Turbo post normal science by press – peer review optional

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.

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119 thoughts on “Turbo post normal science by press – peer review optional

  1. The high road is a lonely road and often leaves you exposed. Your approach to this and your decision to remain confidential is an example of your attitudes and opinions, and the reason I and I am sure many others visit your website regularly. Good luck.

  2. Interesting and strange! How anyone could confuse “confidential” and “sent a copy to a journalist” truly baffles.

    Will this behavior impact the peer review process or the likelyhood of publication?

  3. Well, that is a bad spot. IDK, Anthony. The more I get familiar with these people, the more I realize that some of them are really pretty stupid. Then, OTOH, when integrity doesn’t mean much to a person, they have a difficult time understanding how to act appropriately.

  4. “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.”

    Yes, what you describe is a total and complete violation of the letter and spirit of peer review by the author or authors. I look forward to your discussion after the regular peer review process has been completed.

  5. Why not name names? Everyone knows who you are referring to. Press releases about unpublished papers are definitely a little odd despite prior discussion in congressional hearings…

  6. It’s fairly common for press releases to be written during this stage, and for this kind of interaction to happen. The press releases then generally remain embargoed until the paper gets preprint status.

    The “next week” thing puzzles me a little, is that the peer review deadline?

  7. So do you think the reason you were asked not comment was to keep you from pointing out the errors before the story hits the press?

  8. You’re doing the Right Thing and that’s what counts.

    Don’t lose too much sleep over the fact that others hold themselves to significantly lower standards.

  9. I’d tell the reporter “I’ve been asked not to discuss the paper until it is published,” tell the author that you’ve found an error and ask him if he’s nuts for giving it to the press, and I’m not sure if you should write a blog post. Obviously, the author expects you to take some time reading the paper, and ought to realized that you blog about interesting things. So go ahead.

    Now, if you want to talk to the reporter, and the author says go ahead, then you’re out of the confidentiality request, or at least under a one with an exception. Talking about the reporter’s article becomes a bit messy if you were only allowed to talk to the reporter. I guess I’d offer to talk to the reporter and then talk about it anywhere once the reporter’s article is out.

    You don’t need to defend the scientist from himself.

    I assume the journal has a simple mechanism to get updated drafts out to the reviewers, I think it would be best if the scientist used that instead of wasting the reviewers’ time.

  10. I would email the author and ask for a release from confidentiality. If he says no, then they’re playing games. If he says OK, you can help by correcting the significant error.

  11. Presumably the demand ofr confidentiality was made to that exclusivity could be maintained for the media that will publish it article on the paper.

    Is this the future of science whereby scientists seek an extra slice of income from their work by giving the scoop to prereviewed research.

  12. 1. Contact the author and ask permission to discuss it with the reporter.
    2. Ask the reporter for a copy (a copy un encumbered by your promise).
    3. Assume that permission has been granted to you to discuss it by virtue of the author releasing your name with the paper.

    Thanks
    JK

  13. Anthony, as a law student, I may have a different view of confidentiality. Here, you have been asked to keep something confidential, but the author himself (or herself) has breached that confidentiality. That means it is no longer confidential information. At the very least, you have the author’s implicit permission to speak with someone with whom he has shared the confidence. If it were me, I would contact the author, and let him know that I plan to speak to the media person, with or without his consent. And then correct that glaring error. What the media person does with his story is between him and the author. Otherwise, you run the risk that the author uses your name, and implies your approval of the article.

  14. starzmon is correct,

    I believe that since there was a breach in confidentiality by the other party Anthony is not obligated to keep it confidential. The information is now public. Anthony may be suffering “scruples” in the purest sense of the word. Anthony, it is wrong that you torture yourself about a moral obligation that you perceive, when the obligation does not exist.

    Rest your mind. The information is not confidential.

  15. Anthony,

    My thought is you should not discuss with the reporter directly, but only give him communications through the author. This keeps the author accountable for anything that may eventually go media/journal/author weird.

    John

  16. Anthony:

    I would suggest that the article and its description are not yet in the public domain, so may want to say nothing more until it is, glaring error and all.

  17. Anthony,

    Have you asked the author to be released from your agreement of confidentiality, and/or at least tell the reporter about the error so he/she can write an accurate piece?

  18. “I also checked with the author and asked, …”

    How can that communication not have addressed this issue? What was said?

    Unless you agreed to confidentiality as a precondition of being provided the pre-print, you are under no legal or moral obligation to respect the request of confidentiality. If you choose to break confidentiality, you may not be offered the apparent courtesy of pre-print review or similar in the future. If you are concerned about that, you should get permission from the author before speaking about the paper, until such time as the paper or some other release, such as the article in [media name redacted] is published.

  19. The copy of the paper you received from the author is covered by confidentiality. However, the copy of the paper held by the reporter is not subject to any such agreement. Ask the reporter to send you a copy of the paper to comment on and cc the author. So long as everything is done in plain view of all parties, there is no agreement broken.

  20. Isn’t it just a bit irregular to send a paper to the press before it has passed pre-publication peer review?

    Wouldn’t it be against journalistic ethics to report on a scientific paper before it has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication? Isn’t that a bit like printing unconfirmed gossip? Of course, if the paper turns out to be wrong, who’s going to sue? Gaia?

  21. Dear Mr Watts
    I think you’ve been sent the [paper preprint name redacted] paper

    Why would the reporter think Anthony had a copy unless the author told them? How could the reporter know otherwise? Who told?

    This actually smells quite bad. Did Anthony give his permission to the author to tell the reporter that he had a copy of the paper? Why would the author tell the reporter Anthony had the paper when he also told Anthony to keep the paper confidential?

