Another example of questionable practices and odd communication strategy appears to be emerging today. This time it’s all about early stage vaccine research for ‘flu.

Reports are appearing in a number of main stream media outlets of an apparent breakthrough in the search for a ‘flu vaccine that is universal i.e. that is active against all strains of influenza. That’s important news and could eventually have widespread implications for public health (and probably make someone rather rich).

Some examples of the reports appearing are from The Guardian, Press Association, The Daily Telegraph and MSNBC. The story was originally broken by Alok Jha at the Guardian yesterday (Sunday). It is currently spreading across the net. It is a good piece and Alok should be congratulated on the amount of detail he has documented in the article.

There is one problem. There is no link to the original academic paper describing the data that appears in the article (i.e. the results of a Phase II study about effects). The links that are present refer us to the results of a new Phase I study (about safety) and a commentary. This lack of link to the original research referred to in the article is not unusual. We have discussed why this is a problem before and why it is probably a function of the embargo system.

What is unusual in this case is the length of time we will apparently have to wait before we can actually read the paper. According to Alok himself, the academic paper is, as yet, unpublished. We also contacted Dr Sarah Gilbert, who is leading the research, and she confirmed that no date was set for publication of the study.

The issues here are numerous. We can’t make a judgment about the quality of the science until is it published for one. Next, the paper might not be under peer review or still be under peer review (see this, this and this for other commentators’ opinion) with the risk that it has not been accepted yet. For all we know, there could be multiple issues with the work. We also can’t judge potential conflicts of interest. Who funded it? Who stands to benefit financially? We should not accuse the authors or their institutions of any dodgy practices (far from it, this is The University of Oxford) but, as it stands, we are simply left in the dark.

So, to summarise, we can get a glimpse of the ongoing research by inspecting the Phase I study which is good. But then we have to read the newspapers to find out about the (more important) study on the effects of the treatment. There has to be something odd with that.  It is one thing getting widespread media coverage of such apparently important research (that’s good), but if we can’t actually judge the science on its merits, it is a problem. Sorry, but a major newspaper is not a peer reviewed scientific journal and it is not the place to try and publish original research.

It is now time for whatever journal is involved to get this paper out quickly.

Notes: There is technically nothing wrong with talking about results that are unpublished (although there are risks involved). Of course, scientists do this all the time at conferences. The safest approach though is to only start talking to the media about results once they are validated via peer review and available for all the world to inspect in a scientific journal.

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