Reflecting upon Science Communications

‘Ringing out the old, bringing in the new’ resonates at this time of year because it’s a time to reflect on the past year and set goals for 2012 and beyond. Let’s reflect for a moment on the changing world of science communications.

 Reflections 

Oral publications and Abstracts 

Early in my career, scientific abstracts presented at meetings were (or were not) published in a meeting proceedings or scientific journal. A ‘hard copy’ was distributed to meeting registrants and available to subscribers to the journal or anyone with the perseverance to search for a copy in a library, usually academic or government. In reality, abstracts were rarely accessible to the world.  

Oral presentations and abstracts are important in academics because they are ‘counted’ by Annual Review and Promotion/Tenure Committees even though they do not carry the weight of a peer-reviewed publication. The most important reason for me as a scientist to present results at a meeting was it gave me reason to travel to the meeting and network with peers. It also allowed me to establish myself as a scientist and build awareness of my research program. In essence, for marketing purposes – to establish my name/reputation to help attract additional research funding. Since granting agencies usually require preliminary data to be integrated into a research proposal, published abstracts per se have limited value to get new research funding. 

Peer-reviewed Papers 

Researchers aspire, myself included, to publish our findings in peer-reviewed journals.  Unfortunately, some peer-reviewed papers, even those in the journals with the highest impact factor, are retracted. Retractions occur for various reasons – analytical errors, fraud, etc. Until recently, most retractions have not been well publicized. Editors may have noted it within the hard copy of the journal but the papers remained accessible online. If readers had not seen the retraction notice in the print version, like anyone, I could continue to cite a retracted paper. And everyone loses. I might submit a research proposal based on false premises. Generally, future scientific investments, including taxes, maybe spent testing falsehoods. And as a consumer, I might make nutrition or medical decisions based on retracted data. 

 For many of these reasons, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky created a blog about retractions in 2010. It is an incredibly interesting blog to read. In the December 2011 issue of Nature, they write that Retraction Watch has identified some 250 retractions in 16 months. While the number of papers published has risen by less than 50% over the past decade, retractions have increased 15-fold. Many of them came from a single scientist who didn’t have appropriate ethics approval for many of his papers. But I digress from the point they make: 

It is important to note that an increase in retractions isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because they correct the scientific record. But the greater visibility of papers and retractions today adds to the evidence revealing why editors need to handle retractions more transparently. 

Let me emphasize, the greater visibility of papers today adds to the evidence why retractions need to be handled more transparently. 

Looking Forward 

As of December 2012, few scientists darken the door of a library to browse journals. Instead we search the internet and read articles online. It is no longer sufficient to publish a retraction in a journal. We must also deal with the fact that there may be different versions of a publication on the web, that publications can be amended, corrected and updated. In his blog “Stop festishizing the scientific paper: Our invited Comment in Nature”, Ivan Oransky questions the troubling practice of allowing authors to make new claims in retraction and correction notices, sans peer review. Science communications are changing. The scientific record is shifting.

Increasingly scientific exchanges are taking place online and outside of peer-reviewed journals. Some of these, as I wrote in my article published this month in Nutrition Today, are ultimately worthy of publication as letters to the editor. Some could be abstracts from meetings. Others could be updates to existing publications. With online communities, the scientific record is shifting and these new challenges need to be resolved. Traditional scientific assumptions/expectations may no longer apply. Scientific exchanges are no longer confined to closed communities, e.g. registration-only meetings and subscription-only journals. As science communications move online, scientific exchanges move beyond the science community. Who is the expert? Is all information of equal value? How will a single study be viewed with respect to the totality of the science? 

 These are not easy questions. As someone who was once an academic scientist, I appreciate the value of posting abstracts online. Clearly, this is part of the scientific record. But is it of value? Is a link to an abstract of equal value to that for a peer-reviewed paper? An editor recently told me that because abstracts have not undergone formal editorial review, can be primarily anecdotal and have limited longevity, s/he did not see much value in them and they should not appear in their journal, hard copy or online.

 I tend to agree. I am a believer in peer-reviewed science. Science which should have been vetted. I believe that people can be mislead when inadequately reviewed data is communicated broadly. Case in point. In November, researchers presented an abstract at a meeting of the American Heart Association with vitamin D concentrations that could not be correct. Despite this error, the presentation led to headlines such as “High dose vitamin D pills ‘can double heart condition risk”, “Vitamin D warning: Too much can harm your heart” and “High vitamin D levels linked to serious heart condition, US study finds”. And as the links demonstrate, any reader can access this data. An industry magazine, Functional Ingredients, corrected the record “Vitamin D – can you take too much?” with a statement

 

So if you are in the 0.22 percent of people with wildly high vitamin D levels, you may want to back off on your supplementation. For the 99.78 percent of people on the planet, you are likely not taking enough vitamin D.

Unfortunately, the Telegraph, MSNBC and FoxNews have a much broader readership than Todd Runestad or the TalkingNutrition.dsm.com blogs entitled “Conversion Errors and Vitamin D Nonsense” and “Verify Your Information on Safety of Vitamin D Supplementation”.

 

So, it is my 2012 objective to work closely with industry, professional, academic and government organizations to help develop guidelines that empower sharing of information in a timely manner with modern tools to guide policy and ultimately human health and wellbeing.

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About Michael McBurney

Personal Blog | Nutrition science | Generally curious about impact of social media and open access journals on science communication. Employed by DSM.
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