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Peer Review, Science Data, and the Public's Right to Know

Does the public’s “right to know” extend to the peer review process and to the scientist’s data?

Peer review: Reputable scientific journals have a peer review process to ensure that published papers are free of errors in reasoning and methodology and that they report only the best research. Upon submission of a paper, the editor of the journal removes the name of the authors and sends it to expert researchers to be reviewed. The names of the authors are kept confidential by the editor to ensure that the author’s reputation, past personal differences, or factors other than the quality of the work cannot affect the review. The editor of the journal considers the reports of the reviewers and decides whether the paper should be published or returned to the author for corrections. Few papers receive outright rejection and the papers returned for correction are usually returned with reviewers comments.

The names of the reviewers are kept confidential by the editor to ensure that the author does not directly contact the reviewer to argue or does not retaliate against a reviewer. In a recent case, John Christy was able to discover through the stolen CRU e-mails who reviewed one of his papers and why the editor published it as he did. The paper was controversial in nature and contained opinions not held by most other climate scientists. The editor, in an attempt to present both sides of the issue, published Christy’s paper alongside a paper that presented the opposite view. Using information to which he should not have been entitled, Christy publicly attacked the reviewers, the editor, the peer review process, and climate science in general. His actions violated the integrity of the process and also the professional ethics required of scientists as he released his opinions to the public before the matter could be impartially investigated.

The Public’s Rights: The claims that the names of the reviewers and the editor’s reasons should be made public are invalid. Scientific journals are funded by subscriptions and dues of members and not publicly funded. The review process is set up as it is to ensure the integrity of published science papers and “peer reviewed” is the gold standard of quality in science information. The editor of the journal has the right to choose the reviewers and decide what is published just as the editor of a newspaper has the right to publish or reject articles without divulging the reasons.

Scientific Data: The public’s right to the data of researchers is another matter. Researchers are required to keep records of their research so that any other scientist with comparable training and skills could reproduce the research. The “reproducibility” of the research is an important factor in the reviewer’s evaluation of the research. The public has a right to information produced by publicly funded research and that may be requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Usually a “Gatekeeper”, such as the project’s director, is designated to handle FOIA requests. That Gatekeeper has a responsibility to see not only that the public’s rights are upheld, but that the FOIA process is not abused and that the scientists are protected.

Scientists are understandably reluctant to release their data – as some who did release it later came to feel as if gremlins had seized their work and their lives. Some researchers have been harassed by numerous and frivolous  requests for information  meant only to impede their work. That is particularly true in climate science where there are apparently well-funded gremlins, some of them ex-scientists*, at work. Worse, scientists have been criticized publicly for reasonable practices that can be misconstrued. For example, good research requires the calibration of equipment, yet that has been led to accusations  of “adjusting the data”. And, a math ‘trick” used to simplify a computation, was mischaracterized as “tricking the public”.

Even worse, when Phil Jones, the CRU director, released his raw data for a 1990 research paper to a former London financial trader, Douglas J. Keenan, Keenan combed through the data and then tried to have the FBI arrest Jones’ co-author for fraud. An investigation cleared the researchers of any wrongdoing but it took a toll on their time and work. Incidents like that have  a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to release their data. Some scientists who released their raw data, have seen it “recalculated” in such a way as to reach conclusions contrary to their findings, yet attributable to them. Reputable journals will not publish the erroneous conclusions of “recalculated” data , but some newspaper articles, blog sites, and even Congressional hearings will use them to promote a controversy manufactured by someone who actually did no research. And, once the fallacy is “out there”, it is hard to correct.

Certainly, the public has a right to openness in public funded research. Much of the scientific debate take place at scientific meetings and those wishing to hear the research debated may attend . The FOIA Gatekeeper has an important role to see that the FOIA requests are valid, that scientists are not harassed, and that those who wish to use the data for unscientific, or even malevolent purposes, do not have easy access to the data. The next step for those who do not like the Gatekeeper’s decision is to seek redress in the courts – not by illegally hacking the researcher’s computers.

* The author considers those scientist who abandon the methodology, ethics, and objectivity of science; especially for money, notoriety, or political purposes, to be “ex-scientists”.

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