The dangers of direct to media reporting of unpublished, non-peer reviewed science: the Higgstery case

I was critical earlier this week in a post of what I perceived to be the over-the-top reaction to the whole Higgs Boson situation and press fest.

I went so far as to call it “hysteria” or one could say “Higgstery“.

In turn, I was criticized for that blog post for being too critical and spoiling people’s excitement and fun.

What a wet blanket I am, right?

However, I stand by the post after giving it more thought.

My concern here is not whether the scientists in question found the Higgs Boson as they said (to a wildly excited, cheering audience) that their data most likely suggested.

In fact I hope they are right and they did find the Higgs Boson, yet I worry they are wrong.

But regardless that is not the central issue.

Rather, what bothers me is in a broader sense the trend of certain scientists, and in this particular case some physicists, of reporting their findings directly to the media, particularly findings that are non-peered review and unpublished.

Why is it necessary or desirable for scientists to go direct to media with their brand new data?

I can’t think of any scientifically valid reason.

To me the simplest answer is that the scientists in question want attention and have other motives beyond scientific reasons for directly reporting such data to the media.

One might argue in the Boson case that they are trying to drum up public support or a sense of justification for a very expensive piece of equipment. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps not, as I am all for scientists advocating for their research and funding support, but it is risky business to make an international event out of your data.

Indeed, the dangers of direct to media reporting of data without peer review and without publication are numerous, but two big ones stand out.

First, the most dangerous one, so well illustrated by the faster than light physics debacle due to a loose power cord, is that there’s a pretty good chance the conclusions are wrong. There has been no peer review and no skeptical eyes of other scientists totally unconnected to the project critiquing the data prior to unleashing it on the media.

Second, such reporting data directly to the press hugely raises expectations that in turn may lead to a precipitous crash.

Both of these outcomes, should they occur, tarnish scientific credibility.

Greatly compounding the risks associated with direct-to-media data reporting are scientists using language regarding the findings such as “changing our understanding of the universe”.

Gee, raising expectations a bit?

For perspective, in my field of molecular and cellular biology, it is astonishing to even imagine a scientist going directly to the press with unpublished, non-peer reviewed data.

It would be almost uniformly considered insanely risky and career-suicide for good reasons in my opinion. A great example is Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s production of a totally new type of stem cell, iPS cells (see more about them here) that revolutionized cell biology. He did not broadcast it to the international media as soon as he got exciting results, but rather it went through peer review, he got feedback from many other scientists not associated directly with the work, he did more experiments, pondered the data, and ultimately it was published.

Is putting new, unpublished data out there for feedback via social media the same thing as throwing it like raw meat to the international media?

In most cases, I don’t think so.

Should scientists choose to “publish” their new data via social media such as blogging without peer review that is certainly quite risky as well for many reasons, but it also could be constructive if they are targeting the release of the data to other scientists with, for example, a blog post, and looking for feedback and not blowing it out of proportion.

OK, go for the jugular!

1 Comment

  1. Who wrote this? It is replete with inaccurate statements set as fact and opinions that are merely that and nothing more. Mary Ann Liebert adhered to a strict embargo policy when I edited Stem Cells and Development and since I agreed to adhere to it, I enforced it, But even as I did preclude publication of papers that were released to the press before review, I wrote a very widely read scathing editorial expressing my disdain of my own actions. What was so wrong. Jonas Salk didn’t wait for thousands of children to die while Sabin trashed his expected report of his clinical trail of his Polio vaccine. He took the results directly to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette as soon as he was convinced the vaccine worked. IN doing so, he lost a lot. I asked him why in an interview this great man allowed me to take for relay in my Journal. His response was not thought out and it was immediate: he went to the press and not the Journal of Virology in order to prevent one more child from infection, One more life spared and that is what medical research is all about.

    Peer review of putative medical advances is so problematic now that it is used more for abuse than value. As science has grown, reviewers not infrequently steal findings while delaying defining papers — or asking for outrageous modifications only to finally reject. One paper I sent to Nature was held in review for 11 months before I received a provisional acceptance. As is Nature’s editorial policy, that acceptance was withdrawn when it came to the attention of the editor assigned to my paper that a paper with identical conclusions was to be published on line ahead in JBC a month before mine could have appeared in Nature. Nature does not publish confirmations. I’m not saying a reviewer of my paper delayed it and then ran with it at all, IN fact I know that was not the case. But it happens, and when it does, the submitting author of the first report has absolutely no recourse.
    Then the author speaks speaks of iPS like that is the model system we all can learn from. I went fishing last weekend; did iPS cells suddenly start working or did I miss something else cause last I looked, it didn’t look promising. At all. . I certainly didn’t miss any media hype about iPS before there was anything to publish nor about the Japanese scientist who Janesick et al needed on the patent, I mean needed here for his valued scientific input.
    And then we have John Gearheart and Geron,. What was it, 3 years after his Dan Rather spectacle with Chris Reeves that he finally got around to publishing the cure for spinal paralysis in JCI (Kerr et al). Same issue Cathy Verfaillie published how her MAP’S or whatever adult stem cells she used cured brain disease, I for one am certainly relieved we don’t have to worry about neural problems any more.

