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Raising Scientific Experts

Competing interests threaten the scientific record, but courage and sound judgment can help

Nancy L. Jones

The Ideal

The central role of publication is to create a record that advances collective knowledge. When research and scholarship are published in a peer-reviewed journal, it means that the scientific community has judged them to be worthwhile contributions to the collective knowledge. That is not to say a publication represents objective truth: All observations are made in the context of the observer’s own theories and perceptions. Research findings must, therefore, be reported in an accurate and accessible way that allows other scientists to draw their own conclusions. Readers should be able to reinterpret the work in light of new knowledge and to repeat experiments themselves, rather than rely solely on the authors’ interpretations.

The nature of scientific progress also requires that the scientific record include negative results and repetitions of previous studies. Reporting both positive and negative results informs future work, prevents others from retracing wrong avenues and demonstrates good stewardship of limited resources. Out of respect for the contributions of research subjects, especially humans and other primates, some argue that there is a moral imperative to publish negative results. Doing so can prevent unnecessary repetition of experiments. On the other hand, reproducibility itself is a cornerstone of science. There must be a place to report follow-up studies that confirm or refute previous findings.

Finally, scientific discourse should embrace the principle of questioning certitude—reevaluating the resident authoritative views and dogmas in order to advance science. The scientific record should challenge the current entrenched ideas within a field by including contributions from new investigators and other disciplines. Examining novel ideas and allowing them to flourish helps the scientific community uncover assumptions, biases and flaws in its current understanding.

In an ideal world, peer review is the fulcrum that ensures the veracity of each research report before it enters the scientific record. The prima facie principle for the practice of science is objectivity, but we all know that true objectivity is impossible. Therefore, science relies on evaluation by subject-matter experts—peer reviewers—who assess the work of other researchers. They critique the experimental design, models and methods and judge whether the results truly justify the conclusions. Reviewers also evaluate the significance of each piece of research for advancing scientific knowledge. This neutral critique improves the objectivity of the published record and assures that each study meets the standards of its field.

For peer review to serve its intended function, authors, reviewers, editors and scientific societies must uphold certain ethical obligations, detailed in the figure on the following page. In short, authors must do their best to conduct sound, worthwhile research and openly share the results. Reviewers must be open about potential conflicts of interest, and they must provide critiques that are fair, thorough and timely. And scientific societies, as guardians and gatekeepers of their specific spheres of knowledge, must provide a normative process that ensures the rigor and validity of published results.

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