There's been an interesting dispute playing out over the last few weeks about science reporting. Here's a summary, but I'll give one as well: it all got started with David Kroll, aka "Abel Pharmboy" of the Terra Sigillata blog (and another, Take as Directed). On that latter site, he'd written about science articles in the popular press, and the line between having a scientist fact-check a piece about their work, and giving that same scientist editorial power.
Ananyo Bhattacharya, editor of Nature, then wrote a column in the Guardian on the topic, where he warned that there was indeed a line that could be crossed:
". . .It's a trap I've fallen into in the past. Either a scientist you have talked to insists on checking the final version of the story with the threat of "withdrawing" their contribution to your piece (it feels churlish to point out that they have already agreed to speak to you on the record) or, an hour or two before deadline you're struck by a creeping fear that somewhere, something is dreadfully wrong and so you call on one or more of your friendly sources to read it over. . .Part of the problem is that many scientists interpret the journalist's request that they "check the facts and your quotes only please" rather loosely. Some are under the impression that because their lab carried out the work being reported, they have some sort of ownership of the subsequent coverage. This is not the case."
But then the Guardian ran a strongly dissenting view from three neuroscientists from Cardiff University. Their take was that peer review is the secret sauce, and that accuracy is the greater good:
Science is different for four reasons, one categorical, three of degree. The categorical difference is the process of peer review. Every research article in a reputable scientific journal has been through a process in which between two and five independent experts (normally anonymous) have made extensive comments. . .
Overall, since press credibility relies on both accuracy and independence, and since the question of allowing sources to check articles (or parts of them) raises a tension between these pillars, the burning question is: where should the balance be struck?
We believe that public trust in science, and in science reporting, is harmed far more by inaccuracy than by non-independence. Contrary to Bhattacharya's claim that "the reader is not a scientist's first concern," public understanding is our overriding concern when communicating with journalists.
As it happens, these very authors had recently been scorched by sensationalized reporting of their work in the British tabloids. Now, I agree that for an accurate picture of any given scientific project, I'd sooner bring in a paleolithic Amazonian shaman for his take before turning to the Sun or the Daily Mail. But I still have to disagree that accuracy is the absolute trump card - I'm willing to accept some moronic misrepresentations in order to keep things more honest, and I think that honesty is best served when things don't run quite so smoothly. We should all keep each other on our toes - the alternative is an invitation to logrolling and groupthink, which can do more harm, in the long run, than sensationalism.
And it should go without saying that the Cardiff researchers' appeal to peer review just doesn't stand up. Five minutes over on Retraction Watch will show you what peer review is capable of letting through. And there are plenty of good scientists who will tell you about what peer review is capable of keeping out of the journals as well. No, it's a very imperfect system. I'm not saying that I can think of a better one at the moment, but appealing to it as if it's one of the glories of civilization is silly. (I see that I'm not alone in reacting this way).
And a bit more than silly - it's arrogant as well. This is what we as scientists have to look out for, the de haut en bas attitude where we come in and explain all the complicated stuff to the peasants. People can detect that, you know, and when they do they get suspicious (and rightly so, at times) that we have something to hide. No, speaking as a scientist, and a blogger, and (mostly on the opinion side) perhaps a journalist as well, I think we're better off with a system where everyone keeps an eye on everyone else. If we get too cozy and consensus-driven, we're going to invite real trouble.