A few weeks ago, NASA sent out a cryptic press release about an upcoming research finding "that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." The net explodes with speculation, some wildly unfounded, some informed and down-to-earth.
The big day arrives, and it turns out to be an entirely terrestrial bit of research: Researchers have taken a type of arsenic-tolerant bacteria that lives in an arsenic-rich lake, and coaxed them to actually incorporate the arsenic into their own body chemistry. Kind of cool, but nothing extraterrestrial, no "new life" or some different kind of life or anything. The first round of news articles did their best to play it up as a major breakthrough, while the first reaction from actual researchers was cautious and not overly enthusiastic.
Good thing they were cautious. People have now studied the paper in more detail and the results don't look nearly as good as the authors first claimed. The results are tenuous and not well supported, and the bacteria may in fact not have incorporated arsenic as a functional part of their body chemistry at all.
So, we go from immense hype and speculation, to uncritical reporting of a less-exciting result, to serious doubt that there is any positive result to report on at all. Enormous excitement to complete letdown in a few weeks. What went wrong?
First, take a look at who finally popped the whole media balloon: working researchers in the field that read and reflected on the paper, then wrote up their comments on their blogs or on news sites. Would it not have been good for everyone if they'd be able to chime in right from the start, rather than weeks after the media frenzy? Why weren't they? Why did the whole thing crash so spectacularly?
One reason is spelled "embargo". Many news outlets refuse to cover events like published research unless they can publish their articles right when it's announced. A research project may take five years, and writing and publishing the paper can take six months or a year, but if your newspaper has to wait for two days while their reporter reads the paper they refuse to mention it. Also, the impact of publication is greater for the journal if it's accompanied by a flurry of press coverage at the same time.
What high-profile research journals do is embargo interesting papers: They forbid anybody involved from speaking about the research until the publication date, and give some science journalists advance access to the paper and to the researchers. That gives them time to prepare their articles and lets them all publish at the same time, with higher public impact for everyone.
There's a few problems with that of course. Since nobody else knows about the research the journalist can't ask other researchers for a different perspective. The "journalist" is reduced to a PR-flack rewriting the press release1 in their own words. That gives us all those completely uncritical, overly positive science articles like the ones accompanying this arsenic paper.
And the people who really are well-placed to give a solid opinion on the paper - other researchers - didn't have advance access, and couldn't give their opinion right at publication. We had to wait a week for that, and by that time the damage - to the researchers, to NASA's reputation and to the science journalists - had already been done.
This was made worse in this case by a misleading and sensationalist press release by NASA well before publication. It was designed to fan the flames of media hype from the start, and it succeeded admirably. The people who could normally pour some cold water of reason on those flames could not, since the paper was embargoed and could offer no solid opinion on it.
But research is peer-reviewed; why weren't the problems caught well before publication in the first place? We can't know for sure of course, but people are speculating that the problems were caught by reviewers, but were overruled by the journal editors.
The highest-profile journals like Science and Nature are different from the normal journals most papers get published in. They aim for a wide audience and tend to go for the ground-breaking and surprising stuff - the kind of research that leads to prices and fame (they are called glamour journals for a reason).
Now, they normally publish very high-quality research, don't get me wrong, and having a paper in either of those can make a career. I'd give a body part to have a paper in either journal2. But the reality is that while the research is often very high quality, the actual papers are not. Their allowed page count is too low to give a lot of details or a good bibliography, and in the scramble to be first they can sometimes be rushed and badly edited. I rarely cite a paper in Science or Nature - it's usually better to look for a longer, more thorough paper from the same group published in a normal research journal.
Newsworthiness can trump thoroughness, and people speculate that this is what happened here. From what I understand (this is not my own field) the group would have needed to conduct another series of control experiments to rule out plausible error sources, and that would have added six months or another year to the publication time. The editors may well have felt it was more important to get it out now, rather than wait another year and get scooped by a different group and different journal.
So, here's the problems, in turn: A paper gets substandard peer review, or the journal overrides the review in the interest of speed; the paper gets embargoed - kept in the dark from anybody with the competence to evaluate it - leaving journalists to interpret the results themselves, with no input from specialists; a besieged and attention-starved research organization publishes a factually wrong, hype-inducing press release that triggers a frenzy of speculation and media attention.
The one thing that's not a problem in this mess is the paper itself. Wrong papers are published all the time; that's part of how science works. We don't have peer review to catch wrong papers. It's there to catch papers that are uninteresting, or just replicating earlier results, or that have methodological or experimental problems.
You usually don't know if a paper is wrong until later - years or decades later, sometimes - when pitted against other results and analysed by other research groups. Einsteins theory of general relativity took four years to the first tentative tests and more than fifty years to get definite confirmation. The idea of an ether was around for centuries before getting disproved, and nobody still has a clue if some version of the string theory is the right description of the subatomic universe, more than forty years after it first appeared.
Now, if we'd not had an embargo this would never have become such a big problem. The paper would be published, people chime in on the science and it would never have become such a media debacle. Most journalists would probably have refrained from covering it, once they'd realized the paper wasn't all that amazing, and quite possibly wrong. The only reason to embargo results is to fan media attention, and as we see this can backfire spectacularly. If a newspaper refuses to cover a result unless they can get advance, exclusive access then tough - don't cover it. Embargoes are a bad idea.
But if you must have an embargo, make sure that 1) Everybody respects it - no advance press releases; and 2) include a selection of other researchers, not just journalists, among the people getting advance access. That'd cut the damaging hype, and it would give journalists a better basis on which to write their articles, and perhaps to decide it's not worth covering after all.
#1 And the paper, theoretically, though you'd be surprised how many science journalists have no background in science and couldn't read a research paper if their life depended on it. Rewritten press releases is too often all that you get.
#2 Well... One that grows back.