It is in the nature of scientists to be excited about their work and eager to share their findings. University PR departments are also understandably eager to bring attention to the research going on within the institution. This raises the important question. At what stage in the process should scientists go public with their results?
The first question is whether scientists should ever go public with their results at all. This may seem like a strange question, but one can legitimately wonder whether scientists are the right people to break the news at all. Should the decision instead rest with some third party, such as journal editors, when determining what work has merit? After-all, scientists can get carried away with their work, as the great Richard Feynman put it “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool” . Can they be relied upon to form an impartial opinion on the validity of their work? We peer review papers, why not press-releases?
At any rate, most would agree that scientists are no more or less qualified to make that decision than others, and arguably they are most familiar with their work and should therefore be the perfect candidates to make this decision, so the question becomes at what stage do they ‘go public’ with their findings?
Go public too late and you risk your important information going unnoticed in the great volume that surrounds us in the ‘information age’. Without drawing attention to important pieces of work we cannot progress quickly in finding the best research and solutions to problems. Sit on your result too long and you may be beaten to the punch as a more ambitious or confident research group declares their findings before you.
On the other hand, declare too quickly and you run the risk of being ‘sensationalist’ or jumping to conclusions.
Ultimately I believe the best balance was demonstrated quite recently with the CERN neutrino results from OPERA in 2011 . In March 2011 neutrinos were detected arriving approximately 60.7 nanoseconds faster than light would have over the same distance. After extensive checking the results were finally made public on the 23rd of September 2011, 6 months later. As a result of further investigation the culprit was identified and the theory of Special Relativity remained intact. The scientists at work had to go public at some point and draw attention to their remarkable results, in order to invite further work and advance the knowledge of science. However, in not ‘jumping the gun’ they remained rational and sceptical of their work and waited until they were absolutely sure they had exhausted all avenues of attack, and were confident that they had either discovered new physics or had a mistake that they were unable to find. For me this strikes the correct balance of when scientists should go public with their results.