When peer review hits the news

I came across this article via Twitter earlier today. It reports a story that an eminent climate scientist claimed his paper was rejected by a journal editor on the grounds of political expediency rather than on the basis of the scientific merit of the study. It isn’t this aspect of the story that caught my imagination (it is covered nicely in the link anyway). I was rather more fascinated that the issue of a paper being rejected should be reported in a national newspaper and how that might play with the general public. This is particularly pertinent in the UK where the papers and other media are in the middle of a feeding frenzy about a whole range of nutrition related stories. Having gone through the ‘sugar is the new tobacco’ debate, stirred up by Action on Sugar, we moved on to the ‘saturated fats aren’t really bad for you’ story, followed by the ‘5-a-day isn’t enough, eat 10-a-day’ shambles. Lots of column inches and airtime later I would suspect that the public are more confused than ever about what they should be eating.
More importantly there is no understanding among lay people of the process of peer-review and the basis of academic publication. Stories are presented by the press, often on a whim it seems, without any explanation that a) a single study in isolation almost certainly doesn’t mean anything, b) that the work that has been published has been subject to the scrutiny of experts in the field and c) that even following that scrutiny the work will have flaws and limitations.
It may be that understanding the process of peer review and all of the various perils and pitfalls (discussed elsewhere on this blog) is not a high priority for the man or woman on the street. The climate change story does, however, flag up the fact that journalists don’t understand it either. As health professionals, scientists or public health nutritionists we are hugely dependent upon journalists presenting a balanced account of scientific evidence as a means of influencing dietary choices and behaviour. If the hacks can’t grasp the fact that the work of anyone from the lowliest student to the Nobel prize winning professor has to go through peer review to quality check, then we can’t possibly expect the public to understand nutritional science. Even more importantly, the notion that the scientific (i.e. published) evidence base has been peer-reviewed by experts is critical when we go up against the quacks (no qualifications or evidence-base necessary) spruiking garbage.
I certainly wouldn’t want the editorial team at JHND, or our reviewers, to be tailoring their comments on papers to ensure that they are acceptable to readers of the Daily Tat. However, I am confident that if they were ever paraded through the press, we have in place the quality control, expertise, independence of thought and integrity to stand by them.
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