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New York Times op-ed advocates access to publicly funded scientists’ email

Paul D. Thacker asserts that “allowing agencies to keep secret the communications of scientists ... sets a dangerous precedent.”

Nearly a year ago the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) announced the report Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers. Seeking to advance the old debate about public-records requests that reach for scientists’ email messages, the UCS warned about the potential for abuse. Now the Sunday, 10 January, New York Times has elevated the contrary argument by publishing Paul D. Thacker’s commentary “Scientists, give up your emails.”

The Times identified Thacker as “a journalist and former investigator for the United States Senate.” References within his commentary showed his deep involvement in the debate. He figured centrally in the incident that Retraction Watch reported in August under the headline “Following criticism, PLOS removes blog defending scrutiny of science.” The posting is indeed gone from the Public Library of Science website, but has been posted elsewhere. Thacker co-wrote it with fellow science-watching journalist Charles Seife. Retraction Watch summarized it as arguing “in favor of public scrutiny of scientists’ behavior (including emails).” PLOS decided, belatedly and for complicated reasons, that it was “not consistent with at least the spirit and intent” of PLOS’s “community guidelines.”

In August, the Los Angeles Times ran Thacker and Seife’s op-ed “Why it’s OK for taxpayers to ‘snoop’ on scientists.” The two observed that “in the last decade or so, the research community has been moving toward increased transparency, particularly when it comes to any financial entanglements that might cast doubt upon a scientist’s objectivity.” They said that now a “backlash” has begun. They asked, “Why should scientists have a privileged position when it comes to freedom of information requests?” They concluded, “Taxpayers have the right—the duty—to try to understand what they’re doing.”

By September, the question of public access to scientists’ email was increasingly politicized. A front-page New York Times article, reporting on a “nasty food fight” over biotechnology, illustrated the trend. Above the fold on Sunday, 6 September, appeared the headline “Emails reveal academic ties in a food war: Industry swaps grants for lobbying clout.”

Thacker’s New York Times commentary started by addressing the controversy that has ensued from last June’s Science magazine paper by Thomas R. Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and eight coauthors. They concluded that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “statement of two years ago—that the global surface temperature ‘has shown a much smaller increasing linear trend over the past 15 years than over the past 30 to 60 years’—is no longer valid.” That is, the much-discussed climate hiatus never happened. Climate-wars skirmishes erupted in the press and in politics, soon including the famous one in which NOAA scientists’ email was being demanded by Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who leads the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

By November the confrontation between NOAA and Smith had intensified, with NOAA refusing to hand over email messages. In a Washington Times op-ed, Smith called for NOAA “to come clean about why it cherry-picked and changed certain data ... to get the results it wanted.” In an 8 December New York Times op-ed, climatologist Michael E. Mann, alluding to particularly nasty political history from the 1950s, condemned what he called “the McCarthy-like assault on science led by the Lamar Smiths of the world.”

Now, with Thacker’s piece, the Times has featured a view opposite to Mann’s. Thacker opened by citing a “battle” not just between Smith and NOAA, but between Smith and the Obama administration. Then he asserted that “allowing agencies to keep secret the communications of scientists who work for the government sets a dangerous precedent. Some of what we know about abusive practices in science—whether it concerns tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals or even climate change—has come from reading scientists’ emails.”

He charged that the “scientific community loves to toss around the term ‘transparency,’ but it mostly remains a buzzword.” He acknowledged that requests for email could constitute harassment rather than a necessary search for truth, but asserted that the “harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for and has a legitimate interest in seeing.” He proposed that “whenever scientists argue against transparency, they inevitably tie themselves up in contradictions.”

Concerning the incident at PLOS, Thacker wrote, “When research is paid for by the public, the public has a right to demand transparency and to have access to documents related to the research. This might strike most people as reasonable.” At the end he warned, “Scientists who profess agreement with transparency only when it is on their terms are really not for transparency at all. The public should be alarmed.”

