Certiorari emptor; on informal routes of public education

A recent editorial by Dr. Royce Murray, editor of the journal Analytical Chemistry, has garnered significant attention in its attacks on informal dissemination of scientific information to the general public. Given the topics I’ve written about previously, I thought it merited a response here.

The basic premise is that the only trustworthy sources of scientific information that can be given to the general public are peer-reviewed journal articles and a small number of established news sources, the latter of which Dr. Murray correctly admits are faltering. To distill his point further, he doesn’t like the rise of scientific blogging.

I readily agree that, “The picture of scientifically grounded innovations feeding progress in science is well established. I firmly believe that this system has served science well and that the scientific literature has provided generally reliable information and vast benefits to society over the centuries to the present and will continue doing so into the future.” It’s true that this information should reach the public, for reasons I’ve mentioned previously, including that it protects the public, reduces stigma and susceptibility to pseudoscience, influences public policy, and fosters a sense of scientific wonder in prospective scientists and non-scientists alike.

However, I reject the premise underlying his statement that, “…editors and reviewers reinforce the meaningfulness of Impact Factors by explicit attention to the reliability of submitted articles; if the Scientific Method has not been adequately followed, then there should be a downwardly adjusted evaluation of impact.” This is a misrepresentation of impact factor, the measure of how frequently a journal’s articles are cited relative to the number it publishes. Impact factor does not measure the extent to which an article follows the scientific method whatsoever; it is more an index of how novel and important, on average, an article published in a particular journal is likely to be, as assessed by how frequently other scientists refer to it in their own articles. The principles of impact factor, far from applying only to peer-reviewed sources, apply just as accurately to informal sources, in that their quality and novelty determine their audience and are reflected by how frequently they are referred to and discussed.

More importantly, it’s false to say that the optimal venue for dissemination of knowledge from scientist to layperson is necessarily a published journal article. Scientific articles are not accessible to the general public, even to those members that actively seek them out; restrictive language and jargon, in tandem with prohibitively high costs for accessing articles, prevent access to anyone outside of university-affiliated experts in the respective fields, which defeats the entire concept of limiting the scientific information available to the public to peer-reviewed articles.

In agreement with Dr. Murray, I’m not a fan of the word ‘blogger’ or its derivatives, but I fear by his attempted definition that he does not understand the term, in that he assumes their primary motivation is to be “entrepreneurs who sell ‘news’”. This blatantly overlooks the fact that the vast majority of the population he attempts to describe act not out of personal financial gain but rather out of an altruistic desire to educate, and this is especially true of scientific writers in this medium.

Dr. Murray warns, ‘caveat emptor’; let the buyer beware, as communication through informal channels increases the risk of malicious misinformation. I propose an alternate viewpoint. Certiorari emptor; let the consumer of these media be informed. This is the ultimate goal of those who seek to educate regardless of medium.


Murray, R. 2010. Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor. Analytical Chemistry 82: 8755.

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Posted in Public Education.

Posted on 03 Nov 2010

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