Uncovering the truth behind the ‘ghosts’ in science

Copyright: World Conference of Science Journalists official website

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  • Like Hamlet, science journalists need to follow the ‘ghost’ to find the truth
  • Journalists especially need to know what’s going on in the peer review process
  • As Connie St Louis says, be unapologetic, be cynical when covering science stories

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[SEOUL] The third day (10 June) of the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul opened with something unusual. The picture of a scary white ghost was displayed on the big screen in the auditorium.

Connie St Louis, senior lecturer in science journalism at City University London, brought the ghost to relate it to the discussion on science journalism. She was inspired by the story of Hamlet who follows the ghost of his father to find out the truth about the state of Denmark.

St Louis thinks that there are also “ghosts” in science which are not clearly seen in the eyes of many people, including science journalists themselves. She says, following these ghosts will lead us to the truth about the “state of science”. Of these ghosts, one that personally interests me most is the “peer-reviewed wall”.

St Louis mentions the case of scientific misconduct involving scientists at the Japan-based research institute RIKEN, which became a big issue last year. At the time of its coverage, St Louis asked the journal Nature to tell her about its own peer-reviewed process. She didn’t get any answers.

“I think science is a lonely investigation,” she muses. “That is really problematic because we don’t know what’s going on in this peer review process. It needs more transparency.”

St Louis encourages science journalists to be unapologetic when reporting science stories. They have to be cynical when reading science journals and look at many possible angles to check if there is misconduct. This will lead them to the facts — the ultimate goal of a science journalist.

St Louis’s talk on the ghosts of peer review reminds me of a controversial research published in Nature Geoscience in 2013, which claimed that Indonesia’s mud lakes in Sidoarjo were not caused by the drilling of Lapindo Brantas, a company owned by an Indonesian tycoon and prominent politician.

The author declared no financial interest. But I think, there is still a ghost that needs to be followed in that story.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.