Whether or not the public is even paying attention, scientists are—and judging by the online comments that accumulated alongside Thacker’s piece, what alarms them is Thacker. A sampling appears below.

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, Michael Halpern—who refers to himself as the author of that Freedom to Bully report from a year ago—has posted a long rebuttal to Thacker under the headline “The public interest lies in promoting transparency AND protecting scientists from harassment.”

Sampling of comments posted online about Paul D. Thacker’s New York Times commentary “Scientists, give up your emails”:

This comment received by far the most recommendation clicks from readers:

This article mixes several different, orthogonal concerns in a rhetorical whirlwind of “Those awful scientists.”

There are three major concerns here: access to scientific results, conflict of interest on part of scientists, and conflicts that affect public policy. Unless these concerns are clearly separated and delineated, investigatory abuses will occur.

If a university researcher accepts NSF, NIH or other government funds, they are obligated to openly publish their research. This is the standard channel for such results, not e-mail. E-mail messages while research is underway are usually unreliable, informal, loaded with intermediate, often erroneous ideas, and so forth. Frankly, I wouldn’t give two cents or any credibility to such “results.” Industrial researchers—even when funded by the government—are not expected to ever release e-mails except under lawful subpoena. Why should university researchers be treated differently?

Conflict of interest and its effect on public policy is a different matter. These conflicts cut to the heart of funding relationships which are outside the scope of actual science. Professional journals must require disclosure of funding sources such that conflicts can be clearly identified. This aspect of the scientific process should and must be transparent.

Overall, the conduct of scientific work, transparency and the right to privacy is a far more complicated problem than the author somewhat incoherent analysis.

—Retired scientist

The next most recommended comment, from Susan Anderson of Boston, angrily attacked the op-ed, charging that it “is on the wrong side of facts, the wrong side of history, and does active harm to public understanding of the very serious issues of climate change and global warming.”

Richard Luettgen of New Jersey emphasized unintended negative consequences for research:

I’ve known my share of research scientists, and among the more prominent I can’t imagine a group more jealous of their innermost thoughts, of the rambling that goes on among colleagues that might morph into an idea that could transition to a funded study that could result in acclaim—and, hide the thought for fear of being regarded as hubristic the possibility of the immortality conferred by a Nobel.

The call for giving up emails isn’t as outrageous as one to openly share research notes in advance of publication, but it can get pretty close. If scientists knew that their emails were open to general scrutiny, and particularly by those who wished to use them to flog an agenda adverse to the beliefs of those scientists, then we can forget about anything even faintly resembling candor in them; and research generally would suffer, because tin-cans over an ocean for the sharing of thoughts isn’t too practical.

We shouldn’t permit fishing expeditions in this area any more than we permit fishing expeditions in properly run courts of law. Absent hard evidence of a crime or the contemplation of a crime, private communications, even by government-employed scientists, should remain private.

Another commenter, self-identifying as “a scientist for more than 30 years,” compared email messages to raw data: “Absent context they are almost impossible to interpret correctly. They are unedited, often careless, usually intended for one or a few people, and often full of nicknames and jargon comprehensible to a few insiders.” This commenter urged a version of what many others urged: “While government research should be accountable, just as industrial research must be, emails should only be accessible through proper channels in answer to specific complaints or concerns. The alternative is fishing expeditions and witch hunts. Just as the government protects the emails of Congressmen, so it should protect the emails of its scientists.”

Trevor A. Branch of Seattle warned that “actually requesting emails is most often a form of harassment: it’s onerous to sort through tens of thousands of emails to make sure that personal ones are removed, to make sure that private emails about students are removed, to make sure that legal communications are removed, to make sure that not-yet-published research and grant proposals are not revealed to our competitors.” He also warned, “In effect the request is an enormously expensive and time-consuming burden on scientists that has the effect of chilling science. Oh wait, perhaps ‘chilling’ science is exactly what some people want to do to research on global warming....”

A commenter from DeKalb, Illinois, quipped, “So, let me get this straight. All the examples of alleged lapses in scientific integrity were by people funded by private interests. So let’s go after those with public funding. Makes sense.”

