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I am first author on a perspective paper being reviewed. The last authors are well known and comfortable discussing the future of certain technologies that can be seen as exciting but also provocative/delicate/controversial.

Our paper has about 20 co-authors. We wrote the paper very conservatively, only discussing the less delicate aspects of the field for the short-term. At one point, we did add a direct mention of the long-term more provocative possibilities (using explicit terms) - but then a small number of co-authors expressed concern, stating that if we explicitly stated these more long-term provocative directions, we could be "put on a list" by certain funding groups. This is because certain data we present, when coupled with explicit terms, can make the paper all the more provocative.

I always felt uneasy with stating the explicit long-term direction our work could go. So, I was relieved when the co-authors stated this - because we then removed the most controversial sections. I now strongly prefer to avoid explicitly stating controversial terms and long-term directions.

I could sense most co-authors, though, were disappointed at the removal of the more explicitly-stated bold future directions in our perspective piece. Only myself and two others seemed more conservative. Some co-authors even tried to edit back in softer mention of these bolder terms. Our current version does not explicitly mention provocative terms.

I am concerned:

  1. Peer reviewers may ask us to add in the explicit terms as future directions. One co-author told me this is likely because to not mention bold terms could make us look uninformed or 'beating around the bush' about where this field could lead.

  2. Our paper will be sensationalized in the media. Our last authors have said they think this paper will almost certainly make it to the media. I think they plan on contacting various media outlets. They are comfortable with the explicit terms (and have been publicly, which is why our paper, by virtue of being connected with them, softly implies the same). This is my biggest concern - having my name (as first author) connected to sensationalized headlines that make our paper sound extremely provocative.

I wanted to decrease the chance of these situations happening. Especially point 2. I plan to have a conversation with the last authors and ask them to avoid using those explicit terms when contacting the media. I am not sure if they will remember (due to being very busy), if they will comply in the end (especially as co-authors tried to edit back in explicit terms), and if they will state it clearly enough to media writers.

Has anyone ever dealt with such a situation before? Are there any other preventative measures I can take? Such as requesting that I can review media pieces before publication etc. or that my name simply not be mentioned at all?

(As a side note: I do plan to switch fields after this. I am on great terms with all my co-authors and plan to stay that way! But, I am switching into a field where there are fewer ethical complexities).

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    As a general comment, how would you in practice "request review" from media? Your research is public, and everybody can cover this any way they see fit. A serious newspaper may inquire with the authors first to double-check, but a boulevard newspaper or bad online blog will read your article (rather: glance the abstract) and write whatever they feel like. And that's not even going into active misinformation campaigns.
    – xLeitix
    Dec 12, 2022 at 16:35
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    Do you agree with those findings/future work suggestions though? Arguably, communicating your findings is a bigger part of scientific work than actually discovering something novel. This is why you are writing papers in the first place. It being read and picked up by other people is the entire point, and I do not see how you would benefit from sweeping something under the rug, media drawing the same sensational results from your paper and you being "defenseless" because of not stating your point of view. They will just put words in your mouth, basically. You would not like that.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 13, 2022 at 0:19

3 Answers 3

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To the extent that your dilemma involves a controversial topic, diverging opinions between authors, and different appetites for sensationalism, I have experienced something similar. This formed the subject of a previous question on this site.

However, the stakes were much lower because it was a limited publication and there was no media involvement.

Nevertheless, I believe some similarities are relevant. Your reluctance to draw attention to these perspectives seems to arise from: (i) possible personal ethical concerns, (ii) impact on future funding/collaborations.

You are the first author, therefore you do have a larger say in the final submission (I'm assuming this is not an alphabetically ordered list). If your ethical concerns are strong enough, you should absolutely state them to your co-authors, and not give their disappointment too much credence. Scientific disagreement can and should be resolved through discussion; you shouldn't need to capitulate. It doesn't sound like the disagreements are critical- but if they are, then the last option would be for one of the parties to withdraw from the work. It is very unlikely that this would be required though.

On the other hand, if your discomfort arises mainly from funding limitations, I suggest you disregard these. As the contours of technology change, a lot of motivations and directions change- this includes funding agencies as well. It is not a good idea to make long-term decisions based on their current disposition, especially in a field that is expected to see disruption.

Finally, to the specific question on media; there are two things to consider. Either the media pick the article up themselves, or one of your co-authors actively approaches them. To avoid the first, you could consider using a restrained, non-provocative title (or one that would provoke your academic readership, but not the general public). In the latter case, I'm sure you could ask the co-authors to be sensitive to your concerns. Beyond that, there's nothing you can do. No media outlet is under any obligation to let you vet/review their publication. Its really beyond your control, and probably best to let it take its own course. There comes a tide in the affairs of men, etc.

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Here's how to decrease the chance of your work being sensationalized in the media.

You make sure that the press release about your work is measured and written in a way that is unlikely to be sensationalized. Make sure to not have any sentence in there that would make very controversial claims when taken out of context.

This will have a significant impact because most 'reports' about a big impact research paper more or less regurgitate what the press release said. Most of the time I see scientific articles being sensationalized it is not due to the newspaper journalists acting irresponsibly but because the official press release was written irresponsibly sensationalist.

Note, you may have to spend some political capital on this within your collaboration but as an author you have some moral rights, and it sounds like you have a good relationship with the other authors. Also, you might have to argue with the people in charge of press release with the university.

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I doubt that there is anything you could do if you want the article to have any impact at all. Those who would sensationalize, and especially mischaracterize, research aren't especially rational and will do what they want. Look at what has happened to COVID related research, for example. Where would we be if that research hadn't taken place or people were timid about publishing it?

Write the paper so that it adheres to academic/scientific best practice. Let the trolls troll. They're going to in any case.

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