When should scientists go public with their results?

Christopher Glew

The debate on when scientists should go public with their results has caused much of a stir within the past few years. A number appear to go public with results after a long period of time, when the results have been rigorously analysed and verified, whilst many appear to go public with their results as soon as the initial results have been made, and perhaps without the  rigorous amount of verification we would expect. There are many reasons for when scientists go public with their results,. Wait too long to go public and the research being done might already have been published by others, but go public too soon and inconsistencies in the research might be found. It’s getting this balance right which needs some greater explanation.

‘Market forces’?

One of the main factors when it comes to publishing scientific results is the ‘market’ of research.  Many scientific journals, such as Nature, may choose to publish research that may not have a great scientific impact on the world, but that makes a great headline in order to encourage people to buy their magazine. This means that, in the quest to sell more journals, some of the rigour expected in research may be looked over. So, by publishing the research too early, incorrect science not only appears in journals, but may also be announced to the public as fact when, perhaps, it could be untrue and contain many inaccuracies. A recent example of this issue is a recent set of papers published in January 2014 regarding stem cell research.

The journal which published this research, Nature, was forced to retract these papers after it was found that they contained various scientific errors, along with fellow scientists having problems replicating the results of the experiment. As a result of these errors in the research, the lead author of the paper was found guilty of scientific misconduct. It is clear from the investigation that the results being published were not ready to be published and, hence, released into the public. But Nature seemingly accepted these results without verifying the actual science which was embedded in the papers. Actions such as these sound alarm bells for the whole scientific community, since it appears that the scientific process, which should have found these inaccuracies, failed.

The retraction of papers such as these also has a far more negative impact on the way science is viewed within the general population. By retracting papers, in which the scientists were clearly not ready to make their results public, the public may feel that the ‘trust’ system embedded within the scientific system has been betrayed. This trust system is of vital importance to the scientific community as without specialist knowledge of the subject material much of the research is difficult to follow and understand, so by breaching this trust the implications are far and wide.

So it appears that the ‘market’ of scientific journals has a significant impact on when scientists publish their results, and seems to actively encourage cutting corners in order to get the research out as quickly as possible in order to attract maximum attention to not only the scientists, but to the journals themselves.

But what about the current research ‘system’?

Another factor to consider when answering the question of when scientists should go public with their research is that scientists are under increasing amounts of pressure to publish a certain amount of research within a given timeframe. Recent estimates predict that the average research fellow should be publishing a minimum of 1-2 papers per year, whilst professors are expected to produce a minimum of 4-6 papers per year. In order to comprehend these values, we must consider that a huge amount of rigor and verification goes into validating the results obtained within one paper, let alone for 4 papers. This puts a lot of pressure on the researchers to produce such vast amounts of new research, whilst also ensuring that the results, which go into public, are as accurate as possible. Somewhere along the lines, a sacrifice has to be made in order to meet these ‘quotas’, so the time when a researcher goes public with results may be significantly reduced, and the quality along with it.

Pair this with the fact that researchers are expected to pitch their research to the journal with the highest impact factor before moving further down the ‘hierarchy’ of research papers, means that the process is more complicated than it would appear to an outsider. Popular science will always sell more journals than niche science and so, from the publisher’s point of view, science which will have an impact on the wider world and can have an impact on the media is more desirable. It’s this balance of quality science vs market forces which many scientists and researchers have to battle against.

So when is the best time?

Scientists are under pressure from all areas, from these market forces to their own academic departments, to not only produce as much research as possible, but to ensure that it should have the biggest impact  possible. This ultimately leads to the age-old  argument of quality vs quantity,: should scientists aim to produce more research, but risk it being full of errors and inaccurate results? Or should they aim to produce a few, high quality research pieces but then risk the pressures of research being out-dated or having further pressure from other outside sources? At this moment in time, the former option appears to be the one undertaken by many scientists, which can be seen by the fact that last year (2013) Nature Magazine retracted a total of six papers and, as of September, has retracted a total of 8 papers in 2014.

In my opinion the way the scientific system is conducted should be changed, such as to allow scientists to produce a few, high quality pieces of research. This in turn would have the added effect of making the trust system between science and the general population much stronger. Journals should be able to catch these inaccuracies before going to publication also, since going to the public with plainly wrong science is bad for everybody involved.

I strongly feel that these pressures on researchers and scientists should be removed, since the publication of results which are not rigorously checked is detrimental to the whole of science. Scientists should only make their results public when everyone involved in the process is convinced that the results are as accurate as possible and are reproducible to within a certain amount of error. If this is not achieved, then the public opinion of science will begin to decrease significantly as it has done with relatively recent events.

When should scientists go public with their results?

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