The heart of the matter: do scientific journalists need ground rules?

Recently there has been a rash of reports of scientific discoveries that, if the facts were fully known, should not have been publicized, to put it mildly. In most cases, the journalists reporting the work failed to rigorously investigate the background of the discovery to determine if it was real, sound and truly worthy of being reported in major news sources.

Some other upsetting examples are discussed in our 2011 Conversation article “When things don’t add up: statistics, maths and scientific fraud“. In addition, very recent analysis shows that deliberate scientific fraud in the biomedical areas — as measured by Journal retractions — while still rare has dramatically increased over the last decade.

The Japanese stem cell debacle

Perhaps the most glaring current example is the report, published on 12 October 2012 in the English edition of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, that “induced pluripotent” stem cells (often abbreviated iPS stem cells) had been used to successfully treat a person with terminal heart failure. Eight months after being treated by Japanese researcher Hisashi Moriguchi at Harvard University, the front-page article emphasized, the patient was healthy. The newspaper declared that this was the “first clinical application of iPS cells,” and mentioned that the results were being presented at a conference at Rockefeller University in New York City.

Sadly, the report began to unravel almost immediately. A Harvard Medical School spokesman, when contacted by Nature, denied that any such procedure had taken place, and emphasized that “No clinical trials related to Dr. Moriguchi’s work have been approved by institutional review boards at either Harvard University or MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital].” A Harvard communications officer, when contacted by Science, said that Moriguchi was a visiting fellow at MGH for two months in 1999, but that “he has not been associated with MGH or Harvard since that time.”

The conference mentioned in the press result was an annual meeting of researchers working on translational stem cell research sponsored by the New York Stem Cell Foundation. Foundation officials reported that Moriguchi’s poster reporting the work was taken down “before the second day of the conference.”

The University of Tokyo Hospital said that it is checking into two earlier papers published by Moriguchi. One describes “cryopreservation” of human ovarian cortex tissue. Such a study would have to have been approved, not only by the University of Tokyo but also by the Tokyo Medical and Dental University and Harvard Medical School, since Moriguchi claimed affiliation with these institutions.

There were certainly reasons to be suspicious of this report. Moriguchi claimed to reprogram stem cells using just two specific chemicals, but stem cell researcher Hiromitsu Nakauchi responded that he has “never heard of success with that method,” and, what’s more, that he hard never heard of Moriguchi in his field before this week. He concluded, “I doubt whether this is real.

It gets worse. The article in which Moriguchi presented his scheme includes several paragraphs copied almost verbatim from other papers, including a 2007 paper by 2012 Nobel-Prize-winning Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya  Yamanaka. Another section, which describes liver biopsies, matches the number of patients and timing of specimen extractions presented in a 2010 paper authored by a team of researchers led by Arun Thenappan of Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  Moreover, even coauthors at Harvard had not spotted Moriguchi’s bogus claim of affiliation with their own medical school.

In short, the reported research is clearly bogus and the author most likely a very troubled individual.  Its prominent announcement on the front page of Yomiuri Shimbun is both a major embarrassment to the newspaper and the other news organs who bindly picked up the story, and a source of confusion to its readers internationally.

“Due diligence” standards for scientific journalism

So how can such lapses be prevented in the future?  Ideally, all science, finance and medical journalists would be fully accredited as are many other professions.  But this is clearly unrealistic, and so more realistically, we propose a set of standards for “due diligence” in scientific journalism. Namely, we propose a minimal set of procedures that should be followed by journalists before publishing any report on scientific research:

  1. Contact each of the institutions claimed by the lead researcher, at least, to verify the story. Virtually all reputable institutions have press representatives whose responsibility is to be aware of recent work (or, if they are not, to contact the researcher to learn specifics). In many cases, the press representatives are the ones who draft research announcements, in collaboration with researchers.
  2. Verify that the work has been published by (not just submitted to)  a reputable peer-reviewed journal or conference proceeding — in most cases this can be done by checking the journal’s or conference’s website. From time to time news outlets report, often informally, on research that has not yet been published, but such announcements should very clearly state that the work has not yet been peer-reviewed.
  3. Contact a reputable researcher in the same field who was not a co-author of the study in question, and include, in the report, the name of the researcher and some brief comments. This step is particularly important if the research in question purports to be a significant breakthrough in the field, or if it may be considered controversial.
  4. After the article is written, send a draft to the researcher and to each other person mentioned centrally in the article, with a reasonable opportunity for them to assist with technical wording and fact-checking. This is often difficult to do given the constraints of time deadlines, but it is an important way to prevent unintentionally confusing or misleading comments in the article.

All journalists want to be the first to release a report of some major development, not only in science but in every other topic normally covered by the news media, from politics to football. And carefully following rules such as the ones we have proposed will require precious time and effort.

It really matters

The field of science is unique in that the public of necessity places a great deal of trust in its practitioners. Witness the US standards (also adopted elswhere)  for expert scientific evidence to be admissible in court. In addition, much of the day-to-day details of scientific research are too technical to be fully appreciated, even by that sector of the public that has significant scientific training. Thus ,both scientists and the public rely on accurate and informative journalist reports summarizing what is being done in these fields — there is just not enough time to read in detail the full articles that appear in research journals.

In this sense, the scientific journalism community perform a very important service, not just for the public, but for science. One could even argue that they are an essential part of the scientific research enterprise. A reader  can also follow a more informal version of the same protocol.

For mathematics we have elsewhere described how to assess the credibility of a claim of breakthrough even in a field one is unfamiliar with. The reader is invited to asses the recent announcement of a solution of the ABC conjecture. Determining junk is also useful and is often not done well.  One  dubious open source journal (Advances in Pure Mathematics) has just accepted a paper written  by software which generates plausible but random mathematics papers.

With this important  gate-keeper role comes an equally important responsibility to perform the “due diligence” required. Otherwise, the public’s confidence in the scientific world will be further eroded, and scientists themselves will be unable to fully understand what is being done outside their own specialties.

The Moriguchi fraud was easy enough to detect and substantiate that by October 19th (just seven days later)  the University of Tokyo had already fired Moriguchi. As Nature wrote “rarely has such a spectacular scientific claim been debunked so rapidly.” It could have been prevented with no more effort.

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