A commenter from Austin, Texas, charged that certain politicians intend “to undermine years of peer reviewed studies and research in their ongoing assault on the empirical evidence that supports global warming and the devastating consequences of climate change.”

Commenter Bill Krause expressed a sentiment that recurred regularly: “The corruption in science is nothing compared to the corruption in politics. A better step than what Mr. Thacker recommends would be for every Senator, Representative, congressional staffer, lobbyist, and large campaign donor to make all of their emails available—including the ones Mr. Thacker received before writing up this hit job.”

Louis Derry of Brooktondale, New York, argued, as did others, that “in a classic bait and switch,” Thacker justified his “call for transparency with examples of corporate influence,” adding “many scientists have called for improved disclosure of corporate-sponsored research for years.”

A research scientist in San Francisco summed up a common sentiment:

It is ludicrous to imagine that my emails are part of a permanent, legally binding record. They include crazy ideas (that will end up being totally wrong), personal concerns (say, about interactions with senior colleagues or my personal life), and frank discussion of whatever it is I’m working on. These ideas need to be able to be discussed, questioned, refined, and fixed before they become useful to anyone, much less fair game for science deniers to attack scientists, the vast majority of whom are just trying to get the right answer to a really hard set of problems. My lab notebook is legally binding; my final (checked, calibrated, meaningful) data are open access; my email is necessary conversation and unquestionably private.

A commenter self-identifying as “a scientist with past federal funding, easing into retirement at 70+” wrote:

I've had numerous collaborations with scientists in other countries in which we exchange ideas, preliminary drafts of papers, etc. In some of these exchanges we bounce ideas off each other—some turn out to be wrong, others lead nowhere and some produce results. This back and forth is part of the scientific process. What once took place at the blackboard, now goes on over the web.

It would put a real chill on scientific collaboration if all our dead-ends and false starts were to become public.

I also serve on editorial boards of journals and exchange privileged information—ideally this is done on secure web servers, but in practice a lot is done by e-mail. I’ve got more accounts and passwords for different journals and funding agencies than I can keep track of. Whoops, does ALL e-mails include the ones that give me log in information to submit a reference securely?

Some information, such as the raw data on which publications are based should be available. In fact, I think that funding agencies and many journals already require this.

But to make very e-mail I send to another scientist public would be absurd.

A commenter from British Columbia excerpted Thacker, then focused on probable cause:

“Some of what we know about abusive practices in science—whether it concerns tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals or even climate change—has come from reading scientists’ emails.”

How gullible does someone need to be in order to believe this line of so-called reasoning? A comparable argument would say, “We’ve caught some murderers by searching their person and their residence; therefore we should be able to search anyone's person and residence.”

Response from Marcia McNutt:

On 20 January under the headline “Against scientific disclosure,” the New York Times posted a letter from Marcia McNutt disputing Paul D. Thacker’s op-ed calling for widened public access to scientists’ email.

McNutt is editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals. She will become president of the US National Academy of Sciences on 1 July.

She charges that Thacker “misses the main point” in the controversy over NOAA scientists’ paper reporting that no “climate hiatus” took place. “NOAA has already released the scientific data and methodology for the paper and extensive emails from its political leadership,” she argues.

She continues: “Next, the scientific community has established policies and procedures to protect against the now historical problems cited by Mr. Thacker. Respectable scientific journals require authors to sign conflict-of-interest statements indicating all sources of support and any interests that could appear to influence objectivity. Rigorous peer-review processes remain the best defense against biased science.”

McNutt concludes by making points widely pressed by scientists commenting online at the Times site: “If journalists were asked to share their emails in the spirit of transparency and understanding the reliability of sources, it would have a chilling effect on freedom of the press. In science, email discovery may have a place in legal proceedings, but broad requests for disclosure risk exposing reviewers who provide candid, confidential critiques, as well as debates that are an essential part of the deliberative process.”

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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