  22. Anthony, You were sent a copy and asked to keep the contents confidential. Regardless of other developments, actions or claims, I would respect that request and discuss nothing with anybody until explicitly told otherwise. In writing.
    Just say, ‘I’m sorry, I gave an undertaking not to discuss it.’

  23. It sounds like the author is trying to get a pre-peer-preview by instigating a discussion with someone in the media. The author is likely to have a set of pal-reviewers set up who will not be able to notice obvious mistakes in the paper.

  24. Never compromise your ethics it is who you are. There are too many who have flexible ethics for my comfort.

  25. Well I like the approach that regards the reporter’s copy of the paper to be the ducument the reporter wants to discuss. So I would tell the reporter, that you can’t comment until you have a copy from him of the docuent HE is asking you to comment on. After all; how do YOU know that the reporter has the exact same document you have. You have no obligation to not discuss the reporter’s document; only the one you have.

    Of course the reporter may have some confidentiality issues to face; but that is HIS problem.

    Anything told to ANY “news” outlet, would seem to me to fall into “The public’s right to know” category. The “media” has the information; the public now has a right to know it.
    If the media didn’t have the information; the public would have no right to know what the media doesn’t have to tell them.

  26. “I’ll be frank, I don’t like being put in this position one bit.”

    Okay, you can be Frank, too! :)

    The “do what you please, and then lie about it” option is tempting, very tempting, but I think you should maintain confidentiality. If we wish to live in a world where people behave honorably, we should probably do so, even when others do not.

    Best,
    Frank

  27. I think Ric Werme has the right approach.
    Another approach is simply to absolve yourself of the whole mess, since at this point, it’s not really about the science, it’s about generating publicity. Better to stay out of the limelight.

  28. Tell the author the situation confuses you and therefore you will do nothing further regarding the paper. Tell the reporter the same.

    You have no obligation to guess what either the author or the reporter intended. Or to foresee what either might do soon, such as next week. Or to sort out the murky ethics and protocol of pre-peer-previews or sort-of-press-embargoes and other nebulous phrases.

  29. And to boot, the paper has a significant error in it which should be caught in peer review
    It is possible that given the complaints I lodged over the issue, that the article might get pulled
    =====================================================
    Damned if you do…….damned if you don’t

    “He answers back and says that he did, just one, the one contacting me and asking for comments.”

    So he knows who got a copy, he knows they contacted you for a comment…
    ….did he say anything about you not talking to the specific media he sent a copy to and he knows contacted you for a comment?

    ………no, he did not

    But then again, you have no guarantee the media will post your comment either…..

    I say go for it, give them a comment on it…..but do it in writing :)

  30. I’d be concerned with the scruples and motives of the journalist.
    Prepare a blogpost and hit publish button the minute the paper publishes the article. In the mean time, no comment to the reporter unless you are able to sign off on every single sentence and word attributed to you.

  31. Presumably the reporter was under the same confidentiality terms you were. It seems that he is the one violating that agreement.

    I’d be appreciative that the authors extended the courtesy, and continue to respect the agreement you have with them.

  32. starzmom says:October 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm
    Anthony, as a law student, I may have a different view of confidentiality. Here, you have been asked to keep something confidential, but the author himself (or herself) has breached that confidentiality. That means it is no longer confidential information. At the very least, you have the author’s implicit permission to speak with someone with whom he has shared the confidence.
    —————————————————————————————–
    Sorry, I don’t agree. Your confidentiality agreement stands whether the author broke the agreement or not. First, you only have a telephone conversation stating the reporter has a copy and that the author admitted the reporter has a copy (or was it email?). The reporter may only claim he has a copy, and by talking to him, you would be violating your agreement. Second, your actions may be defensible in court, but why invite a court action in the first place? They’re expensive regardless who wins. Third, this is possibly a setup to make Anthony Watts look bad if the author later claims he never gave a copy of the paper to the reporter.

    You have to take the High Road and either not comment, or get WRITTEN permission from the author to discuss it with the reporter. The high road is difficult sometimes. Finally, never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. You go through life with lower blood pressure that way. :)

  33. No scientists, save perhaps Pons and Fleischmann, have ever put together press packets prior to publication (let alone acceptance) of a paper.

    In my view, this was a setup, to trap Anthony, into being the dupe saying ‘I’ve seen the paper and I have to admit it gives me pause to question some aspects of my work’ or something similar in an out of context quote.

    The real story here – should any ‘new environment editors’ be reading – is that science is not conducted in press releases and cut-and-paste of the same lies from paper to paper to IPCC report. The journalist(s) that break the real story, or even contemplate discussing it, will be doing an important service for their readers and careers.

  34. I assume that you are not being paid to look this paper over for the author, or by the media. So you are doing a favor and giving your time to look it over. As a favor you can act any way you see fit, and you gave your word on confidentiality and you can treat however you like because its yours. But I’d tell all this to the author rather than post it here but I don’t know any details or background or who it is or anything else I don’t know about.

  35. If the author sent a copy of the paper to the media without requesting that it be kept confidential, then it seems to me that you could discuss THAT paper but not the one they sent to you. However, if you’re uncomfortable with that, ask the reporter to meet with someone else you trust who has knowledge on the subject and can point out the errors. Since the reporter plans to publish an article on the paper before it has been approved for publication, then the reporter is obviously not under the same confidentiality restriction as you are.

  36. I’m not clear as to why you would redact the name and outlet. Expose the “peer review” system in all its glory. You can bet that copies have been handed out way beyond some pet “journalist”.

