Skip to content
The take-home message from the UK Conference of Science Journalists is that a large majority of science journalists are extremely naive about scientists. The naivety is so extreme that I suspect it must be partially willful.

The 2012 UK Conference of Science Journalists was held on June 25th. The programme is available on the UKCSJ web site. I attended two of the sessions: the first was a session was entitled “What can journalists do to uncover scientific misconduct?”; the second was the plenary at the end. What follows is my perspective on those sessions.

Misconduct session

Misconduct is what most people call “fraud”. This session had three speakers.

The first speaker was the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Anaesthesia, Steve Yentis. Yentis told about the case of Joachim Boldt, an anesthesiologist who has had over 80 papers retracted. He also told about the case of case of Yoshitaka Fujii, an anesthesiologist who seems to have published 193 bogus papers. A third case was also cited, though I did not get the details. Yentis has been leading the charge to get more integrity in anesthesiology.

The second speaker was Peter Aldhous, from New Scientist magazine. Aldhous has worked to expose fraud with stories in New Scientist. His presentation seemed sound, but there was no substantial news. (Theslides for his presentation are on his web site.) One point he made was that institutions are unlikely to fairly investigate allegations of fraud made against their own researchers: this obvious point seemed to be new to some people.

The third speaker was Ginny Barbour, who is the Chair of theCommittee On Publication Ethics (COPE). Barbour said that COPE was working to get institutions to investigate allegations of fraud made against their own researchers. She also claimed that only a few percent of research publications are fraudulent.

During the question period, someone stated that science journalists should be cheerleading science, and that fraud is very rare, and anyway science is self-correcting. More generally, many people there genuinely believed that almost all scientists are virtually always honest. Those people work with science all day, and yet they seem to have no clue about how science really operates. Overall, I found the session stunningly disheartening: there is an enormous way to go, to get many journalists to appreciate what reality is.

I pointed out that all the examples of fraud given by the speakers were in medical science. I noted that in the UK, during the past half century, there does not seem to have been a single case where a non-medical researcher has been officially found to have committed fraud. That is clearly unreasonable. Consider much smaller groups of respected people: members of parliament, Catholic priests, police detectives—in each instance, we know that during half a century, at least a few of them will have committed serious crimes.

I also described how I once reported a fraud at the University of Reading. The university refused to investigate: I was told that the university had no procedures for investigating such allegations, because their professors always act with integrity.

The conclusion is that there is no accountability. I said that there were some fields of science where half the research publications were bogus. That was in conflict with the claim of Barbour, and did not go over well.

Some journalists seemed to think that verifying research fraud requires specialist scientific expertise. I gave two counterexamples from my own work. One counterexample is in archaeoastronomy of China, where a fraud consisted of claiming that a figure with four dots in it actually had five dots in it: in other words, understanding the fraud only requires being able to count to five. I published a paper on this, which overturned the previous 20 years of research in the field. The other counterexample was the analysis by Phil Jones on Chinese weather stations; I mentioned this only briefly, as I did not want to get into the emotive politics of global warming.

Afterwards, I briefly talked with Aldhous. Aldhous explained how a journalist might have to put in as much time to get a story about fraud as to get, say, 75 stories about usual science. From a business perspective, that is obviously a serious problem.

I also briefly talked with Barbour. I repeated the point that Aldhous had made about institutions investigating their own researchers. Barbour replied that she was aware of the problem, but having institutions investigate their own was the best that could currently be done. At the time, I could not think of anything polite to say in response to such nonsense. It is obvious that having institutions investigate their own is worse than doing nothing, because it tends to give the illusion of there being a real investigation. (We have seen such illusory investigations with Climategate, for example.)

Barbour then talked about the COPE Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines for Journal Editors. She suggested that it was via the Code that research would gain more integrity. The Code contains statements saying that editors should “strive to constantly improve their journal”, should be “supporting initiatives to educate researchers about publication ethics”, and should “publish guidance to authors on everything that is expected of them”. Those are plainly platitudes. The Code makes no mention of research data having to be disclosed, of computer programs having to be available, etc.—that is, it lacks most of the specifics that would be needed for it to accomplish anything non-illusory.

(…)

For me, the take-home message from the conference is that a large majority of science journalists are extremely naive about scientists. The naivety is so extreme that I suspect it must be partially willful.

For global-warming skeptics, something else should perhaps be mentioned. Many global-warming skeptics seem to think that there is something special about the prevalence of bogus research in global warming. There is not. Anyone who has looked at other fields of science knows that there are fields that are worse than global warming. This tells us something important: the underlying cause of the problem is not specific to global warming.

I mention this especially because some skeptics seem to believe that what is needed is reform of the IPCC. Yes, the IPCC could benefit from reform. But that would not solve the problem.

We have known for millennia that prerequisites for integrity in human affairs include things like transparency and accountability. Those things should be in all scientific research.