What should science reporters do with research that has not yet been peer-reviewed?

What should science reporters do with research that has not yet been peer-reviewed? Two examples from Coronavirus

By Nathan Geffen

On 7 February several news outlets published a story that a genetic analysis by scientists has linked Coronavirus, in particular 2019-nCoV, to pangolins. Don Pinnock and Tiara Walters published an in-depth report in Daily Maverick. The article is fascinating, well-written and appears well-researched. 

It does raise the question of if and when new science should appear in the popular press before peer-reviewed publication (or at least a science conference).

The prevailing view is that new science should first be published in respectable peer-reviewed journals before getting mainstream media space. But there’s an argument that there are exceptional cases, like this one. It goes like this: 2019-nCoV is a new ongoing, global threat. Pangolins are endangered. There’s a pressing public interest to report on the possible link between the pangolin trade and the outbreak of a disease; this will inform the debate on what to do about the trade of these mammals. Waiting for peer-review may take too long when the issue will get much more public attention now.             

This is a reasonable argument and the decision to publish is a difficult one that editors have to take with their science reporters. But it is risky. The peer-review process may find flaws in the research. It may not get published in a scientific journal, leaving the public believing that a link to pangolins has been found when in fact the finding falls apart under scrutiny (I don’t think this scenario is likely, but it’s possible). 

Also every time the popular press “jumps the gun” on the peer-review process, even for good reason, it encourages more jumping the gun, and perhaps for weaker reasons next time. Also, scientists themselves need to be discouraged from trying to get their work published in the popular media before a reputable peer-reviewed publication.  

There are some researchers who argue that pre-publication peer-review is outdated and effectively being replaced with sites like BiorXiv, where biologists publish before peer-review. But the pangolin findings have not yet been published on BiorXiv.

Nevertheless, the Maverick’s decision to publish is defensible.  

Less defensible is an article published on 10 February in one of the world’s most prestigious daily newspapers, the Financial Times (FT). It’s titled When it comes to coronavirus, men are more vulnerable --- and that’s its thesis. 

“Some scientists are now convinced that these sex differences in clinical data reflect a genuine male vulnerability to coronaviruses, rather than a bias in exposure,” the reporter writes, exuding a view that is far too confident. She relies on the first analysis of 2019-nCoV hospital patients in Wuhan, a sample of a mere 99 people of whom 67 were men, i.e. 68% men vs 32% women.

Here the reporter has crossed the line between reporting science and doing science. She does quote one scientist in support of her view, but no sceptical ones.

When you do science, you are supposed to submit your results to a scientific publication or conference, to be evaluated by your peers. But a mass-circulation newspaper is not the place for doing science; it’s where you report science that has been done. 

The distinction is important. The FT is widely read, much more so than science publications. A scientific finding expressed in it has a much greater imprint on the public mind than an article published in, say, the British Medical Journal. Yet it does not go through the same quality checks.

As it happens, a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on 7 February reported a slightly larger cohort of 138 patients from another Wuhan hospital. Only 54% were men. There are several possible explanations why even this much smaller difference could have nothing to do with a “genuine male vulnerability to coronaviruses”. We really don’t know enough yet.

It would have been perfectly legitimate for the reporter to ask the question: why are more men infected with 2019-nCoV in a hospital in Wuhan? She could have written a report that presented multiple arguments based on the views of several scientists. She could have told her readers what, if any, research is being done to answer the question. That would have made for a high-quality article.

It may still turn out that her thesis is right. That’s not the point; the place to argue her thesis is in the scientific literature (or even on her own blog, where what she says carries much less authority), not the FT.   

Nathan Geffen is the director of CENSCOM and the editor of GroundUp.