    I will be simply shocked to learn that people are already working on one day turn around rebuttals to papers that haven’t been published yet in order to maintain the pre drawn SPM of AR5. Shocked I tell ye.

  37. Questions.
    1) Was it necessary to send a copy of the whole paper so that you could see the context in which your work was cited.
    If the answer is yes, that’s ok but if the answer is no, then why did they?

    2) Do you consider the Authors to be pro/anti or neutral about AGW,
    3) In view of the caveat, why was your name given to the journal.
    That was not a matter of courtesy.
    4) Why did they not tell you that your name had been given to a third party.
    That was not a matter of courtesy.
    Perhaps it would be ok to publish some of the details with the caveat that those of us who read them should keep the information to ourselves.

  38. Gary Hladik says:
    October 15, 2011 at 12:58 pm
    Wouldn’t it be against
    journalistic ethics to report on a scientific paper before it has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication? Isn’t that a bit like printing unconfirmed gossip? Of course, if the paper turns out to be wrong, who’s going to sue? Gaia?

    Exactly what are “journalistic ethics” these days? Those two words sound, well, kinda funny in a sentence.

  39. Reply to the journalist that you may or may not have received the said paper and if you had you wouldn’t discuss it with him,/her if it had a non-diclosure agreement attached to it, and blind copy the author. Then wait to see what happens.

  40. Take the HIGH ROAD.

    This could be an attempt to bait you into embarrassing or discrediting yourself.

    Truth and patience.

  41. Anthony,

    Did you have advance notice from the author of the paper that he/she would send you the paper?

    Or was the first contact/email from the author the one that contained the paper?

    Anyway, if it were me then I would only communicate with the author and never directly with the reporter. I would not reply to the reporter directly. Then all the report can say is ‘no response from Watts’.

    Also, you are wise to bring up this situation here publicly before any weirding starts. : )

    Joh

  42. George E Smith – “So I would tell the reporter, that you can’t comment until you have a copy from him of the docuent HE is asking you to comment on. After all; how do YOU know that the reporter has the exact same document you have”.

    I too was wondering if it was the *exact* same document.

  43. The fact that the hypothetical has been discussed here should suggest to the author and the journalist (if they exist and read this blog) that it might be worth having a good look at the paper again and decide if there are problems. They would then be smart to ask for a correction before peer review and publication is completed. But then that might mean the paper isn’t worth publishing… true? If the paper is never published will you ever be able to discuss it?

    In my opinion FWIW you have done the right thing Anthony and now we are all waiting with baited breath for the next episode :-).

  44. Anthony,
    I agree with andyd at 2:13 pm. You are being used. I’d go one step further and say that you are being set up.
    You have given your word with regard to confidentiality. Keep to your word and no-one can ever point a finger at you. Don’t bother with “implicit” or “explicit” permissions.
    The keeping of one’s word, no matter what, is the mark of a true gentleman and that you are one sir, is what retains my readership of this blog.

  45. Embargoes are so 2008. On December 17, 2008, Techcrunch posted its new embargo policy.

    We’ve never broken an embargo at TechCrunch. Not once. Today that ends. From now our new policy is to break every embargo. We’ll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we’ll just do whatever we feel like right after that. We may break an embargo by one minute or three days. We’ll choose at random.

    http://techcrunch.com/2008/12/17/death-to-the-embargo/

    Some background from John Biggs at Techcrunch.

    NDAs and embargoes are a gentleman’s agreement between the journalist and the PR professional designed for a time when it took four days to get from Scranton to Philadelphia by horse. By creating an embargo, you gave Joe Blow at the Flushing Daily Bee the same chance to write up a story as Jimmy Reporterpants at the New York Times. NDAs were designed to keep reporters from blabbing about what they saw and giving up their secrets to the competitors.

    Both concepts are broken …

    http://techcrunch.com/2008/12/18/death-to-the-embargo-crunchgear-mobilecrunch-edition/

    Some interesting comments and analysis of the WSJ policy here.

    http://racetalkblog.com/2009/04/09/wall-street-journal-follows-techcrunch-no-longer-honoring-embargoes/

    An embargo with an end date of until we post it ourselves is pretty silly. I see nothing wrong with publishing right now the name(s) of the author(s), the journalist, the media outlet and the errors you found and reported. The author is breaking his own embargo and all agreements are now null and void. If you don’t publish, you will be an enabler.

    How else will the world learn that a press release, a media story and a peer reviewed paper are quite different.

  46. There would be nothing wrong with the peer review process being open to the public so long as the participants all know it is public and the author does not try to pick and choose what goes public. That would seem to be obvious, but in any endeavor, a lot of people have trouble spotting the obvious.

  47. Ya know, committees may not be the best way to do a LOT of things, but given a few hours to chew it over, they can come up with ALL the possible trickery, sneakiness, or potential downsides for a given situation.

    Well done Team WUWT!

  48. Watts:
    I would forward to email from the media outlet to the author of the paper, and the media outlet representative at the same time and ask: “What gives?”. I really think you need to be completely transparent with both of them, otherwise it could look bad for you, regardless of how this came to pass. It may even help to add a neutral third party that is sworn to secrecy, as you have been on the original paper, as a CC that can monitor and be witness(a lawyer may be best) to the whole proceedings. I always believe in CYA!!

    Roy Weiler

  49. Anthony,

    You’re a decent and honest man. Say nothing to the journalist. Leave it there.
    You should feel proud that an ‘anti-science (c)JoeRomm’ blogger such as yourself has been asked to give their input to a scientific paper.

