Scientists fail to sway public

February 6, 2004

Scientists are fuelling public fears about their work by failing to explain how it is regulated, an expert group has found.

A high-level working party on peer review organised by the Sense about Science campaign group has told The THES that scientists must work harder to inform the public about peer review to give their work credence.

Tracey Brown, the director of the campaign and a member of the working group, which is due to report formally in March, said: "Scientists often see peer review as a pain in the neck, something that you wait six months for. But there is a positive story to be told."

The group's argument was borne out this week by a MORI poll that found that three-quarters of the general public did not know what "peer review in scientific publications" meant.

But the poll, which was commissioned by the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution and the journal Nature , also found that over 70 per cent of people wanted research to be scrutinised by academic experts before it was put in the public domain.

Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre, said: "It's surely time for scientists to share their secret - that there is a process they rely on to sort the wheat from the chaff."

Ms Brown said scientists needed to explain to the public why their peers were the best people to assess their work. "You have to rely on experts and instincts built up over years of working in a field. Concerns about a piece of research often start with a hunch, and you wouldn't get that from a more bureaucratic system of external regulation," she said.

The expert group's report will also consider criticism that peer review is used to suppress unpopular views.

Ms Brown said such claims betrayed an ignorance of how scientific publishing worked. "It is not usually the case that a paper is not published anywhere. Often, this just refers to not being published in one 'glamour' journal," she said.

But Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, who is also a member of the expert group, said: "There are good examples of ideas rejected simply because people don't like them. It's not common, but it happens."


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