I don't know what to believe!
Regular browsers of the SIRC web site will be familiar with the MediaWatch page and our 'Scares and Miracles' section. Given the frequent disregard in many parts of the media for accurate and balanced science and health coverage, it is not surprising that many people find it difficult to know what is factually based and what is pure junk. The fault, however, does not lie entirely with the press. Quite often journalists receive material in the form of press releases or conference papers which have not been subject to any formal vetting procedures — the critical test being that of 'peer review'. This assesses the validity of the methods and results of research, the significance of the findings and whether the content should or should not be published.
Sense About Science — a charity devoted to the promotion of evidence-based approaches to scientific issues — has produced a timely guide to the peer review process. It explains with welcome clarity just what goes on behind the scenes before a research paper is published in a respectable journal and why the procedures are so important. For the reader of media science stories it is an invaluable tool for detecting the hallmarks of sound research and the warning signs that might make us wary of taking the report too seriously. Journalists would also do well to note the guide's content before trying to scare us to death on the basis of a piece of 'preliminary' research on some potential risk to our health and well-being that has not been subject to such scrutiny.
Copies of the guide in pdf format can be downloaded for free from the Sense About Science web site by clicking here or on the icon in the right-hand column.
28 November 2005