    The best of wishes,

    Andy

  50. Love it when lawyers and lawyers in waiting weigh in on matters of morality and principle. The law is neither moral nor principled, but is rather, as Bumble said “…a ass.” Honor your agreement.

  51. I’m a bit confused. This:

    I sent along a couple of small corrections and thanked the author.

    and this:

    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.

    don’t match up. Is the “quandry” a hypothetical, a question about ‘the principle of the thing’? Or is there still a significant error beyond the small corrections you sent along? Were the corrections you sent specific to the citation of your work?

    REPLY:
    The larger error was discovered yesterday, after a second look at the paper. The other smaller errors were noted and sent over a week ago. The error is significant enough IMHO that they’ll have to re-run the analysis. – Anthony

  52. Anthony: “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!”

    Anthony, the scientist is providing you with a courtesy copy of the paper in your capacity as a published author, but asking you for confidentiality as a blog owner, ie that you don’t post the paper and any comment on your blog.

    The newspaper is apparently not being bound by the same confidentiality, so you are free to comment in that publication.

    It’s a way of giving first dibs to the media outlet, as well as controlling the way the information is disbursed. Presumably, the scientist has some concerns about the way you might handle the information, and wants to ensure a “friendly” reception.

    It’s a bit cheeky, although not obviously unethical.

  53. Anthony: This is a trap. How do you know that the editor who made the request does not have a leaked copy or is on a fishing expedition? He wants to get a jump on media competitors. If he has a leaked copy is it the same as yours?
    My recommendation similar to many other is to tell the editor no, I will not comment. I would send the author an email a let him or her know that the editor contacted you and that some one has leaked a copy. Ignore the error. The author already knows that you have found an error and if I were that person I would immediately contact you and apologize. If it is published with the error then you can comment.

  54. Anthony,
    I recommend you stay out of it until the paper is published.
    You cannot know what the final product will be and therefore should not get into a discussion of somebody’s unpublished, non-peer reviewed paper. With or without the author’s permission. To agree to discuss anything with the media when nobody knows the future of this document I say “no comment until everyone sees the final work in print.”
    Besides, you are a media outlet.

  55. Anthony

    The question that needs answering is how does your press contact know you have the paper?

    If the answer to that is that the author has told him, then simply get directions from the author.

    If the author hasn’t told him then there are forces at play trying to manipulate you.

    Of course, the worst case scenario here is that the author and the press contact are conspiring; to try and get you to breach the authors confidentiallity and then expose you for doing so. I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist but my “radar” here is going nuts.

  56. So who is to blame?

    Is it the scientist who has forwarded it to the media? Did the scientist expect it to be published or did the scientist naively not put any restrictions on its publication.

    Is it the reporter? Does the reporter expect to print anything that comes onto his/her desk even if it has not passed peer review? Is the reporter ignoring the conditions placed on publication?

    To many questions remain unanswered.

  57. Anthony

    Your integrity and ethics is to be commended!
    Many here are commenting that something doesn’t seem right, and I am in agreement with them.
    Why would the editor have your name anyway? What relevance would it have if the paper has not even passed peer review yet?
    That, and the fact that the author asked for your confidentiality, then gave a copy to the press, along with, presumably, the fact that you were sent an advanced copy as well.

    Something stinks here. My opinion is to CYA. ( Cover Your ***) Tell the editor you are not able to respond to his questions, then tell the author of the paper the errors noted, and be done with it.
    Above all, keep documentation!

    Best of luck,

    J. Felton

  58. Anthony,

    Just a guess but I am pretty sure a little voice whispered “RUN” in your head otherwise you wouldn’t have posted. Personal experience has taught me to listen to that little voice. Advising the author of the error is the only safe way out. Anything else is just risk with no reward.

  59. I think you did the right thing, even putting a note up on WUWT about it. As others have said, you are probably morally entitled to respond given that the author sent it to the media, but we know there are two ethical standards at work here, an impossibly high one for skeptics and gutter trash behaviour for alarmists. You have done your best to defend your assessment without infringing on any commitment you made.

  60. All you do is give an off the record background briefing suggesting what one would think about a potential type of analysis. Then ask journalist if he would accept and embargoed detailed analysis, to be used after the pre-print appears online.

  61. Big Question:

    Are they the same paper? That is, does your copy match the reporter’s copy?

    You have a history of posts about papers, and using the pre-print version. Your copy has a major flaw. When the time comes, you’d be blogging about the one sent you, and mentioning the flaw. Well, if at the same time what gets revealed by the regular media doesn’t have that flaw, or is otherwise notably different… At least it’ll be embarrassing. The likes of a certain unprincipled rabbit, a gold seeker, and that sometimes musician may just say you made it all up, that you’re trying to fraudulently smear a good scientist.

    Who sent you that paper, and how much do you trust them?

  62. ZT says:
    October 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    No scientists, save perhaps Pons and Fleischmann, have ever put together press packets prior to publication (let alone acceptance) of a paper.

    ———–
    Glad to see Pons and Fleischmann of cold fusion fame mentioned here as this was the first thought to come to my mind. They were (and continue to be) roundly scorned for going public before publishing in peer reviewed literature and getting peer feedback.

    While peer-review has rightly taken a beating here, publication by msm is pure politics. Something to be avoided at all costs. I’m with everyone here who advises you to hold your peace and await events. My sympathies, as this is indeed an intolerable imposition on this scientist’s part.

  63. To the Reporter: “I can not comment on this paper because of a confidentiality agreement. The paper has not yet been peer reviewed. Such papers can and do sometimes contain significant errors which are found in the review process, and must be corrected before a meaningful conclusion can be attained. It could diminish the credibility of the researcher, the reporter, and the publication, and be a disservice to the publication’s readers, to discuss any research prior to the peer review process.”

