Improving Science Journalism

Photo by Declan Jewell (DeclanTM)

To my delight, one result of my attendance at the exciting ScienceOnline2011 conference a couple of weeks ago was an invitation from Alok Jha of the Guardian newspaper to write an opinion piece for them based on the remarks I made during the “Science Journalism Online: Better, or Merely Different?” panel organized byEd Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science. The other panelists were Steve Silberman of NeuroTribes, Virginia Hughes of The Last Word on Nothing, and David Dobbs of Neuron Culture, substituting for Deborah Blum of Speakeasy Science (who was unable to attend).

That column—“Time for change in science journalism?“—is now online, and if you’re interested take a look. It repeats a point that I’ve been making to journalist audiences for a few years now (as in this 2009 debate piece on “Should there be less science news?” for the Association of British Science Writers): that we could improve the quality and diversity of science journalism if we stopped defaulting to “what did the journals publish this week?” as the definition of science news.

And if you’re curious about my Science Online 2011 talk itself, below you’ll find an edited transcript. I’ve cleaned up the literal transcript for the sake of clarity, and to eliminate most of the stammering, run-on sentences, wrong word choices and other defects that come from my speaking extemporaneously (and which are even more annoying on the page than they were to the ear). Also, when I speak, large portions of my meaning are conveyed through elaborate pantomime and a puppet show, so a simple transcript just won’t do.

My Science Online 2011 Speech

If the question we want to talk about today is, “Can science journalism online be better than traditional science journalism, the answer that leaps to mind for me is, “Mother of god, I hope so!” Putting that in the appropriate context: it’s not just for the reasons that Ed Yong mentioned, that online journalism lends itself to a dialogue [with readers], to linking to sources, to multimedia, to the diversity of approaches, not to mention the extraordinary explanatory power of LOLcats. There have already been some great accomplishments in the area of online journalism. In particular, I’d like to call attention to work that Ivan Oransky has been doing with his creation of Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch, which are, I think, perfect examples of the kinds of new venues that can pop up online to address weaknesses that most of us in science journalism have been seeing for a long time. We haven’t generally paid enough attention to retractions [of scientific papers] and we haven’t offered enough of a glimpse inside the sausage factory of scientific publication, both of which are hugely important for conveying the realities of how science is actually changing and being presented, not even just to the public but to the scientific community itself.

It’s great that we have the opportunity with online science journalism to address those. But if we really want science journalism online to be better than it has been in the past, then I think we need to fix what has bugged me for years as one of the biggest failings of traditional science journalism, which is that 95 percent or more of what passes for science news is driven by the “big paper of the week” model. It’s the one in which the prestigious science journal issues its embargoed press release, which goes out to everybody, which everybody jumps on, which everybody then writes up and it all comes out at the same time. It’s pack journalism. We have to get those stories out right away, all at the same time, because you don’t want to be scooped by all the other guys who are writing that exact same story—because that would make you look stupid if you didn’t offer that exact same story.

And of course you have to hurry, because the journals are continuing to push out a lot of new information in new papers every week, and you’ve got to write about those soon, too. Heaven forbid you step off that treadmill for one second.

How in the world does this help the cause of informing the public about what the state of science is? When a paper appears in the scientific literature, that is the beginning of its scientific life. Why are we in such a hurry to collect the opinions of other scientists (or whoever else we think is relevant) and cram them into the stories, with very little opportunity for forethought? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

How does it serve the cause, also, that the public is exposed to a very small number of stories—and those are not only mostly from a select subset of premium journals but represent only a small number of stories from those journals? What is a greater curse as a researcher than to have the crowning success of getting your work into Nature or Science or one of the other top-tier journals, but then find that it isn’t one of the exciting stories that week—it has the misfortune of appearing in the same issue where some other bigger story broke. You’re overlooked just as much as if you had only been published in some more minor or lower-tier journal.

As a gedanken experiment, play along with me on this. Hypothetically—and really, it’s impossible, but that’s what gedanken experiments are for—suppose that in the same way that the journals institute their own embargoes about when any of us can write about what they publish, making sure that nothing appears earlier than they want it to, suppose that we—the extended science journalism community—instituted our own informal moratorium, in which we all agreed that none of us would write about anything that appeared in a journal for, say, six months after it appears. What if everybody, all the editors and writers collectively, what if we all wanted to reexamine what constitutes science news. Because right now? We’re defining science news as “what did they publish this week?” I understand why we define science news that way. But for the purposes of my experiment, imagine that we’re all just going to wait six months. What would happen?

