The Critical Role of Peer Review in Ethical Communication
By Marianna Evola
Communication is a critical responsibility of an academic career. Effective oral and written communication skills are central to classic scholarly communication that incorporate teaching, oral presentations and of course peer reviewed publication, the gold standard of academic communication. However, the modern world and information age have provided scholars with alternative means of communication. Many academics also choose to share their scholarship through discussion forums, blogs, social media and other online publications. In fact, alternative forms of academic communication are becoming so popular that there are now electronic means to measure the impact of online communication of scholarship, such as AltMetrics. And although it is exciting to witness the evolution of academic communication, academics face challenges in controlling their messages once their ideas are shared on the internet, because their ideas are forced to compete with large volumes of misinformation that flood social media.
Thus, although the internet is providing academics new means to express their ideas, it has also lead to a big challenge for modern academics. Specifically, how do scientists effectively communicate in a world where a significant proportion of the public does not trust academic research and where information is often purposefully distorted? The scholarly world was built on a foundation of sharing our ideas and challenging the ideas of our colleagues and competitors. However, our professional disagreements and challenges were generally based on conflicting data and evidence or competing methodology. In contrast, now when academic ideas move beyond discourse between competing colleagues to a more general audience, academic ideas are often misrepresented and challenges are not based on objective evidence but rather, challenges are often based merely on misinformation and/or hearsay.
A prime example of harmful misinformation that persists from hearsay, even with scores of competing evidence, is the falsified report on a link between childhood vaccination and autism. Even though Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of research and professional misconduct, was largely discredited in the academic community and was banned from practicing medicine in Great Britain, his false report continues to receive support on the internet and children continue to be harmed by his misconduct. Specifically, his data was fraudulent because he misrepresented the timelines for disease progression. Many of the children in his study exhibited symptoms of autism before they were vaccinated and their data was misrepresented in his analyses. Since that report, his data have not been replicated. Yet, the misinformation persists. If, like me, you have ever engaged someone on social media that asserts that vaccination is harmful and is a pharmaceutical company conspiracy, you will be largely disappointed that presenting objective research data cannot sway them from their assertion because they are asserting a belief, not an objective assessment of data. They do not differentiate objective data from social media hearsay. For that individual, an unsubstantiated report from a parent that some child, somewhere became ill from vaccination is sufficient evidence that vaccination can be harmful. Now, the case of Andrew Wakefield is one where an investigator chose to engage in research misconduct and publish a false report, and even though he has been discredited the misinformation persists in the general public. If we cannot eradicate falsified data from social media, how do researchers protect their academic message from distortion and protect the public from misinformation when they have never been trained to objectively assess academic data?
The primary means to protect your message from distortion is to rely on the historical practices of academic publication and peer review. Although peer review makes us want to pound our heads against our desk, it is more than a frustrating hurdle toward publication. Peer review provides objective assessment and diverse input that maximizes the quality of our work before it is released for public consumption. In our very fast moving modern world, it is difficult to practice patience with what can be a very slow peer review process, especially if you work in an exciting and rapidly evolving discipline. It is easy to justify premature release of ground breaking discoveries and there are plenty of communication avenues in which to release your discovery. However, without peer review, there is no confidential process to catch flaws or weaknesses in your research or interpretation. Thus, if problems are discovered after release, investigators cannot fall back on the input of their peers and they will have to suffer any resulting scandal alone. Peer review is frustrating and can be disheartening, but it is a process that can protect and possibly enhance the reputation of investigators. It may be tempting to utilize publication options that enable you to bypass peer review, but your work would lack the valuable input of your colleagues.
The second way that we can protect ourselves again takes us back to the basic training of academics, transparency. An academic research career is a contribution. It is a transparent endeavor. Traditionally, we are not allowed secrets in academic research, we are obligated to openly share our ideas, data and methodology so that others can replicate and utilize our work. The transparency of research promotes critical trust in the academic community. Whereas secrecy and deception only elicit suspicion, and they ultimately damage your reputation and career. Transparency sounds like an easy practice that would promote trust and build your reputation. However, transparency can be tricky when you consider the conflicting obligations that face academics when they decide to publically release their research. It is the responsibility of academics to sell their ideas with enthusiasm and passion while at the same time they are obligated to report objective facts. Selling your ideas with passion promotes publicity and excitement that inspires public sponsorship of research. In contrast, reporting the facts services the community of experts so that they can objectively assess your work for sound methodology and robust data.
