I believe there’s a path to speed that sacrifices none of the quality and integrity we need to restore trust in science.
But recently, a series of news headlines reminded me of a problem with speed, and with sharing science before it's been proven to be reproducible, or before it's undergone peer review.
In July, the headlines shared a remarkable discovery with the LV Superconductor. This superconductor would conduct electricity at room temperature, and would have profound and transformative impacts on energy, among other things. In short order, there was scepticism. Experts in the field questioned the validity of the findings and the media’s runaway with the story. But within weeks, other labs had taken a look at the data and validated it further.
The result is confusing for the public, and damaging to the credibility of the researchers involved. Trust is fragile, and this type of science communication is harmful to that trust.
What’s the solution here? It’s certainly not to stop sharing, to stop pushing for earlier sharing in the research lifecycle. Within the scientific community, scepticism is a vital part of validating new discoveries, questioning and testing further. To put it simply: that debate and discourse is how science works. The issue comes with how that communication translates when it extends beyond the scientific community.
I'd like to imagine a future where publishers and those involved in publishing take responsibility for educating the media and the public about how science works. In this future, the public will understand the importance of reproducibility, or how any new discovery carries with it scepticism and uncertainty until it is validated by peer review and replicated studies. When scientists talk about ‘uncertainty,’ that cannot carry with it a mistrust with the public.
Preprint servers, and early stage research shared at conferences and through conference proceedings, is critical for accelerating science. But we’ve seen again and again, the challenges of reporting on the nuances of the research lifecycle. We don’t have to look back far to see the rapid rise of preprints during the need for information during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. These early preprints were posted, and while many became quickly indispensable in the months before they could be peer reviewed, some were quickly criticized and withdrawn from the servers. But before those outliers could even be withdrawn, they had spawned conspiracy theories.
Again, the solution here is not to stop sharing preprints. They are invaluable, and the debate that occurred in those criticized preprints stopped countless scientists from pursuing paths of study that had already been debated. It's when that information is taken out of context, without the caveats stated in the paper or an understanding of the role of a preprint in scientific discourse, that we run into problems with scientific communication.
Research on science communication shows that in 2021, most news sources, when reporting on preprints, do not mention that they’re referencing a preprint, nor that the work is unreviewed, preliminary, or requiring more verification. There is a huge gap here, between how scientists understand uncertainty in preprints, and how the media portrays that uncertainty. That gap has the potential to widen into a chasm, with the hope for a future where research holds the highest standards of integrity and trust falling to the bottom.
In order to preserve the role of uncertainty in the scientific community, it's crucial to put scientific discoveries into context for both the media and the wider public. That means education on the iterative nature of science, the fact that our knowledge evolves. It involves minimizing the coverage of individual studies, without covering their context within the broader scope of the discipline. That also means educating on the role of early-stage research, preprint servers and more.
Communicating science within the research community serves a different purpose compared to journalists communicating science to their audiences. Within the research community, we share because we want to build on new ideas and understand the latest findings in order to advance our own research. For the media, the goal is viewership or readership, and getting the most eyeballs on a piece of content, even if that means finding a ‘newsworthy’ piece of data and removing it from the deeper context of a paper or a field.
Both science and journalism strive for accuracy. But in the disconnect between publishing goals, there is a void where, for the sake of newsworthiness, we risk complicating the public’s understanding of science. And once we do that, we risk trust in science overall.
Research integrity is a critical goal for this industry, but I suggest that it can only go so far without an accompanying strategy of awareness and education, to ensure that the communication of research is equally integrity-rich. For more on the future of research integrity, I invite you all to read our Research Integrity Guide.
We are ready to start this conversation on research integrity, media literacy, and stakeholder responsibility. Will you join us? Get in touch.
Morressier is a proud Gold sponsor of the ALPSP Annual Conference and Awards 2023.
About the authorSami Benchekroun is the Co-Founder and CEO of Morressier, the home of workflows to transform how science is discovered, disseminated and analyzed. He drives Morressier's vision forward and is dedicated to accelerating scientific breakthroughs by making the entire scholarly process, from the first spark on, much more transparent. Sami has over ten years of experience in academic conferences, scholarly communications, and entrepreneurship, and has a background studying management at ESCP Europe.