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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Tobias Ostien

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.

Me

Being snowballed comes to mind here.

Bennett

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?

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.

Theo Goodwin

“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.

Neil

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…

Filipe

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?

DRE

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?

MartinGAtkins

Small typo.
I discover that the paper is not is press yet.
[Thanks, fixed. ~dbs]

Mike Smith

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.

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.

DirkH

That’s pretty post-normal. Must be some pretty high stakes and great uncertainties involved. 😉

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.

Paul Sheraton

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.

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

starzmom

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.

TXRed

I think Ric Werme’s approach is the most honorable. Sorry you got put in such a nasty spot, sir.

Paul Westhaver

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.

John Whitman

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

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.

R. Shearer

Take the Mannly way out. Do as you please, then lie about it.

Green Sand

Be happy in your own skin!

Adam

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?

JJ

“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.

ferdberple

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.

Gary Hladik

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?

ferdberple

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?

Chuckles

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.’

Dayday

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.

Twiggy

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

George E. Smith;

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.

Frank Kotler

“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

Jerry

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.

Glenn

Questionable motives of this editor. Don’t even respond. Looks like snow.

KTWO

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.

Latitude

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 🙂

Baa Humbug

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.

rokshox

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.

Dan in California

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. 🙂

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.

andyd

You are being used. Walk away from it.

grzejnik

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.

Louis

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.

3x2

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.

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.

Mike Bromley the Kurd

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.

Bruce of Newcastle

Publish Publicity or perish.
There, that’s better.

son of mulder

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.

tesla_x

Take the HIGH ROAD.
This could be an attempt to bait you into embarrassing or discrediting yourself.
Truth and patience.

Stay on the high road and do what’s right !!!
No matter what happens, you will be free and clear.