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UK Conference of Science Journalists

This is a guest post by Doug Keenan.

The 2012 UK Conference of Science Journalists was held on June 25th. The programme is available on the UKCSJ web site. I attended two of the sessions: the first was a session was entitled “What can journalists do to uncover scientific misconduct?”; the second was the plenary at the end. What follows is my perspective on those sessions.


Misconduct session

Misconduct is what most people call “fraud”. This session had three speakers.

The first speaker was the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Anaesthesia, Steve Yentis. Yentis told about the case of Joachim Boldt, an anesthesiologist who has had over 80 papers retracted. He also told about the case of case of Yoshitaka Fujii, an anesthesiologist who seems to have published 193 bogus papers. A third case was also cited, though I did not get the details. Yentis has been leading the charge to get more integrity in anesthesiology.

The second speaker was Peter Aldhous, from New Scientist magazine. Aldhous has worked to expose fraud with stories in New Scientist. His presentation seemed sound, but there was no substantial news. (The slides for his presentation are on his web site.) One point he made was that institutions are unlikely to fairly investigate allegations of fraud made against their own researchers: this obvious point seemed to be new to some people.

The third speaker was Ginny Barbour, who is the Chair of the Committee On Publication Ethics (COPE). Barbour said that COPE was working to get institutions to investigate allegations of fraud made against their own researchers. She also claimed that only a few percent of research publications are fraudulent.

During the question period, someone stated that science journalists should be cheerleading science, and that fraud is very rare, and anyway science is self-correcting. More generally, many people there genuinely believed that almost all scientists are virtually always honest. Those people work with science all day, and yet they seem to have no clue about how science really operates. Overall, I found the session stunningly disheartening: there is an enormous way to go, to get many journalists to appreciate what reality is.

I pointed out that all the examples of fraud given by the speakers were in medical science. I noted that in the UK, during the past half century, there does not seem to have been a single case where a non-medical researcher has been officially found to have committed fraud. That is clearly unreasonable. Consider much smaller groups of respected people: members of parliament, Catholic priests, police detectives—in each instance, we know that during half a century, at least a few of them will have committed serious crimes.

I also described how I once reported a fraud at the University of Reading. The university refused to investigate: I was told that the university had no procedures for investigating such allegations, because their professors always act with integrity.

The conclusion is that there is no accountability. I said that there were some fields of science where half the research publications were bogus. That was in conflict with the claim of Barbour, and did not go over well.

Some journalists seemed to think that verifying research fraud requires specialist scientific expertise. I gave two counterexamples from my own work. One counterexample is in archaeoastronomy of China, where a fraud consisted of claiming that a figure with four dots in it actually had five dots in it: in other words, understanding the fraud only requires being able to count to five. I published a paper on this, which overturned the previous 20 years of research in the field. The other counterexample was the analysis by Phil Jones on Chinese weather stations; I mentioned this only briefly, as I did not want to get into the emotive politics of global warming.

Afterwards, I briefly talked with Aldhous. Aldhous explained how a journalist might have to put in as much time to get a story about fraud as to get, say, 75 stories about usual science. From a business perspective, that is obviously a serious problem.

I also briefly talked with Barbour. I repeated the point that Aldhous had made about institutions investigating their own researchers. Barbour replied that she was aware of the problem, but having institutions investigate their own was the best that could currently be done. At the time, I could not think of anything polite to say in response to such nonsense. It is obvious that having institutions investigate their own is worse than doing nothing, because it tends to give the illusion of there being a real investigation. (We have seen such illusory investigations with Climategate, for example.)

Barbour then talked about the COPE Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines for Journal Editors. She suggested that it was via the Code that research would gain more integrity. The Code contains statements saying that editors should “strive to constantly improve their journal”, should be “supporting initiatives to educate researchers about publication ethics”, and should “publish guidance to authors on everything that is expected of them”. Those are plainly platitudes. The Code makes no mention of research data having to be disclosed, of computer programs having to be available, etc.—that is, it lacks most of the specifics that would be needed for it to accomplish anything non-illusory.


Plenary session

This session had four speakers.

The first speaker was the journalist William Cullerne Bown. Bown said that science journalism is failing: his main evidence is the small number of readers. He explained how, after the development of the atomic bomb, the public became fascinated by science and the promise to change civilization. That promise has not been fulfilled, at least not nearly as much as was claimed half a century ago. In consequence, public interest in science has lessened, and shifted more to technology.

