Peer Review - reviewed: Tom Sheldon, Science Media Centre


We are joined this month by Senior Press Manager, Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre (SMC). The SMC is an independent press office dedicated to providing accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering through the media for the benefit of the public and policymakers. We catch up with Tom to discuss the role of peer reviewed science in the media.

What does peer review mean to you?
“The process by which science is deemed worthy of publication. It’s one way of helping us tell the difference between low and high quality science. But just one. And it’s far from perfect.”

As the SMC is dedicated to providing evidence-based and peer-reviewed information about science through the media, how does peer review affect the integrity of science news in the media?
“Specialist journalists recognize the importance of peer review. Some refuse to write up a scientific paper if it’s not, so it’s a helpful metric for quality. But it’s almost the victim of its own success. Scientists worked so hard to ensure journalists recognize peer review that it’s become a kite mark for truth. It shouldn’t be – there is rubbish published in peer reviewed journals every week. It’s not enough to say ‘it’s peer reviewed, it must be true’.”

Does the peer review process need reviewing?
“Not for me to say. But scientists are always making comments like ‘I can’t believe this got through peer review’. It seems to me that a lot of junk makes it past the peer review stage – for whatever reason – and that makes the responsible journalist’s job that bit harder. Journalists will sometimes complain that they get all the flak when the scientific literature should shoulder some of the responsibility – I sympathize with that!”

What is the SMC doing to tackle some of the issues in providing evidence-based and peer-reviewed science information to the media?
“We ensure journalists have direct and rapid access to third party scientists to help them assess the quality of a piece of research and put it into context. This provides an extra layer of checking, and can make the difference when a journalist needs fast, accurate advice.”

How can researchers get involved in ensuring the integrity of their research?
“Assuming the research is good in the first place. If it isn’t, don’t publish! If it is, make sure you get involved in the whole communication process – your work doesn’t stop on acceptance of your paper. Work with your press office to ensure the press release accurately reflects the science without hype or overclaim. Be honest about its limitations and its context in the real world. Don’t seek publicity for publicity’s sake – think of the public and how they will receive your work. And make yourself available to journalists to answer their questions. This is the best way to give your research fair representation.”

And what does peer review mean to you? Become a guest writer on our Peer review – reviewed series and share your peer review views with the wider microbiology community. Please email us if you are interested.

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