Publisher's Corner:
Peer review or public purview:
When to publish controversial scientific reports

The Editors of 21stC

Biomedical journalism attracts enormous public interest, occasionally with ramifications for public policy. Careful scientific judgments about the significance of findings often compete in the popular press with the desire to present a compelling story line. Science's need to discover must be balanced with the public's need to know. High-quality science journalism is crucial in maintaining this balance.

Good reporting depends upon good sources and an ability to understand and decipher complex material. Reporters naturally rely on the credibility of the scientific press and the assumption that peer review provides a reliable standard of believability. The fact that a prestigious journal publishes a finding immediately gives it credence. The journals themselves unquestionably value their stature as standard bearers of scientific significance and accuracy. It behooves them, then, to help reporters do better reporting, particularly to help them avoid overstating a possible outcome or exaggerating a result. In this spirit, The Lancet, Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and 21stC collaborated to organize the "Breakthrough?" conference earlier this year, covered in this issue's Special Section. By all measures, it was a success.

How ironic that our conference partner The Lancet recently found itself embroiled in exactly the type of controversy this conference was designed to address.

The issue is genetically modified food, or GM food as it is commonly known. Biotechnology has advanced even further in agriculture than in medicine. Companies and universities have invested hugely in the development of genetically engineered crops that can address everything from insect resistance to yield. In Europe, GM food has become controversial, much to the surprise of the GM food industry. Nowhere is the controversy stronger than in the United Kingdom, where public anxiety over the outbreak of "mad cow disease" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) has heightened awareness of food production practices and government oversight, even though the disease has no connection to GM food. Recently, in a presentation of preliminary data in a documentary on the British ITV network, Árpád Pusztai, F.R.S.E., reported damage to the immune systems, metabolism, and internal organs of rats fed a diet of GM potatoes.

The ITV report generated controversy from both sides of the emotionally charged GM debate. As long as Pusztai's data remained outside of the customary peer-reviewed channels, they had no greater claim to validity than any of the thousands of herbal remedies touted by the vitamin industry. But, in October 1999, the report by Pusztai and his colleague Stanley Ewen was published in The Lancet. An enormous uproar ensued, not only about the conclusions of the report, but about the soundness of The Lancet's judgment in printing it. In defense, Lancet editor Richard Horton stated that the article was reviewed by no less than six peer reviewers (rather than the customary two or three) and underwent three rounds of authorial revision in response. Critics objected that no matter how rigorous the review, the research methodology was fundamentally unsound, which should have been obvious to knowledgeable reviewers. The diets used were imprecisely controlled, and the rats may have suffered not from any unnatural features resulting from the insect-resistant gene splicing, but simply from a low-protein diet of raw potatoes (hardly the customary menu for rodents).

Horton asserted that publication merely offered a chance for the scientific community to judge the merits in open debate; it did not indicate approval of the findings. But opponents of biotechnology in food have loudly proclaimed the report to be scientific vindication for their views, and they understandably cite The Lancet's reputation as lending validity to the report. Biotech's defenders have slammed The Lancet for relaxing its standards to publish a hot-button study, which was bound to roil the turbulent waters of the GM controversy, while putting shoddy information into the public domain.

The outcry has illustrated the growing tendency for scientific debate to take place in the glare of media scrutiny, particularly on issues in which the public discussion has already been polarized. Research communication is no longer the private domain of specialists. Scientific publishing affects public perception through the medium of journalistic representation, and none of these three elements can afford to ignore the other two. For editors, there is no easy answer to the dilemma of whether to print a controversial and perhaps borderline-quality report, lending it at least the appearance of professional acceptance, or discard it during the evaluation process, perhaps fostering suspicions of suppression. A journal cannot publish everything, of course, or editorial and scientific standards would become meaningless. On the other hand, an overly narrow editorial filter risks limiting the research community's access to important, potentially revolutionary work. Unlike newspaper and magazine editors, or broadcast producers, peer-review journal editors must weigh the implicit message of approval that journal publication conveys and constantly calibrate the merits of each borderline or paradigm-defying paper. (In some cases, arguably, this is better done in the relative privacy of prepublication review, but the clock seems unlikely to turn back in that direction.)

In today's increasingly open research atmosphere, the mainstream press also has unmistakable responsibilities: clarifying information without oversimplifying it, resisting the temptation to ride bandwagons, and comprehending complexity, context, and nuance. The public and its representatives, too, owe it to themselves to interpret research reports carefully and skeptically, granting the scientific process the credence it earns, but not unquestioned authority.

No one expects the production and consumption of information, especially scientific information, to be a transparent, trouble-free process. But the scientific oversight system mostly works well. Rigorous application of the peer-review system is, like democracy, the worst system, except for the alternative. And a commitment to help science journalists report more accurate and temperate scientific news for the lay public, such as The Lancet demonstrated in the "Breakthrough?" conference, provides an important asset for appropriately informing the public and balancing public debate. Other prestigious journals should do likewise.

Related links...

  • Bioengineered Foods page, Food and Drug Administration

  • Genetically Modified Food, The Millennium Debate, Oxford, U.K.

  • Food and Agriculture page, Biotechnology Industry Organization

  • GM debate press links, Guardian Unlimited, Manchester, U.K.

  • LondonHealth (public health site, largely alternativist), with collection of links on GM foods debate

  • Charles, Prince of Wales, "Questions about Genetically Modified Organisms," Daily Mail, June 1, 1999

  • "Pusztai Vindicated?" (unsigned editorial), Social Issues Research Centre, Oxford

  • Royal Society's press release opposing publication of Pusztai/Ewen paper, April 8, 1999

  • "Review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes," Royal Society, May 18, 1999

  • Ewen SWB, Pusztai Á. Health risks of genetically modified foods (letter). Lancet 354 (August 21, 1999): 684.

  • Kuiper HA, Noteborn HP, Peijnenburg AA. Adequacy of methods for testing the safety of genetically modified foods (commentary on peer-reviewed Pusztai/Ewen paper). Lancet 354 (October 16, 1999): 1353-1354.

  • Ferber D. GM crops in the cross hairs. Science 286 (November 26, 1999): 1662-1666. Full text requires subscription; same issue includes Enserink M: Ag biotech moves to mollify its critics, pp. 1666-1668.

  • Campaign to ban genetically engineered food, Natural Law Party, Wessex, U.K.

  • "Genetically Modified Crops: The Ethical and Social Issues," report, Nuffield Foundation Council on Bioethics, May 27, 1999

  • Genetically Manipulated Food News

  • Genetically engineered food: safety problems, Jaan Suurküla, M.D., Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology

  • "Genetically-altered crops can produce tough, hard-to-kill weeds" (press release, Science Daily, Ohio State University, August 14, 1998).

  • Monsanto Corporation

  • Monsanto president Robert Shapiro's conciliatory address to Greenpeace Business Conference, London, October 6, 1999

  • Tim Weiskel, "The Contested Morality of Biotechnology," Environmental News Network, November 18, 1999