Should journalists report on unpublished research?

I was recently commissioned to write a short news story about a some unpublished research. Should journalists be writing about research that hasn’t undergone peer review?

The research was about the Mpemba effect — where hot water sometimes freezes faster than cold water — and was published online on arXiv. It is quite poorly written but on face-value, the method seems quite rigorous and when/if it is published, I suspect it will be a worthwhile contribution to the literature.

In short, the author concludes that hot water can freeze faster than cold water, only if it has a higher spontaneous freezing temperature. (That seems utterly unsurprising — it’s like saying that water can freeze faster than mercury.) He also shows that heating up water will not reliably lift the spontaneous freezing temperature and so it is not an effective method for speeding up the freezing of water.

The expert I first approached to comment on the research was very reluctant to speak to me. He thought giving me comments for the story would be promoting non-peer reviewed research. He described it as “review by press conference”.

My immediate reaction was to argue that discussing this kind of work serves to increase people’s interest in science and presents an opportunity to discuss and explain some scientific ideas. Moreover, since the issue being discussed is not climate change or nuclear energy (it doesn’t have particularly far-reaching consequences) the lack of peer review is not an overwhelming concern.

I’d be interested to know what others think. Should unpublished work be off-limits for science journalists? Does it depend on the subject matter? Does it depend on the credentials of the researchers? James D. Brownridge (2010). A search for the Mpemba effect: When hot water freezes faster then cold
water arXiv arXiv: 1003.3185v1