Relativity-10: Science and public relations

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Scientists want their work to influence the field and so they would like it to gain the widest possible audience. Most of the time, their peers (and funding agencies) are their target audience because they are the only ones who really understand what they do. But when the work also has appeal to the general public because of its practical applicability or its revolutionary implications, then there can arise tensions in how the work is publicized and in the case of the OPERA experiment on faster-than-light neutrinos, there has been considerable unease with how this whole episode was handled with respect to the media.

The usual process when scientists have something new to say is that they write up a paper with their results and send it to a journal. The journal then sends the paper to referees who work in the same field (the number of referees depends on the journal and the discretion of the editor) who provide feedback to the editor. The referees do not usually check the results or repeat the calculations and experiments. What they do is see if the paper makes sense, the methodology is correct, if the authors have taken into account all the relevant factors and provided all the necessary information so that readers know exactly what was done (and how) so that they could repeat and check the results if they are so inclined, and that proper credit has been given for prior related work. Based on this feedback, the editor decides whether to accept the paper, reject it, or send it back to the authors for revisions and/or additional work. Good referees and editors can improve a paper enormously by providing the authors with valuable feedback and useful information and suggestions.

In the sciences, authors also usually simultaneously send out copies of the paper (known as preprints) to colleagues in the field. This serves to give their colleagues advance notice of their work (since the time taken to appear in the journal can often take over a year), to get feedback, and to establish priority for any discovery. All this occurs out of the public eye. Once the paper has been accepted and published by a journal, then it enters the public discussion and the media can publicize it. If the paper has significant implications, the journals may alert the media and give reporters a copy of the paper before it appears in print so that they can research and prepare an article about it, but the reporter is under an embargo to not publish until the journal article actually appears. Some of the more influential journals will refuse to publish an article if the authors release the information to the media before the journal prints it.

In the pre-internet days, and for research results that do not have revolutionary implications, this system worked reasonably well. Due to the cost of mailing, not too many preprints went out so the pre-publication discussions remained within a fairly small circle. With the internet, it became much easier to send out preprints to huge numbers of people at no cost and it was not long before it was realized that it made sense to create a system that could serve as a permanent archive that would allow scientists to post their preprints online so that anyone could gain access to them and search for those results that interested them. Currently the most popular venue for such preprints is arXiv and Wikipedia has a good article about its history and how it works.

The articles that are found on arXiv are preprints and thus have not been peer-reviewed but the system is minimally moderated to keep out rubbish. In general, scientists are concerned about their reputations among their peers and so most are careful to only post articles that they think would meet the standards of quality required if they were submitting to a peer-reviewed journal. Almost all of them do simultaneously submit their articles to such journals. As a result, the papers that appear on arXiv tend to be of pretty good quality. All the papers associated with the faster-than-light OPERA experiment are on arXiv.

A few scientists feel that peer-reviewed print journals are an anachronism and do not bother to try to even get their work into journals, feeling that the quality of the work will speak for itself. They think that if their work is correct and important, the community of scientists will accept it and build on it, while if it is wrong the community will criticize and reject it. Possibly the worst fate is that the community will think it is useless and a waste of time and completely ignore it. It may well be the case that in the future, expensive peer-reviewed print journals will disappear and that this kind of open-source publication will become the norm, with quality being determined by the consensus judgment of the scientific community. We are not there yet.

In the case of the OPERA experiment, the system broke down somewhat for several reasons. The OPERA experiment is very difficult and is a huge enterprise involving many collaborators and lasting over three years, with the paper having over 150 authors. Given the culture of the free sharing of information in science, it is very hard to keep preliminary results under wraps and it was pretty much an open secret that these faster-than-light results had been obtained. But this knowledge stayed within the community. What the OPERA team did was the day after they posted their preprint on arXiv on September 22, they issued a press release announcing their results and promoting a big press conference the next day with media and scientists present.

This rubbed some scientists the wrong way. Scientists can be as publicity hungry as celebrities but there are norms and there is a discreet way of making one’s name known. Holding press conferences or issuing press releases so early in the game, before the scientific community has had time to pass its verdict on the research, is considered bad form and the OPERA team has received some criticisms on this score.

While some of the carping may be due to jealousy, it is also the case that trumpeting that a scientific revolution has occurred can harm the image of science if the claim has to be later retracted. The reliable knowledge that science produces tends to be the consensus verdict of the community, achieved after a lot of behind-the-scenes work has smoothed out the rough edges and corrected mistakes. Bypassing that filtering process and going public too soon can lead to embarrassing reversals and give ammunition to the critics of science that its results cannot be trusted.

Next: Recalling an earlier public relations debacle

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