Earlier today, I posted on the recent paper that claims to have found a link between eating genetically modified corn and the growth of tumors in rats. Short version: The research sucked. It's a terribly done study and it demonstrates why "peer reviewed" does not always mean "accurate".
But now, this story is getting worse. Turns out, the authors of the study (and their financial sponsor, The Sustainable Food Trust) manipulated the media to ensure that the first news stories published about the study would not be critical of its methods or results.
First, some background. When a journal is about to publish a study that they think will be big news, they usually offer the full study to reporters under an embargo system. The reporter gets to read the study, do their reporting, and write a story ... but they can't publish that story until a specific day at a specific time. If you're a daily or an online publication, there's a lot of pressure to have your story ready to go the moment the embargo lifts. Otherwise, you'll look like you weren't on the ball. There's a lot of problems with this system, but it's very common.
What's not common: Forcing journalists to sign non-disclosure agreements promising to not show the study they're reporting on to any independent researchers or outside experts. If you're trying to make sure your publication runs a story on the study right when the embargo lifts, but you can't show the study to any third-party experts before the embargo lifts, then the story you run is going to (inevitably) contain only information the authors of the study want you to talk about. It ceases being journalism and becomes PR.
This is what the authors of the GM corn/rat tumor study did.
At Embargo Watch (an excellent blog that discusses issues with the embargo system as a whole) Ivan Oransky explains that we know this happened because the reporters forced to sign the agreement talked about it in their stories:
As the AFP noted in their original story, since updated:
Breaking with a long tradition in scientific journalism, the authors allowed a selected group of reporters to have access to the paper, provided they signed confidentiality agreements that prevented them from consulting other experts about the research before publication.
My Reuters colleagues described the embargo agreement in a similar way:
In an unusual move, the research group did not allow reporters to seek outside comment on their paper before its publication in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and presentation at a news conference in London.
So did the BBC:
In a move regarded as unusual by the media, the French research group refused to provide copies of the journal paper to reporters in advance of its publication, unless they signed non-disclosure agreements. The NDAs would have prevented the journalists from approaching third-party researchers for comment.
To their credit, the reporters at the three outlets I cite above went back and refiled their stories with comment from scientists unrelated to the study, and from Monsanto, once the embargo lifted. But the Sustainable Food Trust knew damn well reporters would be under pressure to file something the moment the embargo lifted — especially since this was an embargo likely to be broken, as it was — and that their hands would be tied as far as outside comment.
The authors of that study, and The Sustainable Food Trust, deliberately tried to make sure that the first stories you read about their study didn't tell you how bad the study was.
Guys, that's messed up.
And, again, just as with Emily Sohn's story at Discover, neither the authors of the study nor The Sustainable Food Trust replied to Ivan Oransky's request for an interview.
In lighter news, I have decided to begin referring to this scandal as "Corn Maze".
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.