Terrence Collis on publish and be damned

Terrence Collis Every day one of our national newspapers publishes a piece reporting on “scientific research” and nearly every day the report is misleading, inaccurate, shows poor understanding of science and scientific research methods, and irritates the hell out of many a hardworking researcher. Often the original research is crap too. Millions of innocent people are misdirected and confused as new and often harmful myths are started. But as you are reading this BMJ blog you know these sad facts only too well.

You would think, therefore, that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), an independent government department set up to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food, would be delighted to get the high quality research it funds properly peer reviewed and published in the prestigious BMJ. Well – yes and no.

In the main, the agency invests in gold standard food related research that investigates the direct , short and long term, effects on consumers. Sometimes new evidence leads to new or changed advice for groups of consumers – say pregnant women – or often the whole population. We are, of course, keen to show that FSA advice is based on research of the highest quality but, and it is a big but, we are even keener that the advice that reaches consumers is as clear as possible – and gets there as quickly as possible.

This makes waiting around for journals to decide whether they are going to publish a real pain. Not only does it delay our advice, it leaves time for leaks or partial reports to reach the media and be turned into misleading and inaccurate stories – even in some of the supposedly more sophisticated newspapers and even by “science” journalists. (see the University of Southampton study on some artificial colourings or the recent caffeine consumption in pregnant women published by the BMJ, as examples).

Let’s look at what happened with the caffeine paper more closely. The research was commissioned by the Agency and accepted by the BMJ for publication. And, in the spirit of openness and transparency (two of our watchwords) we held a meeting with food industry representatives and other stakeholders to discuss the findings before its scheduled publication in the journal.

Two days later leaked details of the research appeared in a UK Sunday newspaper (and was then picked up by lots of other newspapers websites, TV and radio stations). The BMJ planned to publish issue an embargoed press release about the paper the following day and publish it later that week.

Its plans changed, of course, when the findings entered the the public domain.

Whilst I was very unhappy about details of the paper being leaked, the aim of publication is to get information to consumers and those who advise them. Publishing in peer reviewing journals is something we understand the value of. However, the FSA does have its own advisory committees to provide peer review and our first responsibility is to consumers.

Inaccurate or hysterical leaks are not helpful to anyone but, from a communications point of view, waiting around and having less control of the timetable seems a high price to pay -sometimes – for the glory of prestigious publication even in the BMJ.

On the other hand, we do appreciate the additional authority such journals give our research and the very important specialist readership that the BMJ, for example, brings us: so we surely should be able to work out between us how to get the best of all worlds?

Perhaps we could have held our industry meeting after the BMJ had issued its embargoed press release: but stakeholders affected by decisions about our advice do have the right to a proper briefing ahead of media coverage – after all they may have to answer media questions too. Perhaps we could try harder to get embargoes respected.

Finally, perhaps the peer review process itself is in need of a rethink and we can all make more use of truly open access to publicly funded research.

Terrence Collis is director of communications, Food Standards Agency.