At a time when the whole world is looking fixedly to science for answers on how we can safely emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, science communication has never been more vital – or more fraught.
A new audience has taken an interest in science, and the general public are consuming research and public health evidence via the mainstream media like never before.
But, with this great interest comes great responsibility.
In some journalists’ haste to break the ‘exclusive’, the media can run a significant risk of reporting on science before it’s ready and eroding public trust.
THE PIECES OF THE RESEARCH PUZZLE
Communicating science is not only about explaining complex processes and functions in an accessible way, but also guiding the general public through the principles we use in science to develop new knowledge – like creating a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 or developing new treatments for people with the virus.
So, how do scientists develop new knowledge? It typically begins with speculations or ideas about possible reasons why something might or might not work.
To test these ideas, experiments are set up and a multitude of data is collected.
The results are then analysed and put together like pieces of a puzzle. Almost always, the puzzle is incomplete, and the picture made by the puzzle needs some expert interpretation.
In other words, it is not black and white.
In the next step, researchers write a manuscript summarising their results and describing their methods. They then submit to a scientific journal, whose editors ask other scientists to evaluate the manuscript.
These ‘peer reviewers’ assess if the research is of interest and used appropriate methods, whether their findings have already been described and whether the ideas are logical and consistent with the current knowledge.
Meanwhile, other scientists also approach the same problem but do so from different angles and with different methods, putting forward slightly or sometimes even vastly different ideas.
These additional studies all add to the full picture. And it can be a protracted process that can sometimes take decades.
Even when papers have been accepted for publication, it often takes weeks or months before they actually appear.
To expedite access, particularly in unprecedented times as we are in at the moment, scientists often opt to make their manuscripts available prior to peer review by uploading them onto pre-print servers.
While this increases transparency, it also means that the ideas put forward have not yet been scrutinised.
SYSTEMS AND PROCESSES
Before the pandemic, rarely did science or health journalists pick up pre-prints from social media or the main pre-print websites and report on them.
That has all changed now.
The media industry always has been and always will be incredibly competitive. It’s endemic in the industry – the unwavering desire to be first, to get the exclusive.
For many science journalists, the pre-print is now serving as their opportunity to be first.
But this does come with significant risks.
Almost all research manuscripts change after they are first submitted and often have to address requests for further experiments from peer reviewers.
In other situations, the conclusions of a paper might be rejected by peer reviewers.
But the peer-review process is not perfect, there are issues around anonymity, overt influence by certain scientific leaders, motivation and drivers of publishing, and for-profit publishing.
However, it is the system that’s in place and, for the most part, allows for much more scrutiny than what pre-prints present.
Currently, it is widely accepted to simply put a disclaimer at the end of a media story that research hasn’t been peer-reviewed. But this only serves a purpose if the concept of peer review and pre-prints are widely understood.
ACCURACY AND TRUST
It is vital the general public and the media not only understand these processes, but they are also carefully considered when reporting.
Sometimes, like in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and healthcare system simply can’t afford to wait for hypotheses to be validated, and impactful decisions may need to be made with only a few pieces of the puzzle in hand.
Science is moving faster than ever, and many scientific journals have implemented expedited peer review processes to account for this.
If, however, reporting seeks to move even faster and report on manuscripts that have not been peer-reviewed, this needs to be declared at the outset and not the end of an article.
Similarly, experts commenting on such manuscripts have the responsibility to explain that the findings might be interesting, but that they are yet to be assessed for accuracy and consistency.
Digressing from this risks damaging the central tenant of how science develops knowledge and may erode public trust in scientific method.
After all, if we can’t trust science right now, what can we trust?