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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

"Off the Record": Bad for Scientists, Bad for Science

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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.

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

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