I am not your [expletive] transcriptionist

While experiencing the crack cocaine & heroin-like stimuloeuphora of ScienceOnline2012 last week, I fielded one of my relatively rare email threads of blog buzzkill. The criticism of one of my blogposts as detailed below was particularly prescient in light of the closing session I had with Maggie Koerth-Baker, Seth Mnookin, and Bora Zivkovic: Check, check, 1, 2, . . .The sticky wicket of the scientist-journalist relationship.

In discussing the process of fact-checking and the need for accurate scientific representation by the science journalist, Maggie Koerth-Baker made the excellent point that the scientist should not expect the writer to simply act as a transcriptionist. Indeed, as I learned from Cornelia Dean this past summer at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, the responsibility of the writer is to the reader in crafting an engaging and still accurate story.

Well, I now know what Maggie was talking about. I received the following email last week regarding my post, Intravenous Milk Thistle for Mushroom Poisoning, for the principal investigator of an ongoing clinical trial:

Dear David,

Under most circumstances I would remain silent but with your background I assume that you wish to make your postings as accurate as possible. However, the story as written is so rife with mythology and gross misstatements that to the trained eye it comes across as simply silly.

Rather than posting on your blog I thought it might be better to contact you privately in order to give you the opportunity to edit and correct if you are so interested.

If you like we can speak when I have the screen open. There is a lot of misinformation up there on the web and so it is certainly understandable as to how you could have come up with some of this.

Please forward your phone number and we can go over it.

To which I politely responded:

Thanks so much for writing. Indeed, I strive to be as accurate as possible and am concerned that, “the story as written is so rife with mythology and gross misstatements that to the trained eye it comes across as simply silly.” I’d be delighted to have you post your concerns and corrections in the blog comments – the readership would greatly benefit from the wisdom of your expertise and having an on-the-record critique from the study director would be invaluable. No need to keep your concerns private – I find it valuable to teach my students that even the professor gets it wrong sometimes. (I’m also completely swamped with my role in the international ScienceOnline conference ongoing here in Research Triangle Park. I hope you understand.)

Thank you again for writing and I look forward to learning where you feel I got things wrong. Best wishes as you continue to investigate this remarkable intravenous preparation.

Warm regards,

Indeed, I really didn’t understand precisely his objections to the content of my post. I was truly interested in how far off I could be, particularly after having published about a dozen basic science and clinical papers on milk thistle. But I didn’t want to argue from a position of authority, particularly since I am not a clinician and the majority of my work was focused on anti-cancer effects of milk thistle compounds, not hepatoprotection from toxic compounds.

So, I went off to my week of ScienceOnline activities and pre-meeting events I was handling for my new day job when this came in:

Hi David,

Thanks for the reply. Will have to pass. If I corrected every blog on the web I would have no livelihood.

Be well,

So, this is interesting. The reader expected me to give him my phone number so he could tell me where the inaccuracies were in my post. But he couldn’t be bothered with providing details and objections in a public forum on my blog comment thread.

I honestly felt as thought I was doing a GoodThing with the original post, raising awareness about one of very few herbal medicines that have utility in an emergency situation and even promoting the ClinicalTrials.gov site for enrollment in this individual’s clinical trial.

But I have my own questions. For example, why would a P.I. list their contact information for a clinical trial under a Yahoo! email account? And why would they object to the content of a blog post yet not be willing to publicly voice their objections.

After all, I am not your [expletive] transcriptionist.

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