    If you did this you would not be breaking the confidentiality and only be making broad, sweeping statements concerning the dangers of publishing non-reviewed research to the general public. But most importantly, unless the reporter’s brain is as dense as a brick, he would realize that the paper in question may have a major problem. This gives the reporter a chance to maintain his credibility by postponing the story until the peer review process has finished. If the reporter still publishes as intended, then you will know that both the reporter and the researcher are only interested in publicity.

  64. Insist on getting a copy of the reporter’s copy of the paper to confirm that it still has the glaring errors that have been noted. In your response inform him that errors have been found in his version that are in the process of being corrected, but do not identify where or what those errors are.

    Then give the reporter some good lines on why it is important that papers not be released before peer review and corrections have been completed. Hopefully he will quote those lines instead of the flawed paper.

  65. We can all guess who the respected scientist is that pre-leaked this ‘paper’ Some have an odd habit of ‘leaking’ preliminary findings in congressional testimony. Tell the author you’ve found an ‘big’ error and you won’t talk to the reporter until the author allows you to, but that you will mention the error to the reporter. It’s the authors job to clean up and contain the mess in his science, publicity attempts and interpersonal relationships. Not your problem to solve. It’s all on him to get some ethics, real soon.

  66. [M]r. Watts:

    I would first like to commend you for trying, not only to find the high road but to take it, and not only in this instance. As one person who commented suggested, it is one of the reasons I have been a long time reader of this blog. I will also apologize up front for the length of this comment.

    It seems to me that there are a couple of aspects to this issue: (1) what are your legal obligations and (2) what is the “right” thing to do. As an intellectual property attorney with over 30 years of experience in this area I decided to write, because this is the first time I’ve been able contribute. Even so, I recognize the feelings of some of the people who have commented about attorneys. Feel free to take all of this with a grain of salt.

    What are your legal obligations?

    From this perspective, this isn’t even a close call. With all due respect to Dan in California, Starzmom and Paul Westhaver have it exactly right. You have no obligation of confidentiality.

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the request for confidentiality accompanying the paper and your tacit acknowledgement of it constituted an enforceable agreement (which is very doubtful, by the way), these types of agreements are not one-way streets. Each person (I’ll avoid using “parties” in deference to those who don’t like lawyers) has the same obligation to keep it confidential. You keep it confidential as long as the owner/author does. If the author releases it to the public domain, that automatically releases you from your obligation.

    In this instance, the author sent it to a reporter who was not under the same obligation as you. Why do I say this? Because the reporter him/herself told you it was to be published. Once the information from the paper was given to a person who was under no obligation of confidentiality with respect to the information and who the author knew was to make it public, that act constitutes a publication. It’s not even a close call. You have no legal obligation.

    What is the right thing to do?

    This is a bit trickier. I have to read between the lines and make some assumptions here. One of them is that you have a relationship with the author and want to do right by him/her. (I make this assumption on the feeling that the author felt comfortable asking you for comments, and you felt comfortable, at least until the reporter got involved, in making them.) Another is that you don’t want to be perceived as taking the easy way out. Along with many who have commented here, I think this is commendable.

    However, I would also say that, in a way similar to the legal perspective, the moral perspective as well is a two-way street. The author expected you to keep it confidential, but that expectation would be reasonable only if the author had every intention to keep it confidential as well. That seems to be lacking here.

    The author took advantage of a friendship/professional relationship/whatever by expecting you to adhere to a course of action that the author him/herself was not expecting to follow.

    I understand the counsel you’ve received to take the high road, but that only makes you a martyr. That doesn’t necessarily make it right.

    If this were me, and if I were friends with the author, I would ask why I was put in this position and ask them, as a friend, to make it right by asking the reporter not to report it. If the author refused, I would feel released from my obligation. The decision would then be based on whether I wanted to remain friends with the author. If I spoke out to the reporter, I understand I may lose a friend.

    If it were a professional relationship, I would be a little more up front and demanding to have it made right. My feeling is that professionals acting unprofessionally must live with their own decisions.

    Again, I’m sorry for the length of this comment.

    REPLY: No worries on length, I did make an edit to your comment, the first line. You addressed me as “Dr. ” Watts which I changed to “Mr”, since I do not hold a PhD. – Anthony

  67. Ever see “All The President’s Men”? You should have the reporter read you the article draft, and when he gets to the glaring error you hang up on him…

  68. I am going to suggest something here that I have been contemplating for a while now about scientific publishing of articles. Now I understand the reason for the peer review system as it would give a publication (whose success is based on the quality of the science that it publishes) a quality control check of its content. Now in the days of paper journals, this is important because once it is in print, it is permanent. However, I think that this paradigm should change in the age of electronic publication. Here is how I suggest things should work.

    One or more persons do research on a subject and the get the work to the state where it is ready for publication. When they submit it to the journal in question, they have a choice. The first option is to wait for the peer review process, respond to any comments or corrections and then have the piece published as a peer-review piece of research including all data and calculation processes performed to get the results. The second option is to have a more immediate publication of their research as a “draft” for public comment, also including data and calculation processes performed to get the results. This is likely to draw a wider range of responses both in terms of quality and quantity. The peer review process would still occur in parallel, and the result of both sets of scrutiny may cause changes and/or corrections in the final peer reviewed work.

    The point about this is that the researchers choose how their work is treated and if they feel that the peer review process is too lengthy or political, then there is an “express” option that has more reputation risk associated with it. The publication is not at fault in either case and the MSM will pick up on what it wants to, but using the “draft” output has risks that they have to accept on their own heads.

