Scientific journals under the microscope

Whether it is Time citing a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or The New York Times reporting on the latest news from the New England Journal of Medicine, peer-reviewed scientific journals are among the most oft-quoted sources of information in journalism.

Whether it is Time citing a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or The New York Times reporting on the latest news from the New England Journal of Medicine, peer-reviewed scientific journals are among the most oft-quoted sources of information in journalism.

And until recently, such journals have been exempt from the undesirable attention that mainstream media have received over the past few years for tales of declining credibility and shoddy vetting of sources.

The revelation that South Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk had fabricated evidence that he had cloned human cells - findings he had published in two separate papers in the journal Science - brought an unfamiliar level of controversy to a previously controversy-free medium.

If a traditional media outlet had been the original publisher of such content, it would have no doubt been dubbed "Stem-cell gate" and dominated the blogosphere for weeks. But the controversy involving Hwang and Science was relatively short-lived. Though many papers, newsweeklies, and TV news shows reported the initial "findings" prominently, there wasn't nearly the level of public outrage as with bungled mainstream media stories.

Still, the incident not only calls into question the credibility of such peer-reviewed journals, but also perhaps signals a more difficult road ahead in terms of the communication of scientific discoveries and findings.

A recent New York Times article concluded that in the wake of the South Korean hoax, science journalists are more skeptical of information from peer-reviewed journals, but have no other choice but to rely on them because they are the only sources of such information, and there is no real way to fact-check the claims. That falls just a little bit short of a ringing endorsement.

"It's flawed, like many other systems are, and things do get through," says Jenny Moede, SVP in Waggener Edstrom's bioscience and healthcare practice. "Overall, it's still the system, and journalists and many others still rely on it to provide credibility for the research."

And any controversy is unlikely to take the prestige factor away from such journals as Nature, JAMA, and even the offending party Science. "When our clients publish research in those journals, we generally do promote it because it's a really big deal," says Moede.
But does that mean it should be business as usual for such titles and the professionals who communicate about their findings?

Moede says she hasn't noticed much of a change in how journalists are dealing with such information, but points out that it is the PR pros promoting the data that may have to change their ways nonetheless.

"What PR folks can do is have respect for the process and make sure that journalists have what they need to feel comfortable about the data," she says, adding that making scientists or third-party sources available for interviews should be part of the routine. "The journalists are going to have a huge filter about this - and they should."

Moede likens the incident to the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times in that the action of one has the possibility to affect the reputation of a larger institution or, in this case, the peer-reviewed journal system. But if that's truly the case, then perhaps the journal system should adopt the same level of transparency as the Times and other mainstream media organizations.

Much like the Times instituted a public editor after the Blair scandal, these journals could benefit from giving interested parties a glimpse into internal processes and vetting procedures. And who better to do that than PR and communications pros? Sure, the credibility of these journals may be intact for now, but there is still something to be said for being ahead of the curve.

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