USDA Casts Doubts on its Own Scientists’ Peer-Reviewed Work by Calling it “Preliminary”

Published May 14, 2019

A USDA issued memo requires scientists to label their peer-reviewed publications as “preliminary,” a label that could inaccurately cast doubt on the studies.

What happened: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a memo in July 2018 that required its scientists to label their peer-reviewed scientific publications as “preliminary,” a label that could cast doubt that such studies have not been deemed robust by the scientific community at large. Since November 2018, the agency has required the addition of this disclaimer to studies published in peer-reviewed journals by USDA scientists, but due to public outcry this policy was recently overturned by the USDA. The policy was not applied department-wide, it was only applied to agencies under the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area, including two scientific sub-agencies – the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – that have been previously targeted by the Trump administration in an attack of science. When asked about the disclaimer, USDA Secretary Perdue responded that “In USDA, we want good scientific discovery, we want peer-based evidence there,” but added that there have been instances of a non-adequate peer-review process in scientific journals “that created wrong information” and led to “policy decisions based on political science rather than on sound science.”

Why it matters: The peer review process is considered to be the “gold standard” for sharing scientific research, representing an intensive back-and-forth process between the study’s authors and experts in their fields on whether a paper meets the rigorous standards that are required for inclusion into the scientific literature. Calling a study that has already undergone such a rigorous process “preliminary” could undermine the study by suggesting to readers that its findings are less systematic, comprehensive, and robust. The policy had put USDA scientists into an impossible situation – either they add the disclaimer to their peer-review research, potentially delegitimizing it, or they refuse, and take the risk that agency officials will completely halt the publication of their peer-reviewed work. It is chilling that federal scientists were forced to utter damaging statements about their own research, and it was a great disservice to the American public. When federal research is intentionally undermined, this research cannot be effectively used to solve the important public health and environmental issues that face Americans today.

Learn more about how the USDA’s disclaimer is delegitimizing the important work conducted by USDA scientists.