Laura Jane Fox
Scientific research can often be laborious, repetitive and in many cases inconclusive. However, as many researchers will tell you when a moment of insight and clarity arises its hard to hold back from ‘going to the presses’. With only new, ground-breaking science finding its way onto the pages of newspapers and the most prestigious journals, it may seem like a race to tell the world of your findings.
As important as it is to tell the general public about the discovery of a new particle or breakthrough in medicine it is still important to go through the right channels to do so. Scientific publication and peer review should remain a vital part of this process.
In March last year a group of astronomers using telescope Bicep2 claimed to have found evidence of gravitational waves, a giant scientific discovery, they published these results without peer review. It has since come to light that these findings may not be as they appear when astronomers using space telescope Planck tried to reproduce the data, find out more here.
Some may argue science is about discussion and debate, but without scientific rigor and validation we end up with a large pool of wrongly interpreted data that is essentially obsolete.
Francis Bacon, father of the modern scientific method, insisted that we must doubt everything before assuming its truth. This can be a hard task when we like to be right and hate proving ourselves wrong. Failures to confirm a hypothesis are rarely submitted to publication either, these negative conclusions can be as important as positive ones, they can prevent scientists wasting money and time treading down the wrong path.
This problem is caused not just by a need to publish for the sake of our careers but also in being human. Subtle omissions and unconscious misperceptions take place as researchers make sense of their results; as we are more inclined to find fault in our own experiment than in the already published literature. It has become undesirable to repeat experiments to validate the findings of others because publication in esteemed journals is not achieved this way. I find the problem isn’t when to tell the public but how sure we are of what we’re telling them.