    Just saying …

  69. I think you should make the Author aware of the bigger problem you recently found with as much detail as to how it is wrong and suggestions on ways to fix the problem in the most help full and courteous manner that you usually carry forward in this blog. Let him decide to further postpone the release of the paper, or do the rework needed to keep the truth in the fore, so the paper has meaning and true substance when it finally comes out.
    Past performance, in not a guaranty of future personal behavior on the part of the author, you should give him all the information you can for him to preform the due diligence needed to write his own paper. Adding validity to the content of others papers who ask for review would be the first step in peer review comments, toward corrections before publication, it is what I would want you to do for me, if I asked you to review my project.

  70. Mark Warfield;

    I’m not a lawyer but I have to deal with them a lot ;-)

    You’re analysis is from the perspective of intellectual propertly law, rather than non-disclosure agreements. I’d think the latter is what is at play here. Again, I’m not lawyer, but I’ve got my signature on so many NDA’s that I need a spreadheet to track them.

    In general, and information received under NDA remains confidential UNLESS the recipient of the information is given permission to discuss it OR the recipient becomes aware of the information through another (legitimate) source not governed by confidentiality.

    In this case Mr Watts remains under confidentiality. He has agreed to it, and even though the author of the paper has admitted to sending it to the reporter that in turn contacted Mr Watts, Mr. Watts CANNOT comment on it. If the reporter sends a paper to Mr Watts and asks for comment on it, then Mr Watts can do so, if he wishes too. But if the reporter DOESN’T send a copy to Mr. Watts, then Mr. Watts cannot comment EVEN IF the author of the paper gives him permission to speak to the reporter in that regard. The reason being that Mr Watts CANNOT verify that the paper he is commenting on that was sent to him by the author, and the paper being held by the reporter are in fact the same.

    Mr Watts is correct that this sequence of events puts him in a position where he has no choice EXCEPT to refuse comment, and as many commentors have suggested, this sounds suspiscously like a set up of some sort. Documenting the facts and taking the high road are exactly the right things to do. Having done so, whatever hidden agenda (if any) was at play, I suspect Anthony just blew it to smithereens by NOT commenting but documenting publicly the sequence of events.

  71. Anthony,

    Within experimental high energy physics community, it is well known that some media outlet are looking more after sensational news/quotes, rather than carefully worded statements (which may look boring). This is why these days, big scientific experiments and laboratories in high-energy physics have very strict rule about communicating with media. There are media out there though, who are rather scientifically-literate, and they will try their best to present a scientific result as it really is. Going back to climate change and global warming, I don’t see much differences. There are scientists who will take this opportunity to pre-announce their scientific results (and maybe even to make headlines of them) by sending their confidential preprints to the media.

    I also need to point out that sending a preprint intentionally to the media doesn’t always means bypassing peer-review. Again, in physics, there is a preprint server which allows physicists to post their preprints to the public. In principle, if the preprints you are reviewing now is already available for public somewhere, the authors are not guilty for sending the preprint to the media. The preprint is public anyway, and the authors is free to try their luck at promoting their work, but it is not a crime. A questionable act in any case.

    In any case, I wholeheartedly support your decision to keep your confidentiality. It is the RIGHT thing to do in this case.

    REPLY:
    Thanks, the preprint is not publicly available anywhere yet – Anthony

  72. Asking you to comment on a draft paper which you have not even seen (unless the reporter has sent you his/her version) and without even being able to demonstrate that the author has agreed to seeking your comments is about the standard of ethics and practice we have come to expect from ‘science journalists’. I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

    As for the author, only you can assess whether this is incompetence or something else, as only you know the person. But giving a pet journalist a head start on a paper that has not yet been fully reviewed, let alone published, does not uphold even basic standards of scientific integrity, IMO. And, giving out your name as a potential source for an article about it without your permission is just plain rude.

  73. The issue isn’t confidentiality as much as turbo peer review. I would’ve asked the journalist if and when the paper had been accepted for publication, or if the upcoming big piece were based on a paper still to be peer reviewed. Better yet I would have done it over a recorded phone call, in order to warrant a reply. There’s nothing preventing the publicity seeking original authors from lying to Anthony.

  74. Don’t discuss the paper with the reporter, but DO inform him/her about the awkward position you find yourself in. That is not confidential – not after this blog post!

  75. @ Anthony; among many things, I know you to be a man of ethics. To hell with what others think. It is not your place to correct others mistakes, after the fact. Just do what is right to you. The author already blew his chance by giving a heads up to a reporter, now it is public. pg

  76. Mark Warfield: “The author expected you to keep it confidential, but that expectation would be reasonable only if the author had every intention to keep it confidential as well.”

    I disagree. Anthony became aware of the paper’s contents by way of his role as a research author. He was asked to respect confidentiality until the authors had publicised the paper.

    The way in which the paper’s authors go about publishing their paper has no bearing on the requirement on Anthony for confidentiality. Anyone can offer an exclusive to a media outlet. (Although it’s not clear how this would square with peer review and journal publication in this particular case, but we don’t have enough information to make a judgement on those matters.)

    The issue is exacerbated by Anthony’s role as blogger, where there is a conflict with his role as research author. Not only can he not make any comment on the paper as a blogger, but is being asked to contribute to an article in another media outlet.

    That’s certainly galling, and the confidentiality requirement looks like a deliberate set-up, but no doubt the authors see it as a way of protecting their own interests.

  77. Anthony:

    “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!”

