British Newspaper The Independent currently has an article about the controversy surrounding a proposed boycott of the Lancet medical journal. The article could hardly be a better summary of journalists’ ignorance of science and the academic and research world.
For a brief bit of background, the Lancet is one of the most prominent medical journals in the world. However, some of its recent editorial practices have raised questions about its current leadership. Most famously, the Lancet published the now retracted Wakefield study claiming a link between vaccines and autism. Many scientists were dismayed that the formal retraction took 12 years. More recently, the Lancet featured a scathing anti-Israel editorial which turned out to be written by a woman with Neo-Nazi sympathies, which the journal apologized for.
In response, around 500 scientists have circulated a letter threatening a boycott of The Lancet’s publisher Reed Elsevier unless the journal’s editorial practices change.
The Independent’s article describes the dispute as simply involving partisans in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and not fundamentally about editorial malfeasance at the journal. However, the primary display of journalistic ignorance about science and research comes when The Independent frames this as a “free speech” question:
Observers say it is the most serious threat to The Lancet and free speech in academia since the journal’s first campaigning editor, Thomas Wakley, faced a series of lawsuits after attacking the incompetence, nepotism and greed of the medical elite shortly after it was founded 192 years ago.
Peer-reviewed scientific journals do not practice “free speech,” nor should they. The purpose of peer-review, where submitted articles are evaluated by expert referees, is in fact to limit publication to only those articles which are deemed relevant, interesting, novel, and methodologically sound enough to merit publication. The peer review process, which has been the underpinning of scientific progress for over a hundred years, serves explicitly to filter out from publication mere opinions and assertions, as well as methodologically sound results which are not relevant or novel. There is not a concept of “free speech” in peer-reviewed scientific publishing, nor should there be.
Violations of “free speech” are often erroneously claimed by those who are disappointed that their opinions are not accepted as fact, or that they are not provided by others a free and unlimited platform for those opinions. It is a shame that The Independent has propagated this perversion of the concept, going so far as to accuse those who wish to hold a peer-reviewed scientific journal to the highest standards of being said violators. For shame.