A July 24 article by Tom Sheldon of the Science Media Centre raised concerns about the use of preprints in the media. Soon after, nine eLife ambassadors (some of which are also ASAPbio ambassadors) responded in a preprint entitled “Maintaining confidence in the reporting of scientific outputs.” Many of the same sentiments are echoed the following response.
Response from ASAPbio’s James Fraser & Jessica Polka
Tom Sheldon raises important points about the relationship between the media and science (Nature 559, 445 (2018)). Although best practices for discussing preprints in the media are still developing, every concern he raises about preprints also applies to peer-reviewed literature.
His primary example of public understanding distorted by coverage of a bad paper (G.-E. Séralini et al. Food Chem. Toxicol. 50, 4221–4231; 2012, which was peer reviewed) underscores this point. While peer review provides a filter, it is clearly an imperfect one. Worse, it can lull scientists, journalists, and general readers to accept claims uncritically. The label of ‘peer review’ can therefore promote confusion and distortion.
The central concern Sheldon raises – that preprints may allow weak work to be overblown in the media while better work is ignored – may apply more aptly to press releases circulated to journalists under embargo than to preprints themselves.
We appreciate the pressures journalists face to produce content rapidly in a hypercompetitive market. Nevertheless, like scientists who cite peer-reviewed papers or preprints, they have an obligation to critically review the work they promote and communicate its status to readers while ideally securing independent expert opinions for comment. In the case of preprints, this includes a description of how these manuscripts have and have not been screened, similar to the disclaimer many preprint servers prominently display. Scientists can help discourage the spread of poor-quality information by publicly commenting on preprints and peer-reviewed papers – helping readers understand the scientific community’s response to a work.
The increasing use of preprints presents an opportunity for researchers, institutions, funders, and journalists to discuss how research is covered in the media in general, and all parties need to be part of this debate. But we must be careful not to impede communication among scientists, which would delay the benefits the public will ultimately reap from accelerated scientific understanding.
James Fraser, UCSF & ASAPbio
Jessica Polka, ASAPbio