Well, the science would still move along, because the scientists could see the new findings in the journals, so we’re not interfering with the actual progress of science. And by the time we would now actually be writing about this stuff, there would be a much clearer opinion about whether or not the results in a paper held up or were meaningful. And the public for the most part is not going to be any less well-informed for the delay.

I’m not pushing that as an actual policy, but what I’m saying is that our current working definition of science news and the way we cover it does not really serve the interests of science or the public. What it serves the interests of is us. Because it’s really, really convenient. It’s really, really easy to write stories when people hand you press releases about them. It gives you this great ramp up on a story. But I want to make the point that, that ramp up? It’s putting you into the back of a van that the journals are driving to where they want to go.

[Some misspellings fixed and links added since I first posted this.]

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19 Responses to Improving Science Journalism

  1. Pingback: Improving Science Journalism – PLoS Blogs (blog) | Like My Comment

  2. Gaythia says:

    Did the embargo on the “arsenic life” story help science communication? I believe that the obvious answer is no, it did not.
    Mass marketers know that restricting access can increase demand (toys at Christmas for example). My concern is that if you told the public that scientists had data and information that was under embargo and they couldn’t see yet, it would only increase their sense that they needed to see it RIGHT NOW. Further, if members of the public believed that scientists had some secret information that the science establishment was restricting access to, then the public would be susceptible to suggestions that there were some evil, conspiratorial reasons that scientists were hiding stuff. I believe that this would strengthen the hands of anti-science activists.
    I think that there must be ways that we can moderate the current system of over-hyped press releases. We need to work to increase the public sense that scientific progress is more of an ongoing process and less a system of one time, earth-shattering events. I think that online science journalism can play a big role in creating appropriate dialogs.

    • John Rennie says:

      I don’t think I understand the point in your 2nd paragraph, Gaythia. The journal embargoes exist now, but of course, they only delay the release of the information in the research papers until a defined date (typically, the day when the journal publishes an issue). So I’m not following where the opportunity for problematic conspiracies would show up. Can you please explain?

      I agree with the points in your last paragraph, of course.

  3. Gaythia says:

    You yourself said that you realized that your “gedanken” experiment would, in reality, be impossible. I think that there would be some leakage of information, especially with a long embargo. While I would agree with you that it would really be true that “.. the public for the most part is not going to be any less well-informed for the delay”, would the public realize that? My issues of “problematic conspiracies” has to do with what I understand of the psychology of what happens when one feels one is being denied access to information. I think that magnifies its apparent importance, and could leave one receptive to the idea that there is some dark reason for the delay. And I think I can see how some, say, anti-vaxxers or climate deniers could take advantage of that public feeling that scientists knew something that they weren’t willing to talk about, or that was part of a “media cover-up”.
    Obviously, traditional scientific journals are part of an interconnect system of professional societies, formal peer review, University tenure decisions, resume building, and so forth. A lot of this structure arose from an historic need to publish in bound volumes that could be distributed by mail and also stored on library shelves. And I believe that many of the components of this system are changing.
    In my limited experience, the research itself had a flow, and the publications were frequently just spliced onto that flow for outside reasons, like graduates getting a degree, an upcoming conference, or a desire to preempt the work of some other lab. Of course, some researchers really do have earth-shattering breakthroughs. But much research could be presented as a work in progress. I think that public understanding of the nature of science would be enhanced if it were presented that way.
    I think that online science communications; publications, websites and blogs are a vital part of creating that dialog.

    • John Rennie says:

      Of course, under the terms of my thought experiment, nothing is actually being kept secret under the media moratorium. The new scientific information is all there in the technical literature, which is openly published for anyone who wants to look at it. The idea was that the media simply wouldn’t choose to write about it for a while.

      But there’s no point in my trying to defend the hypothetical situation because I wasn’t trying to convince anybody that we should (or could) do it. I was just pointing out that the race for arbitrarily timely coverage of new scientific results seemed to come at the expense of better coverage, and that this arrangement seems increasingly inadequate. We’re in agreement about the value of better science communications through all media, and about the importance of making the most of it.

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