14 July 2007

Borat's cousin mugs media

The media have been at it again. Misrepresenting research results. This time it is research on autism. And research that has yet to be through the peer review machine.

In this Statement by Autism Expert, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, complains that the reporters "did not wait until the study was complete and had been through peer review, since this is considered good practice in science and health journalism".

You would have more sympathy for the prof. if some members of the academic community didn't use the peer review system as a PR machine. Professor Baron-Cohen, Sasha's cousin, may not be guilty of this crime, but enough science reporters have been frustrated by journals' abusing the system to make the whole thing a charade.

Scientists who refuse to comment on papers that are going through peer review, have only themselves to blame if the media gets it wrong. Of course, some journals don't help by threatening not to publish papers if their authors blab.

Ben Goldacre has dissected the autism affair in his own inimitable manner, pointing the finger at The Observer and relating the story to the MMR saga that has kept him busy in recent years.

We may be witnessing a new phenomenon, Ben is not the only one to pick up on the professor's complaints. The Times has also jumped in to criticise those earlier media reports.

Perhaps we can look forward to both newspapers ignoring unpublished research when it comes along in future.

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