Sexy science: what’s with all the hype?

Science communication Kevin Dooley | Christman DNA

In the last week or so, as I’ve been looking into controversial science, I’ve come across a recurring theme of concern that ‘big’ journals (like Nature and Science) are damaging science. Someone who provides a good synopsis of this problem is Randy Schekman, a cell biologist and Nobel prize winner, who is firmly of the opinion that the “incentives offered by these journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking”.

Now, full disclosure, Randy is the editor-in-chief of PNAS and eLife. But, I’m not going discount his opinion just because he has a reason to be a little biased. Randy says that in their drive to sell subscriptions through brand and publicity, big journals encourage scientists to make sensational claims which often times are speculative and which diverge from the main focus of their research. Granted, he notes, that this doesn’t mean that these journals don’t publish good papers. It’s just that they also publish some rather sensationalised ‘sexy’ pieces.

Evidence for Randy’s claims can be found in Sarah S Richardson’s account of the hype around genomics.

In ‘Y all the hype?’, Sarah (who is an associate professor at Harvard and author of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome) demonstrates how a study on gene dosage equalization between males and females was framed as breakthrough work that revealed the differences between men and women. She writes that the study’s “most speculative moment became the headline”.

Despite the hype around studies like ‘Genetics: The Vital Y Chromosome’, a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association has actually found that in claims made on genetic sex differences, 55.9 per cent of findings were not statistically significant and almost none of the experiments had been replicated.

So, why are big journals doing this?

Mostly likely, in the drive for publicity these journals are willing to let some of the finer details go (like, actual substantiated claims). While I understand this from a PR perspective (who doesn’t think about exaggerating to gain popular currency), my question is will this damage the reputation of ‘science’ (let’s generalise for a moment and stick all types of research and expertise into the one term) in the long term, or do we (the various publics) just not care beyond what makes an interesting story?

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