conveyed to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

But might there be cases, for example if a serious and previously unknown threat to human health was suddenly discovered by credible researchers with an impeccable track record, in which the results should be made public instead of holding off until a lengthy peer review process has been completed?

The Royal Society working group wants to hear your views and would particularly welcome submissions from THES readers in response to our call for evidence.

Sir Patrick Bateson is chair of the Royal Society working group on best practice in communicating the results of new scientific research to the public. The closing date for submissions is September 26.

Further information can be found at
www.royalsoc.ac.uk/framer.asp?page=/news/comm.htm

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