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Scientific Discourse or Prior Restraint?

January 24, 2006

An attempt by scientists to delay the print publication of a study they felt was flawed has prompted intense criticism both of the study and of the intervention tactic.

Six of the nine scientists who wrote a letter to Science are faculty members at Oregon State University, and the lead author of the study they sought to halt is a graduate student there. The letter writers say that the article has serious scientific flaws that should not have passed peer review, but many academics have noted that the article did in fact pass peer review at the nation’s most prominent journal, and that trying to delay publication is a move not befitting scientists.

The letter concerns the article “Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk,” which first appeared January 5 online in Science Express, where Science publishes articles that are deemed timely and important before they appear in the magazine, according to Express’s Web site.

A group of faculty members in Oregon State’s College of Forestry took exception to the article’s conclusions, which they said are broader than the data support. “We just feel the inferences drawn by the authors far exceeded the experimental design,” said John Sessions, university distinguished professor of forest planning and engineering, who signed the letter.

The article, whose lead author is Daniel Donato, an OSU graduate student of forest science, reports a study of areas that burned in Oregon’s massive 2002 Biscuit Fire. The authors write in the online article that “postfire logging can be counterproductive to the goals of forest regeneration,” by interfering with the growth of seedlings, and creating more tinder for another fire. Scorched forests may be best left to nature’s course, the authors conclude. 

After seeing the online article, the critical scientists wrote a letter to Science saying that the paper “damages the institution of peer review” by making broad conclusions from a narrow study. Notably, the letter writers, who included two Forest Service researchers, point out that Donato and his co-authors did not concede that the region in question has experienced abnormally high precipitation during the years in the study, which changes growth patterns. Sessions said the report “strayed into political advocacy,” and pointed to a mention in the original abstract of a proposed federal law (HR 4200), which would expedite postfire logging projects.

Science Express’s site notes that changes might be made to articles before they are published in the magazine, and the mention of HR 4200 was removed by the authors in the magazine version, which appears in the current issue.

The letter asked that the magazine version be delayed until “the environmental setting of the study is better defined,” it read. Andrew Sugden, international managing editor of Science, replied to Sessions with an e-mail saying that publication could not be delayed, but encouraging him to submit a “technical comment,” which could appear in a future edition, with a response from the authors.

Activists have jumped to accuse Sessions and his colleagues of their own political advocacy, citing a detailed report Sessions co-wrote in 2003 that politicians cited as a basis for deciding to log and replant large swaths of land. Sessions’ report did not make specific recommendations, but said that swift logging and replanting can speed forest regeneration in areas of Oregon that burned.  

Still, some people say that Sessions and his colleagues went too far in trying to delay publication. Oregon State’s provost, Sabah Randhawa, has said publicly that he thinks trying to impede publication may have been a bit overboard. 

Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry, circulated a memo raising issues about the article, but said that he “didn’t think [trying to delay publication] was a good idea personally.” Salwasser said that he’s been hearing that graduate students are now afraid to raise concerns on the issue. “I certainly don’t want that kind of atmosphere floating around here,” he said. Salwasser  added that, if he’d known that the memo would have prompted such feelings, “I would have been much more complimentary toward the student for getting published in Science.” 

Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science, said that the article, which appeared in the brevia section of the magazine, which limits articles to a single page, was sent to “two very capable reviewers.” He added that he “certainly wouldn’t allow [the letter writers] to pre-empt publication,” but that he encourages the submission of a technical comment. “I can’t imagine as fairly seasoned academics, they didn’t know [that the suggestions to delay publishing] would get nowhere,” Kennedy said. 

Graeme Berlyn, professor of anatomy and physiology of trees at Yale University, and editor of the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, said that the review process can be tricky. He said it can be difficult to pick the right reviewers, and that he’s “seen a lot of crazy papers in Science.” He recalled one that said that guinea pigs are more closely related to chickens than to rodents, which was “due to incorrect sample size,” he said.

Still, he said that he’s “really against suppressing things … if it’s not erroneous, and the reviewers have approved it,” he said. “If I got a letter, I’d probably send it to a couple more reviewers … but if there’s nothing erroneous, I wouldn’t keep it out.”

Salwasser, who did not sign the letter, expressed his sadness that “my actions have caused damage to the reputation of this college, and to people's feelings about academic freedom.”

Sessions said that he too was exercising academic freedom, and that he didn’t see his actions as impairing the academic freedom of others, as the article had already been published online by the time the letter was written. Sessions is planning to submit a technical comment, which “would have been buried,” he said, but will now certainly be widely read.

 

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