Bown noted that the big stories about scientific failures have been missed. He also commented on large institutions involved in science—citing the Royal Society, Elsevier, and the Wellcome Trust—saying that such institutions “have their own interests”, which are not necessarily those of science. He observed that there is lots of corruption among politicians and business people; so how could it be that there is seemingly almost none among scientists? He criticized the many science journalists who seem to treat scientists as being almost like demigods.

The second speaker was the economist and BBC journalist Evan Davis. Davis cautioned journalists about focusing on negative aspects of science, such as fraud, saying that negative publicity might bias scientists against doing anything, and we want to encourage scientists to continue their work. He later said that “exposure [of fraud] is not a very good goal” for science journalism.

I think that there are many people like Davis: people who have effectively taken science to be their religion and scientists to be their priests or even gods. Those people are deeply fearful of having their religious beliefs defenestrated. The result is the anti-journalism on display here.

The third speaker was Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University. Rosen was also the person who delivered the keynote address for the conference. He stated that it was important for journalists to “confront climate change denialism”. He came across as being highly certain of himself, while having little understanding of the issues, i.e. a typical third-rate academic.

The fourth speaker was the President of the Association of British Science Writers, Connie St Louis; St Louis is also the Director of Science Journalism at City University London. St Louis argued that journalists are too close to scientists. She said that fraud is “very very underreported” and that in consequence “we have failed as journalists”. She closed with the exhortation “let’s have some real journalism”.

The statements by St Louis prompted discussion. Bown said that he agreed with the statements. Many people, however, seemed to disagree. Someone in the audience said that fraud is confined to a few isolated individuals.

I repeated my main point from the earlier session: in the UK, during the past half century, there does not seem to have been a single case where a non-medical researcher has been officially found to have committed fraud. This demonstrates that there is no accountability.

I also gave an example from my own work, in radiocarbon dating. In radiocarbon dating, a chemical measurement is made on the remains of an organism, and then a statistical procedure is used to calculate how many years ago the organism died. I had found an error in the statistical procedure: thus, most radiocarbon dates are inaccurate. I submitted a paper on this to a journal. The paper had five peer reviews, all recommending rejection; in each case, I wrote a rebuttal—in some cases pointing out clear dishonesty by the reviewer. The editors actually asked a total of 25 scientists to peer review the paper; the remaining 20 declined to do a review, but were often were critical of the paper’s claim. In other words, out of 25 scientists, not one could be found to recommend accepting the paper. Eventually, the journal sent the paper to a statistician, whom I was told was eminent; the statistician said that the paper was obviously correct. The paper was then published. Thus, this is an example of an entire field covering up a substantial error—presumably because they want to avoid the embarrassment of admitting making such a mistake.


For me, the take-home message from the conference is that a large majority of science journalists are extremely naive about scientists. The naivety is so extreme that I suspect it must be partially willful.

For global-warming skeptics, something else should perhaps be mentioned. Many global-warming skeptics seem to think that there is something special about the prevalence of bogus research in global warming. There is not. Anyone who has looked at other fields of science knows that there are fields that are worse than global warming. This tells us something important: the underlying cause of the problem is not specific to global warming.

I mention this especially because some skeptics seem to believe that what is needed is reform of the IPCC. Yes, the IPCC could benefit from reform. But that would not solve the problem.

We have known for millennia that prerequisites for integrity in human affairs include things like transparency and accountability. Those things should be in all scientific research.

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Reader Comments (61)

IMHO science journalism has been failing for 20 years, although there have been a very few individuals who have tried to buck the trend. Newspaper science journalism is almost non-existent such is the prevalence of regurgitated press releases. For me the BBC is the worst culprit. Their science journalism has no spirit, no depth and no width. Has Shukman ever told us anything we didn't already know or that wasn't all over the internet? They completely lost their marbles on Global Warming err..sorry Climate Change. But what is new I recall watching the TV when the BSE scare was on - totally out of all perspective, alarmist.

Connie S is right. I read somewhere recently someone saying that the BBC is carrying out science communication, because it certainly isn't questioning, it isn't journalism.

Read David Whitehouse here

Scientists even run prizes for science journalists!! I didn't know that.

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterPorthos

Outstanding review. I have run into these same sorts of arguments and assumptions in my debates over thw years. Scientists are always assumed to be unbiased a priori because "that's how science works." And also the line about "only a few bad apples" comes up often. I am sure that if we knew the true exyent of the corruption we would be appalled. Imagine how many things we think we know are just lies perpetuated to further careers or to suppress society. It is a chilling thought.

