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McNutt: Greater Transparency Helps Everyone Decipher “Smorgasbord of Science”

Marcia McNutt - Fox 5 NY Interview - June 2016


Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt | Ginger Pinholster/AAAS

Ongoing, progressive efforts to promote greater transparency across the scientific enterprise should help journalists as well as the public evaluate an increasing number of sometimes-conflicting or baffling science-news headlines, Science’s top editor said on 15 June.

In an interview with Fox5 New York television, Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals said that “there has been no time in human history when we’re seeing a greater profusion of scientific discoveries to benefit humankind.”

Yet, the constant bombardment of sometimes dubious scientific information — a situation illustrated in a humorous John Oliver video that recently made the rounds on social media — can be “like a very large smorgasboard that’s being served up to the public every day,” McNutt said. “Just like a menu, some of it is four-star, very high-quality science, and some of it is lower-quality, sort of the roach-diner analog of science.”

McNutt cited so-called “predatory journals,” which promise speedy publication for desperate authors but conduct little or no peer-review of research results, as one cause for the proliferation of questionable science-news headlines. Before the Fox5 interview with reporter Joe Toohey, McNutt said that poor-quality science in the news may also relate to the shrinking pool of journalists who specialize in covering science, as well as a decision by some journals to eliminate news-release embargoes, which give reporters time to read and analyze research before presenting it to the public.

The Fox5 NY interview also encompassed questions about the integrity of published scientific research. McNutt discussed reproducibility, the importance of independently confirming research results, and the need to eliminate bias from the process of peer-reviewing research.

She lauded current efforts across the scientific community to improve transparency. (On 25 June 2015, Science published comprehensive guidelines the publication of basic science, and called for well-defined rules on data-sharing and methods.)

“The scientific community is taking incredibly progressive steps to make sure that the science is of higher quality than at any time in the history of science,” said McNutt, president-elect of the National Academy of Sciences. “There are higher standards of transparency in the journals. Professors are teaching their students about scientific ethics in ways that were not even required several decades ago … This is an entirely new era in terms of the openness and transparency in research, and I think all of us – I mean, not just the scientific community, but all of us as citizens of the world will benefit from it – and because this publishing enterprise is a global enterprise, the entire world is going to benefit from it.”

Ivan Oransky, founder of the popular Retraction Watch blog, also took part in the Fox5 NY segment.

The video segment resulting from McNutt's interview with Toohey has so far not been posted online by Fox5 NY.