I'm curious about technical papers and peer review in the rubber industry.
This newfound interest came about when I was listening to a podcast of an NPR show, On the Media. One of the hosts, Bob Garfield, spent many years working for another of our company's publications, Advertising Age, and the show is a must for journalists or anyone interested in the media. Which—if you have positive thoughts about the media or, more likely, are enraged by it—is just about everyone.
This particular broadcast discussed the recent trend of a huge increase in retractions in scientific journals of published papers, specifically medical-related ones. In the past, unless the work proved to be fraudulent or grossly erroneous, the withdrawal and/or correction of a study was difficult and rare.
Not anymore, apparently. There remains a major problem, though, of actually getting the word out that a particular report has been refuted by a subsequent study. Oftentimes the retracted paper continues to be cited by authors in their own work—which a source on the broadcast chalked up primarily to laziness, with the author merely reading the abstract and title, and then citing it.
I wondered if this is a problem in the rubber industry, a science-based business.
I've edited, listened to (I didn't say I always understood) and seen delivered hundreds of technical papers over the years. I've heard some vigorous debates at tech conferences from the audience with authors, although mostly on the sideline after the speech. People in this business generally don't want to embarrass a speaker in public.
Personally, I've never heard nor seen a technical presentation from a conference being retracted later, or just dissed by a new study. Maybe the peer review is more internal, within a company or community, and I just don't travel in the right circles.
But a public refuting of a previous tech paper—no, never.
Possibly it's just that my experience with tech papers is limited to those we publish in our newspaper, ones given at our various technical conferences, and presentations at symposia put on by groups like the ACS Rubber Division and rubber groups. The authors mostly work for or are sponsored by companies, so the subject matter ultimately, if not overtly, has a commercial aspect to it.
I wonder if authors, or the legal departments of their companies, fear lawsuits, so they are careful not to criticize other people's work. Perhaps they're just polite. Or maybe the rubber industry's obsession with secrecy keeps much of the “best stuff” under the proprietary wrapper, and out of the public domain.
I hope the last possibility isn't the case. Science has to breathe to live, to grow and develop, and it needs that cross fertilization.
Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News.