I listened to RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke today, which featured Declan Waugh (expert in misrepresenting research) and Gerry Byrne (science writer) discussing water fluoridation. It made me recall previous interviews I’ve watched and heard, and I wondered how long it would take for anti-fluoride campaigners to start demanding to know “who is paying this so-called Gerry Byrne, really??? Is he being paid by Big Pharma to lie to the public about fluoride??”

Comments like this are not uncommon: many campaigners believe that a company can pay a researcher to publish a paper in their favour in a journal. This isn’t really possible to do, and I cringe when I hear people embarrass themselves in the media by showing how they don’t know how academic research and peer review works. Moreover, when people start making claims that researchers are deliberately undertaking professional misconduct for financial reward, this can very possibly lead to defamation cases in the courts.

The idea behind peer review is quite simple, and is a major part of the scientific method. It allows for research to be properly analysed and tested before publication. It’s not possible to simply write up a paper with whatever claims you want – whether you’re being paid by an external company or not – and have it published in a journal. As any researcher will tell you, paper submission and peer review is a long and arduous process.

What happens is this: you write a paper covering your findings, where you explain your methods and the context in which your research takes place. When you have everything covered, you then submit the paper to the appropriate journal. When it’s received by the journal, the editor (or editorial team) will select referees who are experts in scientific methods of the field you are publishing on. The referees are the ‘peers’.

The team of referees then go through every single detail of your paper, picking it apart in a display of academic massacre. As the author, you will get asked questions, be asked for clarifications, and be given corrections. There is pretty much no way your paper will be published until this team of referees give it the go-ahead. And when they do, you breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever deities you might believe in that it’s all over (until next time).

As you can see, the idea that someone can be paid to publish something in particular at will is preposterous. The peer review process is very robust, and while other research may be published that contests your work, the process ensures that your paper meets the standards expected by that journal.

“Yeah but who pays for this research to take place, eh? EHH?? It’s obviously Big Pharma!!” I hear them cry. Usually researchers are paid by the university that employs them. They might also get funding grants from the likes of Science Foundation Ireland. Publishing is only one part of being employed as a scientist; there’s also the tough work of research itself, and many researchers will teach at the university, too.

Do those anti-fluoride people (or indeed any fringe campaigner) actually think a paper author can “trick” their employer, or a journal, or a team of world-class referees and publish something unscientific without anybody noticing? It seems they do, as regularly happens to a good friend of mine when he’s in the media. And such allegations are made all too lightly, I think.

I know that if certain high-profile campaigners or groups were making baseless claims in public about my professional conduct in scientific research, I’d be having a word with a solicitor to see what they think. Not just for my own character, but for the greater good of the integrity of real science.