    I believe what the author meant was “please dont pass this along to others”. The author gave you a copy of the paper. You found an error. The author also gave a copy to the media. You are both bound by a confidential agreement which I take to be.. “dont pass the paper around.” But if the media person asks you what you think of it, just tell the truth. I read it, I found an error, I’ve alerted the author. you don’t even have to explain what the error is.. in fact by writing this post you’ve done all you need to do.

    You are not breaking a confidentiality agreement by explaining to the media that you read the paper and found an error. Like I said, you’ve done all you need to do. The author knows you’ve found an error, the media knows, what they do with that is on them. You have no obligation to explain the error to the media, personally I would not explain the error to the author unless he gave me credit.

    If the existence of the confidentiality agreement was itself confidential that would be another matter

  78. Anthony we are entering a post normal peer review stage :(

    Have a look on this “embargo” business and the link therein, to see which way the winds are blowing. You have just been “embargoed”.

  79. This is not for you Anthony, BUT never, never, never do anything ‘off the record’ with reporters. These people are slime balls and will use anything you do or say “off the record” if it gives the opportunity for which they search.

  80. I wonder what would have happened over at other blogs (no names, no pack drill) had the owners been put in your position Anthony.

  81. Anthony, you are a reporter, editor and publisher of news, facts, analysis and opinion. You run a revenue producing blog that is paid for delivering eyeballs to advertisers.

    A scientist sent you a copy of his paper asking that you not publish or comment publically “until we post it ourselves” whatever that means
    .
    The scientist sent a copy of the paper to a competitor (a major global media outlet) so that he could write and publish “a pretty big piece next week.” And then the competitor asked you for comment.

    You owe nothing, NOTHING, to the scientist. He favored your competitor with an exclusive. Publish TODAY. Right NOW. If you sit back and let these people walk all over you and your brand then you are sitting back and letting them walk all over you. Stand up and SHOUT. This is not a gentleman’s business conducted in a mahogany and leather faculty lounge. This is business.

    • Anthony,
      (in reply to Speed’s comment) – careful. You would be vilified in certain quarters for breaking such an embargo. Is it possible this is a set up with such action the secretly hoped-for outcome?

      On the other hand the reporter’s timescale of “next week” may have only been a ruse to expedite a reply from you (we all say to this to various people at times). All you can do is question both the scientist and the journalist as to the actual timescale of publication, and question the ethics/duplicity of their actions if the scientist has one rule for you but has enabled the journalist circumvent the requirement placed on you.

  82. Usually confidentiality only applies to something not in the public domain. Informing the media – even a medium – certainly puts something in the public domain, since clearly the journalist has not been bound by confidentiality otherwise he would not have contacted you Anthony. He may have course broken his confidentiality agreement, but even so it is now in the public domain.

    You cannot keep something confidential that is not.

  83. Seems an ethical path is to communicate only with the author and to give him permission (or not) to pass it on to the reporter. At this stage of the paper’s publication it seems unwise to discuss it with a reporter, even if the author were to suggest/hint that it is OK.

    John

  84. Quietly tell the author about the mistake.

    Politely decline to discuss the paper with the reporter.

    Probably there is no malice here; more like inexperience (on the reporter’s part) and a lack of knowledge of the process. No question, however, that you were placed in an untenable position, Anthony.

  85. This is one of those cases where your response is best made by implication. Say to the reporter: “comments are not useful until the paper has gone through peer review and been accepted for publication, as it is reasonable to expect it will be improved and perhaps even changed by the process”. That keeps you clean and aboveboard by all standards as well as suggesting to any competent reporter the unspoken possibility the paper might not pass review at all.

    Then contact the author and say that as you do not wish to endanger the publication of his paper, before speaking with the reporter you would contact the editor of the journal and request a ruling on whether such actions are permitted under their standards.

    That puts everyone on notice without actually saying anything that could be considered confrontational.

    One suspects you are not the only informal reviewer to have been involved in this way.

    ———— (above was serious; below is slightly sarcastic) —————-

    Another possibility would be to invite the author to publish his draft paper here on WUWT and invite the reporter to monitor the ensuing discussion — sort of warp speed peer review. The author would of course then be free to use any comments to improve his paper and re-submit to the journal.

  86. The sequence, as reported in the post, was that the author sent the proposed text along with a “request” for confidentiality. That implies no duty, only a request. You did not assent by opening the email. Decline the invitation for confidentiality, as it was violated by the author anyway.

  87. Submit your comment to the media outlet in confidence. They can cite you as “an expert in meteorology and climate change, who asked not to be named”. In which case the author might actually prefer you to allow you name to stand, but you would only be complying with his request.

  88. Bruce of Newcastle says:
    October 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    “Publicity or perish.”

    Yes – this succinctly describes the state of climate science publishing these days.

    It will be interesting to see the newspaper headline, but I predict it will be something like … “Report: Global temperatures highest in 10,000 years!”

  89. Since the reporter knows you have received a pre-print copy of the article, it’s OK to say that, yes you received a copy. Without discussing the actual contents of the paper, you also can tell the reporter that you have identified a major defect in the paper, and that you have sent a detailed explanation to the author.

    Further, tell the rporter that, since you’re bound by a confidentiality agreement on the contents of the article, he/she will need to contact the author regarding the paper error.

  90. Choosing the simplest explanation. Someone with a submitted paper wanted to leak it to the public BEFORE reviewed publication. The author, did not want to appear to be leaking it himself, so sent you a copy for review. He reasoned that you would go ahead and publish based on the contrary reputation of skeptics (despite his request for confidentiality). When you disappointed him, he then leaked it to a reporter and supplied him with your name.

