Making sense out of science
One of the more positive results to come out of The Publishing Consortium’s investigation into attitudes to the peer-review system is the fact that most academics appreciate its role as a quality-control filter. The vast majority understands and benefits from this, both in improving their own papers the papers they read.
However, an oft-forgotten audience is the general public, who can find it hard to distinguish between pseudo and real science when it is reported in the news. According to Sense About Science, a charitable trust that promotes good science and evidence for the public, peer-review is not only a vital part of scientific communication, it is the basis on which lay readers can assess the value of scientific findings that they read about.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
Ellen Raphael, Head of Programs at Sense About Science, says, “We’re here to help the public assess scientific research. Knowing that a piece of research has been peer-reviewed and published in a respected journal is an easy way to distinguish between what is scientific and what is just opinion.”
Sense About Science aims to promote a culture of questioning in the public. “We want people to question the things they read in the newspapers, and one of the questions they should be asking is ‘has it been peer-reviewed, and if not, why not?’,” says Raphael.
Sense About Science works at several levels. First, it is actively encouraging opinion formers, including scientists, journalists and members of parliament, to clearly indicate where their research comes from. “Most journalists now say where the results they are reporting were originally published, and this is an important development. It also means that people can follow up if they are interested,” Raphael adds.
Sense About Science also wades in whenever a debate of public interest is getting out of control. “One example was the controversy over the relationship between mobile phones and cancer,” she says. “A lot of the early reports were based on unpublished data. Another serious example is anything to do with health. We are about to publish a leaflet for people with neurological diseases, giving them the tools to evaluate research claims. There’s a big difference between results that have been subjected to scrutiny and those that haven’t, and we need to help people understand how to make this distinction.”
People are unlikely to move from a newspaper report to the original paper. For a start, the general public does not generally have access to academic journals; however, this is not the point. “We’re not expecting people to start reading scientific studies into conditions they may suffer from, but if they know where the research comes from, they can easily identify what’s worth paying attention to and then follow up with their doctors,” Raphael explains.
Raphael says it is important for scientists to be clear about whether or not their research has been published and for journalists and other opinion formers to provide the sources of their information.
She also believes that publishers need to be more open about their quality-control processes. “When we were researching peer review, we found very little information. It isn’t easy to find out how it works, who uses it, or much about the scene. The public needs more information on identifying good papers and journals. Publishers should communicate better with the public, explaining what standards they employ and what they are trying to achieve. If they were more open about the process, people would have a much better idea of how to distinguish good from bad science.”
Sense About Science’s pamphlet on the peer-review process, I don’t know what to believe… Making sense of science stories, has been distributed to or downloaded by 160,000 people.
The Trust also has links with 3,000 experts in a wide range of disciplines who can answer questions and bring some clarity into public debate.
“Meanwhile, we’re stepping up our education efforts: as I said, we regularly publish guides to science under discussion in the public domain, from chemicals through to health tests. We’re also putting together a teaching resource on peer review for use in the National Curriculum. Few people, especially if they haven’t studied science at university level, are even aware that there is a system for distinguishing quality science from that which people just make up, and this will go some way towards remedying that.
“We also organize workshops. At the moment we are preparing one for post-graduates who are about to start publishing to help them understand the system and what it can mean for the public.”
Since young scientists are one of the groups claiming that peer-review is biased in favor of established scientists, this may help them find their way through the system.
For scientists who are weary of reading dubious ‘scientific’ facts in the popular press, one way to clarify the situation and distance themselves from scaremongering pseudoscience is through clear communication. Tell the public how science is assessed and how peer review helps us identify the very best research that is taking place across the world right now.
reproduced with permission from Elsevier Editors' Update: Michelle Pirotta, “Making sense out of science”, Elsevier Editors’ Update, Issue 24, November 2008
The Guardian – Science Blog: “Don’t judge peer review by its occasional failings” by Adrian Mulligan, Associate Director of Research and Academic Relations at Elsevier