Brian Cox is a professor of physics at Manchester and a member of the ATLAS collaboration. He is very well-known as a television presenter for science, especially in the UK and has been credited with a 40% increase in uptake of maths and science subjects at UK schools. He is clever, funny and very popular. If you are in the UK and missed his appearance on comedy quiz QI last week you should watch it now (4 days left to view).
At the weekend the Guardian published a great question and answers article with Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, who I am less familiar with. The answers all made perfect sense except one:
How do you feel about scientists who blog their research rather than waiting to publish their final results?
BC: The peer review process works and I’m an enormous supporter of it. If you try to circumvent the process, that’s a recipe for disaster. Often, it’s based on a suspicion of the scientific community and the scientific method. They often see themselves as the hero outside of science, cutting through the jungle of bureaucracy. That’s nonsense: science is a very open pursuit, but peer review is there to ensure some kind of minimal standard of professionalism.
JF: I think it’s unfair for people to blog. People have overstepped the mark and leaked results, and that’s just not fair on their collaborators who are working to get the result into a publishable form.
I would be interested to know what Brain Cox was thinking of here. Which bloggers does he think see themselves as “the hero outside of science” and what examples back up the idea that bloggers try to circumvent peer review?
It is not clear to me whether Brian Cox is referring to the internal review process that experimental collaboration go through or the peer review provided by journals as a part of publication. Surely it cannot be the latter because most science research and especially that from CERN is widely circulated long before it reaches the desk of any journal editor, not by bloggers but by CERN through conferences, press releases, preprints etc. So Cox must be talking about internal review, but that does not really count as peer-review in the usual sense. In any people within a collaboration do not get away with blogging about results before approval.
There have been a few leaks of results from CERN and Fermilab before approval from the collaboration. For example, one plot featured here earlier this year from a talk that turned out to be not intended for the public. However, by time I had passed it on it was already in Google having been “accidentally” released in a form that made it look like any other seminar where new preliminary results are shown. There were a few other examples of leaks but none that fit what Cox is saying that I can think of.
Given his obvious dislike for blogs I can’t hold much optimism that Brian will comment here and elaborate on what he means, but it would be nice if he did. Otherwise perhaps someone else knows some examples that could justify his answer. Please let us know.