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Published On: Wed, Aug 6th, 2014

The Scourge of Science Broadcasting

In a world where half of Americans firmly believe in at least one of six medical conspiracies, and celebrities with no medical background are giving medical advice to the general public, there is a clear divide between scientific fact and general knowledge.  I believe more than a modicum of blame can be put on us scientists.  We like to think our research speaks for itself in that the peer review process is efficient and relatively fair, and therefore the published results are straightforward and easy enough to understand.  But the fervor behind finding the next new cancer drug or a cure for chronic illnesses can easily turn a statistically significant result from a paper into a sensationalist media piece about, for example, how good “superfoods” are.  If we watch for how our research is portrayed, we can make changes before the reporting gets out of hand.

Global Dispatch 200x119But this tried-and-true method of peer-reviewed publication, which dates back to 1665, has its flaws. Apart from the standard complaints towards publishing journals, new online journals are publishing shoddy research in exchange for payment.  A recently published a report from the highly impactful journal Science detailed their efforts to submit a “spoof” paper, rife with scientific inaccuracies and fraudulent data, to these new online journals. The authors submitted the paper to 304 “open-access” online journals, and got rejected from less than half of them (94 rejections to 157 acceptance letters, the rest not receiving word at the time of publication). By earning money through author publication fees rather than subscriptions, these “open-access” journals can forgo the oversight provided by more established journals in favor of quick acceptances to increase their margins. Says John Bohannon, “lead author” of the spoof paper, “[T]he data from this sting operation reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”

The most troubling implication of this study is that the improperly reviewed research can then be seen by the public.  Even properly reviewed research that has been retracted is available to the public, who can read the paper and subsequently develop their own opinions about the matter.  Worst yet, scientific journalism can end up playing a game of telephone with the data, leading the media and the public into believing the worst (or the best) of a situation that has little to no scientific backing.  It is as if the sorites paradox is being applied to scientific data passing, where each verbal iteration makes a slight change, ultimately resulting in a pile of unscientific rubbish.

In any case, this scientific disconnect must change.  Indeed, a so-called “K index” has recently been devised, showing that scientists who are “renowned for being renowned” tend to garner more support, regardless of whether or not they are discussing their specific discipline of study.  Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye do excellent work in scientific reporting and educating, but as a trained physicist and engineer, respectively, they should not be the voices for nanomedicine, microbiology, or most other life science disciplines.  Richard Dawkins has done a fine job at times in this regard, but his polarizing views can drive away those who are simply seeking knowledge. These more famous scientists should defer comment to experts in the field in question, broadening the exposure of knowledgeable yet more demure scientists and decreasing the likelihood that the media and public will misquote or misunderstand someone that may not be adept in a particular field.

As scientists, we need to have a vociferous yet sane voice in the world in regard to our research.  We need to call out news media that misrepresent our results, and publicly reprimand other scientists and doctors that are trying to make a quick buck by passing off shoddy or falsified research. Certain websites have done a wonderful job of publicly identifying these improper techniques, but it is not enough.  We need to condemn the offenders and extol the virtues of good, truthful science on the public, and especially on each other.  Only then will the discourse turn from distrust and blame to understanding, partnership, and respect.

Edward Marks is a PhD student at the University of Delaware.  His research involves the healing of myocardial tissue after major cardiac events using nanomedicine techniques, with the goal of pushing any advancement directly into the clinic.  Edward received his BS from Rutgers University and Masters from the University of Delaware.

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