The responsibility of reporting the facts is obvious to most academics. Generally, once we are familiar with a research discipline, we seldom read the introduction of a manuscript. We know why a research question is important and we don't need to read an author's justification. Instead, we immediately jump to the methods and results where the critical facts can be obtained. Furthermore, we often are not interested in the writer's interpretation of the results so we do not read the discussion of the manuscript. Rather, we are most interested in weeding through the methodology and results so that we can independently interpret the work. In contrast, when we are new to a discipline or when we were new graduate students, the introduction and discussion were critical manuscript components. We needed to be sold on a research project so that we would care enough to weed through the detailed methodology and results. Then we would rely on the author to interpret the results for us because we did not have a strong foundation on which to map the large collection of graphs and tables. We needed the interpretation of the author to assemble all the pieces for our comprehension. Thus, it is the responsibility of the author to both sell their ideas to the novice audience, as well as provide the facts for their experienced audience.
That being said, one of the things that an experienced audience of peer reviewers will catch is when an author over sells their ideas or exaggerates the impact of their results. Peer reviewers protect authors and their novice audience from overenthusiasm and/or exaggeration in publication. The peer review process promotes transparency over inappropriate salesmanship. I don't mean to imply that authors intend to misrepresent data. Rather, academic researchers naturally get excited about their work because they have a unique understanding of the importance of their discoveries. As such, they want to communicate their enthusiasm to all audiences, both experienced and novice readers. Peers will temper the enthusiasm prior to publication and promote objective assessment over salesmanship. It is the reviewer's responsibility to impose a more global perspective on a piece of work, relative to an entire discipline, so that a novice audience will similarly temper their enthusiasm. It is why the professional literature maintains a strong element of objectivity. It is also why it is so difficult for a novice audience to read and absorb the professional literature.
The introduction of PowerPoint for public presentations provides an excellent example of the value that the academic community places on objective assessment of data over flash. Although it will date me, I confess that I began my academic training around the time that PowerPoint was being introduced for oral presentations at national conferences. All of a sudden there was this wonderful tool that enabled presenters to create colorful and entertaining presentations full of pictures and animation. At the time of release, there were a lot of senior scientists that were strongly opposed to the utilization of PowerPoint. They believed that a scientific presentation was about objective presentation of the data and as such, the use of color and graphics were inappropriate entertainment that distracted from real science. Many of my fellow graduate students were forbidden from using color by their mentors and were restricted to historically dull black-and-white presentations. While other graduate students, encouraged to embrace the new technology, created presentations that incorporated ridiculously inappropriate and distracting animation. Gradually the research communities learned how to effectively utilize this wonderful new technology for effective yet objective presentations. Acceptable practices for effective use of PowerPoint graphics were defined. And, a modern lesson of balance between tempered objectivity and colorful salesmanship was learned.
Similarly, the tempered language of professional publication and contribution provided by peer review promotes a language often protects investigators from novice misinterpretation of their published work. It is also why the general public does not often delve into the professional literature, even though it is widely available for consumption. Rather, the general public generally relies on the interpretation of scientifically trained media and their use of language that bridges communication between the academic world and the general public. And historically, the media release of even ground-breaking research followed the tempering process of peer review. That being said, in the modern world, academics are not necessarily bound by those historic practices because there are new avenues for communication and public release of discoveries. However, like the lessons that we learned from PowerPoint, there can be ridicule and even scandal associated with premature release of discovery which researchers should consider before they choose to bypass the historical practice of peer review.
The chocolate milk scandal is an example of premature release of information that was damaging to both the investigator and the research institution. Although there were many problematic details that were ultimately released, this scandal is a prime example where peer review would have protected the investigator and the institution from a very public scandal. Basically, the investigator released research results to the public prior to obtaining peer review, thus the methodology and data had not been vetted by peers before being made public. Following the release of the research results to the public, the scientific media raised some methodological questions that ultimately major problems with the research, including methodological problems, inappropriate use of human subjects and financial conflicts of interest. The scandal that resulted has led to ongoing scrutiny of the institutional research policies as well as the professional practices of the research discipline.
The peer review process is a critical component of ethical academic communication. Peer review tempers our enthusiasm by providing critical feedback and input on competing hypotheses. Academics are trained in healthy skepticism and as such, we critique everything that we read regardless of the source. However, we have to remember that much of the general public has not received that training. Thus, when the general public reads something via general or social media, the information or misinformation takes on a life that can cause scandal, distrust in the sciences or worse, it could be harmful. Therefore, we need to learn that although we can bypass the frustrating process of peer review, it may not be ethical to release our message to the public without appropriate vetting. Proper vetting of ideas and the gradual release of information to the public will serve to minimize misrepresentation of information. Like the valuable lesson that my colleagues learned about PowerPoint animation, academics must similarly assess their evolving communication with the public with the following consideration: just because we can, doesn't mean we should.
Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of Research & Innovation. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.