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“Off the Record”: Bad for Scientists, Bad for Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Let me tell you a story about how people invested in scientific discovery sometimes actively impede scientific progress.

I’m a science and medical journalist and the editor of the Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum, a web site for MS researchers and clinicians. Similar to the venerable Alzforum, on which it is modeled, MSDF aims to, “accelerate progress toward cures for multiple sclerosis and related disorders by sparking new ideas and catalyzing unforeseen connections.”

(Self) Censored. (Credit: Carolyn Tiry via Flickr)

But a catalyst can’t do its job when its reactants won’t come close enough to combine. That’s the problem I ran into when I assigned a seasoned science journalist to write an article on a recently published study.

For reasons that will become clear shortly, I can’t identify the study, its authors or the journal in which it was published. Suffice it to say that the study seemed newsworthy to me, that its senior author (we’ll call him Dr. A) is one of the leaders in the field, and the peer-reviewed journal where it appeared is well respected, if not in the first tier.

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The journalist reached out to Dr. A and also to two other researchers (Drs. X and Y), who work in related fields, to get independent comment. Boy oh boy did Dr. X and Dr. Y comment, and those comments surely were independent, which is what any journalist wants. But in the same emails in which they eviscerated the study they also insisted that their comments remain off the record. “Off the record” is an important term of art in journalism, and the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students defines it this way:

“Off the record” restricts the reporter from using the information the source is about to deliver. The information is offered to explain or further a reporter’s understanding of a particular issue or event… But if the reporter can confirm the information with another source who doesn’t insist on speaking off the record… he can publish it.

Because our sources said that their comments were off the record, we couldn’t use them in any way, and I can’t quote them here, not even anonymously. At this writing, the journalist has been unsuccessful in finding sources willing to offer on-the-record comments or criticisms of the study.

In general terms, Dr. X expressed the opinion that the study added only a small amount of data to what was already known. Dr. Y explained that the blanket rule in his research group is that no one is ever to go on the record. Dr. Y then conveyed surprise that MSDF would want to report on this study in the first place, since its conclusions are already well known.

But Dr. A and his half-dozen co-authors clearly thought that their study did add something to the field. So did the well-respected journal, and so did its reviewers.  And while as a journalist I don’t have the depth of knowledge in this particular subtopic to have an opinion on the scientific value of the individual study, the fact that a top researcher published a study on an interesting topic in a well-respected, peer-reviewed journal suggests newsworthiness. The clear difference of opinion on the value of the study only adds to that newsworthiness. Unfortunately, that news and those criticisms are things that no one—including other researchers in the field—will ever read.

Catalysts can’t decrease activation energies when the reactants remain apart. And science can’t advance if criticisms are mumbled only in off-the-record conversations in dark hallways or in emailed comments that never leave the inbox.

Make your voice heard! (Credit: Howard Lake via Flickr)

I don’t know why Dr. X and Dr. Y remain unwilling to criticize the study publicly. They likely have very good reasons. Perhaps Dr. A is currently reviewing one of Dr. X’s papers and one of Dr. Y’s grant applications. Perhaps Dr. X and Dr. Y are just trying to be polite. Perhaps neither is willing to bell the cat, fearing a lasting effect on their careers. But I would argue that whatever those reasons are, they’re trumped by the estimated 2 million people worldwide who are afflicted with MS and who deserve rapid scientific progress. They’re trumped by the needs of other scientists to share in these insights and possibly benefit from them. And they’re also trumped by the purest goals of science itself, the endeavor to discover truths about the natural world.

In my experience most scientists like nothing more than to explain their work and to analyze the science, and most are astoundingly generous with their time when journalists call. In fact, even Dr. X and Dr. Y were generous. Both took the time to compose carefully worded emails clearly explaining their criticisms of Dr. A’s study. I wish I could share those thoughtful criticisms with our readers and include Dr. A’s response. Perhaps the resulting dialog, or one like it, would spark an idea that will advance the field or catalyze a connection. Unfortunately, we—and our readers—will never know.

