The Darwinius Paper and Conflict of Interest?
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Prior to the press conference, only a handful of select reporters got an advance look at the scientific paper, and they were sworn to secrecy until the unveiling. Normally, scientific journals will share advance copies of such papers with science writers who will have enough time to accurately report the story, not just parrot back statements offered at a press briefing. This insures input from experts in the field who aren't a party to the research, providing balance to grand claims. But in this case, the journal, PLoS One, didn't release the paper in advance. The behind-the-scenes leaking of the paper to some select journalists was handled by Atlantic Productions, the company that had produced the documentary for the History Channel.
PLoS One's managing editor, Peter Binfield, said in an email that the media "did not have access to the final paper," adding that he "had no idea what version they [the reporters] did look at, but clearly it could have been any of the prior versions that the authors would have had access to."
What's strange about this is that most journals strictly warn authors about releasing pre-published papers to the media - although PLoS apparently has no such restriction - and researchers are universally skittish about leaking such material, for fear it might jeopardize its publication.
What seems clear is that an early version of the journal paper was handed off to Atlantic Productions by someone on the research team, contrary to typical behavior among scientists, to help facilitate the media blitz. In a later email, Binfield concurred that the most obvious conclusion is that an author leaked the paper.
Holland also suggests that given the coordinated media roll out surrounding the study, which included a book and a History Channel documentary, that the authors' should have declared a potential conflict of interest, as per policy at PLoS One.
What do readers think: Is Holland right? Should the Darwinius authors' have disclosed a potential conflict of interest? Does existing or anticipated financial gain from the popularization of a scientific discovery merit disclosure? Where do you draw the line on anticipated earnings? Immediate gain or even the potential for money from popularized accounts?