    Now, you have responded in an unexpected manner, throwing a monkey wrench into his carefully planned execution. You have ruined everything. Can’t you just play ball like everyone else? GK

  91. Mark Warfield says: October 15, 2011 at 8:40 pm
    From this perspective, this isn’t even a close call. With all due respect to Dan in California, Starzmom and Paul Westhaver have it exactly right. You have no obligation of confidentiality.
    —————————————————————————————-
    Sir: I bow to your knowledge and concede you are technically correct. But after your reputation is publicly lynched in the mainstream media, and after spending $300K legally defending yourself, it’s of little consolation that you won the court case.

  92. Monique says:
    October 16, 2011 at 5:47 am
    [...]
    Probably there is no malice here; more like inexperience (on the reporter’s part) and a lack of knowledge of the process. No question, however, that you were placed in an untenable position, Anthony.

    Alan Watt says:
    October 16, 2011 at 6:12 am
    This is one of those cases where your response is best made by implication. Say to the reporter: “comments are not useful until the paper has gone through peer review and been accepted for publication, as it is reasonable to expect it will be improved and perhaps even changed by the process”. That keeps you clean and aboveboard by all standards as well as suggesting to any competent reporter the unspoken possibility the paper might not pass review at all.

    I agree with these two. Its “easy to ascribe malice, when simple incompetence would have sufficed”.
    Without knowing anything more than what is provided in this post, I would glean that the author sent you a copy for your review and comments as a professional courtesy, and a copy to the journalist in the same manner, on the full expectation that the paper would be published in the short due course. My suspicion is that the author has professional confidence in both you and the journalist, and has essentially extended a request of confidentially to both of you, and has told the journalist that. The journalist then assumes he can discuss the paper with you under a shared blanket of confidentiality. This is a common circumstance where there is no perceived malice expected to be entertained by all parties and casual exchange requested. The problem has arisen that there are multiple errors apparent in the material. There now is an expectation of contextual conflict in commentary about the substance, which may or may not get dragged into the error pit. Because of this latter fact, Alan Watts’ comment above is right on. “Let’s let the dust settle first”. Better to be quiet and thought a fool, then to open one’s mouth and provide fodder for the trolls of this world…” (c)2011 P.Coppin /sarc :)

  93. Some further thoughts… A good journalist ( I can say this because I have no idea who the journalist is :) likes counterpoint in their reportage, especially so when there are divided opinions about truth or facts in a topic. Good reporters use this as a means to providing a balance of opinions in their reports since they themselves will acknowledge no special expertise on the topic. The reporter is covering his bases in anticipation of the science article being published and of his article being published. The scientist has jumped the gun, if not the shark, by assuming his work is without serious criticism.

  94. @Anothony

    “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.”

    You don’t seem to understand how these things work. Newbies must follow the rules. The established scientist at the major university is above the rules.

  95. I haven’t read every comment here, but I have probably read more than half of them. One question I haven’t seen is whether or not the authors are pro-AGW or skeptic? I guess everyone assumes that no skeptic authors would do what these authors have done, but nothing I see in Anthony’s head post that eliminates them as authors.

    My personal take would be that I wouldn’t have said anything here but made sure some people were sent the info on the QT in case there were later repercussions. I would have sent the authors the later error finding and turned down the reporter.

  96. I think this is a tempest in a teapot. However, computer models predict that, due to carbon admissions, this kind of tempest may lead to rising see levels for the paper in question (measured at the peer) and increasingly warm winds, possibly even hot air circulating through the blogosphere. Clearly this calls for pro-active legislative initiatives before it is too late.

  97. Okay, it’s Monday, is there a news story?

    REPLY: I’m told it will be published on the 20th, synchronized with the release of the paper. – Anthony

  98. Agree with others. You’re being set up. Walk away from the commentary. Tell the reporter that you can not comment until the paper is actually published.

    I don’t know exactly what the game plan is, but it can’t be good. Don’t play the game.

  99. Set up.

    They want Anthony Watts to shut up, and this was their plan. They didn’t foresee an ethical opponent. That is called projection.

  100. Legal issue: doubt it, but defer to the lawyers on this. Clearly, the journalist representing that he has the same article as you were given needs to be confirmed before you would talk to him.

    Ethical issue: The scientist may have a relationship of trust with the journalist (these do exist—journalists like to cultivate and maintain sources) and may have confidence that the journalist will not publish an article before the scientist’s work is peer-approved and ready for publishing. He may have given the journalist your name, or some other person within the circle of knowledge (administrative assistant, science colleague, other person with whom the scientist was indiscreet and to whom he boasted “I have even asked that skeptic Watts for comment….) may have tipped off the journalist. Ethical response for you: call author, review situation, ask for permission to talk to journalist.

    Practical Issue: This is about the future. Specifically the chance that this scientist or others who become aware of your choices here may ask you to look at their work in the future (and assuming you would want that): Again, your solution is to call that author and clarify his/her wishes.

    For all of us regular folks who value this blog, your being tapped in to the mainstream and the eddies of work in climate science is valuable. Just like in the Trenberth meeting, we want you involved. There is no person on Earth we trust more on these issues than Anthony Watts. And after all, as the saintly Algore would say, the Earth is in the balance.

  101. There’s a tactic called “dead lettering” in which someone with an inconvenient access to information is discredited in advance by inducing them to make an incriminating or compromising statement or similar. A kind of covert “gotcha” set-up scheme. [re-posted without the verboten synonym which sent the prev. Reply into the nozone.]

    This has many of the earmarks.

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