Robert Finn About the Author: Robert Finn is a science and medical journalist and the Executive Editor of the Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum. Follow on Twitter @bobfinn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. BillSkaggs 10:59 am 06/12/2014

    I find it hard to sympathize here. The sources are trying to tell you that the story is not important enough to deserve attention. Your aim seems to be to make a big story out of the fact that the importance of the study was oversold. The truth, which we might deplore but probably can’t change, is that nearly everything is oversold to some degree. It’s just a fact of life. Stories of the type you seem to be trying to write are harmful to everybody who works in the field, because they discourage funding, so it’s no wonder that your sources are not enthusiastic about helping. If your sources thought that information in the paper is actually *wrong* then it would be a different story: they would have a moral obligation to help that fact get out. But a belief that information is merely unimportant does not impose the same sort of moral obligation.

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  2. 2. bobfinn 9:36 pm 06/12/2014

    Bill Skaggs,

    Thanks for your comment, which gives me the opportunity to expand the story somewhat. I can’t go into too much detail due to the rules of “off the record,” but both sources were saying something much more interesting than “the study was not important enough.” Their reasons for holding those views were subtle and interesting. And Dr. A, and his coauthors would likely have disagreed (as would the journal’s editors and reviewers), and their responses to the criticisms may also have been illuminating.

    My aim was not to make a story out of the contention (not the “fact”) that the study was oversold. My aim was to report on an intriguing and newsworthy study and to promote scientific discourse. I think if you took a look at the web site I edit you’d see that the news stories we report are accurate and impartial and intended to promote discussion, not a particular point of view.

    Do you see what you and I have done in this exchange? You could have ignored my post. You could have refused to comment. Or you could have said something unhelpful like, “You’re full of crap.” Instead you criticized my argument with a reasoned argument of your own. I could have chosen not to respond. I could have decided (as Dr. Y appears to have decided) *never* to respond publicly to people with different points of view. But I did respond, countering your arguments with new information and new arguments of my own. I think our readers (if indeed anyone is reading this other than you and I) will agree that this exchange has shed additional light on the subject. *That* is how intellectual discourse advances scientific knowledge. I thank you for helping me prove my point. :-)

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  3. 3. BillSkaggs 11:21 pm 06/12/2014

    Thanks for correcting my misunderstanding. I think, beyond the points I made, there is a tendency for scientists to avoid carrying out discussions in the press, because what seems like intellectual discourse to scientists often is perceived by a broader audience as arguments about whether somebody has been incomptentent or unethical.

    Best regards, Bill

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  4. 4. MarkDHannam 5:01 am 06/13/2014

    Interesting article, and interesting problem. If there was no “off the record” option, X & Y might not have given you any response at all. Then you might have written a glowing piece made up of all the comments from the people who *did* think the study was interesting and important and were happy to say so. (Assuming there were some.)

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 7:27 am 06/13/2014

    Interesting article – and discussion!
    Perhaps this article should be published as a comment at – it might generate a broader discussion among scientists…

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  6. 6. rickilewis 8:04 am 06/13/2014

    Great post, Bob! I suspect a bit of turf war might be going on in this case. But why would Drs. X and Y go to the trouble of trying to inform the journalist — sounds more like venting to me — and then not allow her to use the comments? The comment that the work is nothing new doesn’t hold water. Many times I’m hesitant to blog about a topic, thinking it is old news to people in the field, but judging from the reader traffic and comments, there’s always someone who hasn’t heard of the research, and sometimes patients are helped by the reporting, or at least have a new set of questions to ask their health care providers. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. 7. BillR 10:26 am 06/13/2014

    I think that anyone who wants to be “off the record” should not even give their opinion. They may be off the record as far as not being in print but they still affected the opinions of anyone in earshot (especially the reporter), whether on or off the record. And those opinions may continue to be repeated “off the record” with no way to verify them or stop them. Do you want to stay “off the record”? Keep it to yourself.

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  8. 8. BillSkaggs 9:50 am 06/14/2014

    BillR: That’s not a very realistic attitude. Books such as “The Best and the Brightest” and “All the President’s Men” make clear the value of allowing sources to stay “off the record” in certain situations.

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