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:15 PM | Unregistered Commenterspiritsplice

Welllll after more than fourty decades in Science and Technology I can't think of a single point of disagreement with Mr Keenan.

I found the article saddening.

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterWillR

That should be fou decades or fourty years. Really -- Gotta catch that before Peer Review sets in... ;-)

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterWillR

Climategate 1 opened my eyes in many ways.

One of the things that amazed me at the time was the deathly silence of the mainstream media - for weeks, it was as if the release had never happened.

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:21 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Nice article.

In addition to your charge of "naivety" as a failing of science journalism, perhaps you should include the opinion of Rex Tillerson (C.E.O. ExxonMobil) as the press being "lazy".

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:28 PM | Unregistered Commenternvw

Thanks, Doug. I think you've done us all a service here.
I could never have been a "science" journalist but I'm not really sure that there is such a thing. The principle applies across the board every time a press release lands on your desk: "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" followed by "There are just a couple of points I'd like you to clarify for me" usually followed by the sound of the phone being turned off at the other end.
Why the new breed of "science journalist" or "environmental correspondent" believe that basic journalist practice doesn't apply beats me.
I'm also a bit puzzled by the existence of a "Department of Science Journalism". WTF?

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:35 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Many thanks for a great post Doug

I dont think it is only science; it is the whole of society. Integrity and honesty are out personal gain is the name of the game. In business, in politics and in sport there are now too many people with agendas.

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterDung

Investigating this conference Keenan refers to I discovered that our old friend Bob ward is on the council of the Association of British Science Journalists - who organised the conference. what sense if Bob Ward a journalist?

Jun 28, 2012 at 6:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterPorthos

"Many global-warming skeptics seem to think that there is something special about the prevalence of bogus research in global warming. There is not. Anyone who has looked at other fields of science knows that there are fields that are worse than global warming. This tells us something important: the underlying cause of the problem is not specific to global warming."

This is an idea that has worried me for a while. Why don't more scientists speak out about the truly appalling standards displayed in climate science? Is it because there's a whole can of worms there that scientists don't want opened up? Are other areas of science this bad? If a similar amount of srutiny was shone on other areas of science, would we find similar problems?

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Evans

Perhaps I am naive but I feel that in areas like engineering, electronics, chemistry, physics, materials science, the half-life of bogus research is short. Physical experiments in these fields are either reproducible or not.

Hence fraud/misconduct (I suspect) are not as common in these fields as in others. There are, however, famous cases - like that of Schoen. But generally speaking, once detected, such cases end up with publication withdrawals and general disgrace.

see Schoen Scandal

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

Great post, Doug. Wish I had been there, it seemed eminently cartoonable.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterJosh

"For global-warming skeptics, something else should perhaps be mentioned. Many global-warming skeptics seem to think that there is something special about the prevalence of bogus research in global warming. There is not. Anyone who has looked at other fields of science knows that there are fields that are worse than global warming. This tells us something important: the underlying cause of the problem is not specific to global warming."

Well, there is something special about fraud in climate research. No other scientific discipline 'informs' public policy as much as climate science does.

Over at Discovery website, Ed Yong reports another case of fraud in psychology where the perpetrator is now an ex-Professor.

Unlike in climate science, however, the cases of fraud in psychology do not end up costing governments and consumers endless billions (trillions?) of dollars. So yes, I am naturally far more concerned about fraud in climate science than in psychology or in any other scientific discipline.

I recommend everyone have a look at Yong's piece. The latest scientific fraud in psychology was also discovered by a statistician who was unconvinced by the conclusion of the research.

The 'whistleblower', who has just been named as Uri Simonsohn, asked for the data and "used a new and unpublished statistical method to search for suspicious patterns in the data" to uncover the fraud.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:11 PM | Unregistered CommentersHx

Mike Jackson:

"Why the new breed of 'science journalist' or 'environmental correspondent' believe that basic journalist practice doesn't apply beats me."

Is it because they are being trained up by the likes of Richard Black?

I find it chilling. Advocates training up other advocates to become environmental journalists.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Evans

I'm reminded of an epidode of the Big Bang Theory series 2 episode 4.

Dr Gablehauser, the head of the physics department asks the characters what the purpose of the University was. They answer 'science?' , or some such. He answers 'Wrong, its money'.

Wish the BBC 'journalists' would display such honesty.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterBuster Gut

I think part of the problem is the need for academics to publish, publish, publish.

