Imagine, if you will, that you are given a complete draft copy of a new paper that has just been submitted to a journal, and that paper cites your work, and it was provided as a professional courtesy before it has been peer-reviewed and accepted.
There’s a caveat attached to the email with the paper which says:
“Please keep it confidential until we post it ourselves.”
OK, fine and dandy, no problem there. Happy to oblige. I sent along a couple of small corrections and thanked the author.
Imagine my surprise when I get this email Friday from a reporter at a major global media outlet. I’ve redacted the names.
Dear Mr Watts
I’m the [media name redacted] new environment editor. I’m planning to write a pretty big piece next week on the [paper preprint name redacted], and wondered whether you might be able to give me your view of it. I think you’ve been sent the [paper preprint name redacted] paper… If you did happen to be able and interested, I’d be enormously grateful for a word about this on Monday. Might that be possible?
Mind you, this is about one week after I get the preprint from the author that he has submitted to the journal, and when I check the journal website, I discover that the paper is not in press yet amongst all those listed, even as recently as today. Of course I never expected it to be there, but I had to check just in case it had undergone some sort of turbo peer review in less than a week. I double checked with one of the co-authors who confirmed that indeed, it has not been accepted for publication.
I also checked with the author and asked, “Does the preprint [provided for ad hoc peer review amongst trusted professionals] you speak of for this paper include sending copies to media?” He answers back and says that he did, just one, the one contacting me and asking for comments.
So here’s my quandary: I’m asked by the author explicitly for confidentiality, yet it appears that is about to be negated by a major news outlet due to the author sending the same draft copy to a major media outlet before the paper has even passed peer review!
And to boot, the paper has a significant error in it which should be caught in peer review, but when they send it to media ahead of time with conclusions, we know full well the media outlet isn’t likely to spot such errors, and may not print it even if I point it out.
It’s a damned ridiculous position to be put in, and I’ll be frank, I don’t like being put in this position one bit. I think this is one of the most unprofessional things I’ve ever experienced. If it were a newbie, maybe somebody who never published in a journal before, I could understand this sort of faux pas, but this is a seasoned and established scientist at a major university.
When the news article in the major news outlet is published, this will all become clear. As it stands now, even though my trust is being abused, I’m going to stand by my agreement of confidentiality until such time the article appears. It is possible that given the complaints I lodged over the issue, that the article might get pulled, but either way I wanted a prior record of this established online.