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Thoughts about Clarke’s “Ethics of Science Communication on the Web”

September 22, 2012 Filed under Blog, Featured, Publishing, Uncategorized 

My friend Jim reminded me about an article “Ethics of Science Communication on the Web” by Maxine Clarke of the Nature Publishing Group in Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics. I might have seen this paper before, but Jim’s reminder and me taking a look at it again strikes me as a little ironic. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of peer-reviewing as the pathway to communicating new research results.

First, the author is from the Nature Publishing Group and argues that peer review is the “benchmark”. Sure, because it helps keep the high perceived value of the Nature Publishing Group (owner of how many different journals? Nature, Nature Climate Change, Nature Geoscience, etc.)

Second, she argues that the internet is “full of erroneous information”. I don’t dispute that, but one of the worst peer-reviewed published papers I’ve ever read was published in Nature. Moreover, Nature has the third largest number of retracted articles (43 retractions) over the studied period (URLs below).

http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/surging-retractions-in-scientific.html
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303627104576411850666582080.html
http://eloquentscience.com/2011/09/the-top-journals-in-science-for-retractions/

Third, this statement is simply false: “Most [journals], if not all, have embargo policies like that of Nature, the journal for which I am an editor, in which authors must not discuss material submitted to the journal with the media until it is formally accepted for publication…. Our policy is to release information about our content in a way that provides fair and equal access to the media, allowing it to provide informed comment based on the complete and final version of the paper that is to be published.” AMS, EGU, and AGU meetings, as a small subset, are attended by reporters who report on the latest research findings that have not made it to peer review, but have been aired in the context of a scientific conference. Astronomical conferences are the same. I don’t see an issue with that form of media attention.

Fourth, she says that “Peer review is a means of giving journalists confidence in new work published in scientific journals.”, but then says, “Scientists understand also that these [published peer-reviewed] papers are not necessarily ‘right’.” I understand the subtle distinction she is trying to make, but it comes across as wanting to have the cake and eat it, too.

Lastly, the article has this pervasive overt tone that scientists understand these complicated things like statistical significance and the public isn’t capable of it. That’s why the system must exist the way it does. Moreover, the journals are the ones to dispense approved knowledge and the other sources are often unreliable. I imagine similar things were said when the printing press was invented. ;-)

(Graphic from http://www.ensaa.eu/index.php/sts-and-sd.html)

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