Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944, firstname.lastname@example.org
Donald Kennedy will participate in the symposium
HYPE! The Greatest Symposium Ever!!
Communicating Science in a Pressure Cooker at
the annual meeting of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science on Saturday, Feb. 15, from
8:30 to 11:30 a.m. in Denver.
AAAS 'goes Hollywood' to dramatize the perils of communicating science in a pressure cooker
It may look like just another episode of Saturday Night Live, but it's really a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Instead of actors, these skits will feature academics, a congresswoman and a journalist, arguing amongst each other on stage to illustrate the problems of the scientific publishing business.
Donald Kennedy, professor emeritus of biological sciences and a former president at Stanford University, and editor-in-chief of Science magazine, will participate in the Feb. 15 symposium in Denver, titled "HYPE! The Greatest Symposium Ever!! -- Communicating Science in a Pressure Cooker."
As art imitates life, Kennedy will play the part of a journal editor. His stage name: Les Ismore. The other players include Diana DeGette (U.S. House of Representatives) as the congresswoman, Paul Friedman (University of California-San Diego) as the scientist and Joseph Palca (National Public Radio) as the reporter.
"It's going to be a fun way to illuminate a set of problems that people have been having," says Kennedy. "The idea is to create a set of playlets in which people adopt roles and try to make a point about some of the problems that journals have."
Kennedy says these problems include "when people announce scientific results either prematurely or before peer-review, or when university press officers get interested in a finding made by one of their faculty members and issue a press briefing that gives too many of the results." When one of these happens, a journal may cancel the publication of research.
The "pressure cooker" is the publishing atmosphere, in which the scientist, journal editor and newspaper journalist all want different things. The scientist wants his or her research published -- and quickly. The journalist wants a great story. And the journal editor wants to make sure that a submitted article undergoes the rigorous peer-review process before it is published and distributed.
"What the editor of the journal wants, quite frankly, is to have the full peer-reviewed, scientific account of the work appear before the mainstream press gets hold of it," Kennedy says. "At Science, we want to be fair to all of the journalistic community and not seem to play favorites."
The embargo process is one way that journals try to play fair. Under this system, scientists give journalists an advance look at their research paper, with the agreement that the story won't be published until the peer-review process is complete and the embargo lifts.
"We really try to preserve embargoes quite strictly," says Kennedy. "I suspect that one of the little events that we might portray in this symposium is the problem of an embargo break."
Some areas of science, including physics, have attempted to bypass publication in print journals and embrace open, online publishing systems. Many believe that too much emphasis is placed on peer-review and that research should be freely and instantly available.
"[Their] philosophy is to get it out, everybody can look at it and make their own decisions whether it's worthwhile," Kennedy says. But for comprehensive and prestigious magazines such as Science and Nature, he says, peer review is absolutely necessary.
"Peer review is a huge asset to a journal, particularly one that can only publish a fraction of the submissions that it gets," he says. "I think the process, when conscientiously pursued -- and we think our process is a pretty conscientious one -- can give the readers confidence that what they're reading is good stuff, and gives the authors the confidence that they've been fairly treated by a system on which a lot depends."
In the academic world, the old credo still stands: Publish or perish. Professors' and scientists' reputations depend on their publishing record, so a lot is riding on the peer-review system for journals.
"I hope that we'll be successful in laying out these problems to a bunch of scientists at a scientific meeting so that everybody goes away with a better sense of where everybody's responsibilities lie in this whole business. That's the main idea," Kennedy says.
So what are everyone's responsibilities? Kennedy believes that journalists are pretty good at asking the right questions and not publishing a story that has not been peer reviewed. But scientists have some work to do.
"Scientists, first of all, need to be better about following the conventions of their own craft and seeking responsible publication outlets and then following the rules that they set," he says.
"Also, they need to be better about explaining in language that non-specialists can understand what the significance of their work is. I think one of the problems that the scientific community faces is that most people who are specialists, including some of the very best ones, don't understand the need to find plain language."
Bronwyn Barnett is a science writing intern with Stanford News Service.
By Bronwyn Barnett