Saturday, April 9, 2011

Nature Calling

The phone rings. You answer and it's a writer with Nature News who wants your opinion on an upcoming paper to be published in one of the Nature journals. You agree, and an embargoed copy is sent to you.

Upon reading the article, your first thought is, "How did this ever get past the reviewers?" You've never heard of the authors, who have never published anything of note on the topic.

Then you see that the authors have commented on an aspect (which they did not actually research) that is your area of expertise. Their statement goes something like this: "We know very little about Phenomenon X...due to the lack of research on the topic." They fail to cite your work or that of other researchers who have, in fact, published extensively on Phenomenon X.

Your response options:

a. Be gracious and compliment the authors for focusing attention on an important topic, endangered habitat/species, etc.

b. Be critical of the work and point out inaccuracies and false assumptions in the work that compromise the conclusions.

c. Ignore the findings of the paper and plug your own work.

d. Decline the request.

What would you do?

Whatever you do, you want to do it quickly if you wish your comments to be included in the news article. Journalists work on short deadlines, something that scientists often fail to appreciate. In this case, the news article is published by the journal that published the scientific paper. So they are likely not looking for extremely critical comments, which reflect badly on their decision to publish the paper. However, you want to provide an honest opinion--that's what they are asking for.

If you feel you cannot say anything positive about the paper, then option (d) is probably the best course of action. If you can say something positive, lead with this statement ("this work calls attention to a very important topic").  You can then say that there are still some aspects that need further research and/or that were not addressed in this paper. At this point, you may be able to mention your own work ("several researchers, including myself, are actively pursuing this aspect").

Another tip is to say something unusual or colorful. Such quotes are often used over more mundane ones. This all assumes, of course, that you wish to be quoted. There are advantages and disadvantages to being mentioned in a news article. You should carefully consider the consequences, depending on the situation. In this specific case I describe, the advantages usually outweigh any downside (commenter's profiles and links to their websites are usually included in Nature News articles).

Another option, not included in the choices above, is to write a rebuttal letter. This course of action is certainly one that would allow you to control what is printed as well as being able to fully expound on your criticism. I've never written a letter like this. However, I have written a "Reply" that was in response to a criticism of one of my papers (the journal published criticisms and replies in the form of short papers instead of letters). I described this experience in a previous blog post.

In general, however, I think there is a danger of critical letters to the editor sounding like "sour grapes". My reaction to a paper with which I disagree is to publish my own paper that addresses the points of contention.  It's a better use of your time and energy.

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