Having to meet publishing deadlines may mean some academics cut corners and record data that doesn't exist or manipulate the data to give the "correct" results.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:28 PM | Registered Commentermangochutney

When I was doing my phd in the late '70s (Environmental Impact assessment), the emphasis was on which subject area was generating the most grant money.

I suspect little has changed.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterBuster Gut

Many thanks for the well written, informative and analytic article. I particularly like your example of carbon dating. What was the reaction to the article in the journals?

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernie

"Perhaps I am naive but I feel that in areas like engineering, electronics, chemistry, physics, materials science, the half-life of bogus research is short."

I fear you are naive: the point is that the successful crooks end up in charge of the game.

Jun 28, 2012 at 7:42 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

Best post I have seen in a while, thank you. I think the effect is rampant in all areas of journalism ie. reporting via press release with no real work put into articles looking for accuracy or other views.

Jun 28, 2012 at 8:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterIceman

The book by Bill Bryson, A Short History Of Nearly Everything, is peppered with many, many examples throughout history of fraud in science. The petty jealosies and childish vindictiveness by some of the "great" names in science has always gone on.
Sadly it was only long after they died did their mendacity come to be known to the public at large.
Usually, their peers knew exactly what was going on but said nothing, sometimes even ruining anyone who tried to correct an error.
That was before the internet but very little is different now.
Well worth a read or at least dipping into.

Jun 28, 2012 at 8:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterLeusebiof

Anyone remember this from the Penn State investigation into a certain Michael Mann in 2010?

This level of success in proposing research, and obtaining funding to conduct it, clearly places Dr. Mann among the most respected scientists in his field. Such success would not have been possible had he not met or exceeded the highest standards of his profession for proposing research.

Hard to imagine a better example to illustrate Doug Keenan's point.

Jun 28, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterScottie

The Fourth Estate’s effectiveness as a gatekeeper has been on the wane for many years. Investigative journalism appears to be a thing of the past, today's breed seems happy to be a purveyor of spin, especially if akin to their inherent leanings.

I can’t remember who it was that first namned blogs such BH, CA, WUWT etc as "The Fifth Estate" but it is now a clear and very apt description. Awareness of The Fifth Estate will grow as it continues to demonstrate an ability to carry out scientific investigations/audits in a calm, open and respectful manner.

And as the "gatekeepers" continue to decline their responsibilities, the need for The Fifth Estate is becoming all the more obvious.

Jun 28, 2012 at 9:16 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

I have been putting together some ideas for a presentation as a guest speaker to a university class this fall on the topic of global warming and how non-scientists can evaluate claims. I had decided already that the best approach to shoot down the appeal to authority was to start out with the Amgen and Bayer work showing how rotten the science is in cancer and biotech research. To get students to realize they needed to question the claims of the hockey team and the IPCC, the easiest path seems to be to show how bad all of science is, to show how worthless peer review is, etc.

Later on in the presentation, I intend to walk through very briefly the details of 3 climate studies to show how even students without science training can immediately see how bad the work is. Those would be Mann's mann-o-matic hockey stick screener, Rahmstorf's smoothie blender flavored with pretend data, and Monnett's polar bear fantasy. Add in brief references to Jones' response to Hughes, his use of fake Chinese data without accountability, Harry Read Me, and some of the e-mails.

Mix in a discussion of Hansen's magic extrapolation of cool thermometer readings into hot Arctic temps where no thermometers exist, plus Anthony's findings that almost 90% of thermometers flunk basic scientific standards = students willing to consider that science may not be quite as settled as they have been led to believe.

Sprinkle in a bit on the inadequacy of the GCMs and let percolate.

Jun 28, 2012 at 10:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterstan


Trust, but verify. If no one is verifying, there's no reason to trust.

Jun 28, 2012 at 10:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterstan

An entire scientific sub-establishment covered up a serious mistake!

Say no more.

Jun 28, 2012 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Utterly true... but let's not stop at deliberate fraud; there are even more examples of scientists simply making honest mistakes, like everyone else.

An enlightening exercise is to go through some copies of a popular science journal like New Scientist from, say, ten years ago, and to see what proportion of promising results and 'discoveries' went exactly nowhere. My estimate is somewhere over 80%. Some may have been right but irrelevant; many, I suspect, were just plain wrong.

Jun 28, 2012 at 10:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterJon Jermey

No Jon: in science you self-correct and only publish if you are absolutely certain. The sanction was you never got another jib. now it's promotion......

Real science is done now by amateurs.

Jun 28, 2012 at 10:35 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Finally, someone other than me who realizes that the incompetent climate science is just the tip of a much larger, deeper problem, that cuts across a