    But wait. News coverage, passing peer review, what’s the difference? As the science advisor of Dan Rather, John Stossel endorsed them with the same enthusiasm as the editor of JCI (who I think was then John’s brother Tip Stossel). And neither works anyway. What is the difference? Many if not most news agencies maintain the highest of standards. They want not to run stories of irreproducible findings, and Dan and John discussed this issue on a later news segment, Dan asked Mr. Stossel why he was so enthusiastic in light of failures of IL-8, interferon gamma, magic RNA, transfer factor, a cure a month from various “growth factors and cytokines”. Stossel’s response was articulate, well reasoned, and consistent with scientific opinion, He was well qualified to comment, even absent that magic terminal degree and was a frequent visitor and speaker at meetings of the highest levels. And neither John Gearheart or Catherine Verfaillie were chastised AT ALL for going to the press years before submitting to JCI.

    And now we toss profit into the equation which I submit changes the equation just a tiny bit more than press releases. Ban PR as ahead of print as we have and you accomplish nothing. But ban profit-driven research, and the field will change in a week. When a profit-driven researcher wants the results disseminated, they are going to be disseminated and I submit that news reporters are more adept at discovering fraud than scientists. They are trained to discover fraud, we are not. Nuclear fusion or cold fusion past peer review as did some water diluted agonist so dilute that only one test tube of 100 could possess a single molecule of it yet it worked on 63% (p<0.05). This actually ran in Nature.
    I cant say that similar concerns apply in physics. Here, someone may eventually find what most physicists believe is a missing key control that explains the recent reproducible demonstration of a single defiance of the uncertainty theory, which theoretically cannot be defied and is a pre-requisite for Quanta, I think. . Many if not most physicists believe there to be an experimental flaw.
    Stem cell research is not as complicated. In fact, reports of stem cell therapeutic effects in both animal models and humans are 90% hype, perhaps 10% science. My own mother who is a late night AM radio fan tells me each week that heart disease is cured. "Mom, why do people still get heart attacks?" "Denny, I am telling you it is cured. But no one will listen to this man!".
    It's like that. It's exactly like that. And it is high time to discuss this as a scientific problem, a medical problem with disastrous implications, And these discussions should not only be attended by the Press, they should be hosted by the free and vigorous free press our forefathers made sure we will always maintain, To educate the people, not a select group of people, but all of the people,
    The challenge reviewers often now face is determining to what extent many reports are hyped. Not their scientific accuracy. Hell, if submitted, it works. Then years later, It never (NEVER) does work in blind prospective trials for some not very mysterious reason that reporters are quickly closing in on, and so are law enforcement agencies. I hate to bear bad news, but my advice is — sell those securities now, because 2 defining cases are in litigation. And it don't look good. When this nightmare ends, stem cell research can be again valuably employed to define bases of differentiation, rather than as a hopeful cure of Uncle Joes Parkinson's disease.

    We need to implement fundamental changes in the peer review system or it will soon be a mere waste of time. Some portion of the review needs to reveal the reviewer and be open to discussion and debate. Leaving the decision on the putatively most defining submissions up to 2-3 individuals– any one of which can kill it. (along with the career of a new brilliant scientist) is simply wrong when money is the reward for doing so,. If profit plays any role AT ALL in possibly influencing the decision. Individuals who work for for profit concerns should exclude them selves since by definition they have a conflict if they are experts in the field.

    Businesses don't evaluate hypotheses,. They meet milestones. And in this, they always succeed. Why? I Their investigators do not follow an experimental design made in advance replete with alternate methods and goals. They don't hold a flexible experimental approach; They have what is commonly known as a business plan, and it is set in stone. If the expected milestones of that plan are not met at a specific time, oops there goes my job. Think about it, all you professors. Suppose your 200 grand depended on meeting a specific milestone instead of evaluating your favorite hypothesis, Wife is at home, 3.2 kids in school, house payment is due and it's under water. Boss wants a report on his desk Monday morning and it is clear that the boss wants to read how well you met that milestone, and that is all he wants to read. . What, you are going to write that milestone wasn't met? I don't think so. I really don't think so.\
    \And so I request that the author of the flamboyant rhetoric above what company he works for (one) and two, where are all these biotech's publishing anyway? Seems to me — mostly in the news papers, followed soon not by any peer re\viewed publication but invariably by 2 events. First comes the announcement of a new study to confirm what ever the company is saying they have now cured. This is followed usually by a technique called "stock dilution". Don't ask me how, but this technique allows the corporate owners to become rich corporate owners before the trial even is approved.

    We cured the aftermath of MI years ago; diabetes what, 4 years now. Paralysis, why that sat idle with the very well- timed presidential ban on stem cell research for a full decade. Ten years. Imagine if you were paralyzed during that time. It would drive you to insanity. It did many. You know, that ban –which only forbade use of US federal funds for ES research— was more rigorously enforced world wide that any nuclear test ban treaty in history. . I was profiled as a terrorist after I published an editorial that merely questioned some aspects of what the president said, for example that stem cells are immortal. I predicted that of the 72 lines NIH identified that were legal to work on all would become soon useless and at most, 11 would remain even viable after 8 years (13 did, none with stem cell properties which doesn't include tissue regeneration BTW). Me, a terrorist?

    You want to know the real reason? Nancy Reagan used that editorial to support her position against the president's ban. For his part, President Bush did I felt a superb job in assessing opinion before the ban was implemented. He spoke at length with religious leaders, scientists and most of all the people who at the time were 51-49 against stem cell research. But I cannot similarly attest to the integrity of his advisors who enforced the ban world-wide, Not a single paper was published with ES cells during that decade. Aside from the fraud of Korea, not even China or Russia or Albania dared to violate this ban. That reflects international pressure, and has not a thing to do with ethics.

    I personally oppose embryonic stem cell research, but that is my opinion and i recognize the right of others to pursue this where legal following the rules. Bush wasn't all that dead set against it, you may recall. But I spent some time in the state of Montana in 2002, and if you said "stem cells" in that state then, you faced sudden apoptosis. Many Americans were against it and to then and it didn't matter if the supposed stem cells were embryonic or not. Cloning was the eventual result and this just didn't set well in Montana, Idaho, you know, all the red states on election night. So Bush was not wrong. But it is far from inconceivable that he made a minor proclamation that his advisors used to prevent any one from proving that the founding capital for Geron was obtained from shareholders who were falsely led to believe that spinal paralysis was cured — but for our government's regulations. Showing this fraud in front of the only hero in this affair, Mr.. Reeves, defines evil.

    After watching this incredible farce, he spouted, "I will walk again" and attempted to rise from his chair only to fall. It was a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. But ya' all forget that, and Geron folded what, a year after Obama facilitated approval of their trial. And when he so quickly did, insiders sold, fast, lowering share prices by 75% before a single patient was treated. Before a single patient was treated. And now everyone blames regulation, "It is too expensive" ya all want to say. In fact Geron never said that. Their CEO said Geron pulled out of the stem cell business on Nov 14th 2011 to "meet cetain inflection points shareholders expect without having to raise additional venture capital". What the hell does that mean? Two (2) weeks earlier, the same CEO filed the annual report for Geron stating the company held "sufficient cash to continue operations as planned until at least Jan 1, 2013" absent some unforseen event, When this was filed with the SEC, Geron's progress report to the FDA was already out and in it was the news we all expected: the ES cells didn't cause SAE's in any of the 4 patients thus far treated but no patient showed any hint of improvement. Share value didnt move. Why? All insiders had already sold;any were buying short. And common stock sharehiokders have become accoustomed to one failure after another in stem cell trails. The CEO predicted on Nov 14th the exact value the company would have after his announcement. Share priice slid from 4.5 to 1.4 in an hour and stayed at 1.4 where they remain. So he had a buy bid in at 1.4, not illegal. But why? To prevent bankrupcy. and ensue retention of the one asset Geron holds, 50% interest in Jamie Thompson's patent of human ES cells.
    And given that bona fide ES cells are now available for research, I herein ask the author of the post above mine as well as iPS researchers why? What is the advantage of making a cell that is hopefully identical to one that can be attained fully functional at any local IVF clinic. If you all don't know the answer, you need a course in virology, immunology, developmental biology and patent law. You can't make a dime with a ES patent; either the cells are worthless or they are clinically useful. If the latter, they are a Gift of God and as such no profit can be attained from any patent on them. If the former, no one would pay for them. So why is a 50% interest in Dr. Thompson's patent so valuable? Whoever holds that interest can in effect reinitiate the Bush ban is why. Before it is determined if ES cells are worth anything therapeutically, be aware that if they are, whoever holds that interest won't license them; 50% interest stops that dead. . Instead they will try to develop iPS which are not Gifts of God and as such would withstand patent requirements even in Europe, which is why Bobby is conducting his trial there, but is positioned at UCLA. And if ES cells are not therapeutically useful, Daley and Janesick can continue to run their hype suggesting ways to make them work, where bona fide ES cells will not. And I sadden as research turns into the business of research, very much. It makes no sense, is all. And aside from money, it raises false hopes, peer reviewed or otherwise. It should never have happened. I fear it may now be irreversible.

    Deniis English, Ph.D.
    Tampa, FL

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