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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40 Responses to I am not your [expletive] transcriptionist

  1. Aurora says:

    Thanks for sharing this, David. I suspect that unfortunately part of this is that unfounded disdain for bloggers that we haven’t yet been able to shake (although it’s interesting that he bothered to email you). The point about science writers not being stenographers is crucial, but I also get the feeling that a lot of the wider issue here boils down to respecting each others’ expertise. Most writers I’ve spoken to have no problems with the idea that a scientist is an expert in the science, but many scientists I’ve worked with haven’t been so quick to realise (accept? admit?) that a writer is an expert in writing, in delivering a message to an audience.

  2. Maryn says:

    And, following on Aurora’s point, Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics) should get enormous praise from everyone for saying just that in @David_Dobbs and @DeborahBlum’s SciO #longform session, in which he recommended trusting writers. That is a paraphrase but I quoted him while live-tweeting it; Storify is here:


  3. Scicurious says:

    This is interesting, Abel. I have gotten this several times as well, and I always thought it was a combination of people thinking ‘she’s young, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about’, and the disdain for blogging as being something less than writing. I think some scientists (who, obviously, do not read blogs, and probably don’t talk much to journalists either) think that if I’m a blogger, I must be writing screeds where I don’t know what I’m talking about. With several, I HAVE pulled “rank” and acidly noted that I have a PhD in their field, sent them my blogging CV and my real life CV, and watched (with a certain amount of glee), as their jaws drop. But it’s really sad that I should have had to prove that in the first place. I’m glad to admit any places where I’ve screwed up, obviously, but I feel like sometimes, it’s not even that I screwed up, it’s that I had the temerity to write about their work in a way that they wouldn’t.

    I can’t really express my full thoughts here (it’s too early for me, and I’m undercaffeinated), but I look forward to further discussion on this topic.

  4. Aurora says:

    “it’s that I had the temerity to write about their work in a way that they wouldn’t. ” -> I’d say this pretty much nails it!

  5. Can’t add to others’ already “nailed-it” insights, but I have to comment that I’ve never seen this phrase before, “particularly after having published about a dozen basic science and clinical papers on milk thistle,” and was delighted to read it here. I love science.

  6. Ed Yong says:

    I’ve had four similar emails in the last month from different people that have accused me of sloppy journalism because:

    1) I didn’t cite/mention their paper
    2) I wrote about a paper that they disagree with.
    3) I described something with a lay term that is functionally identical to the technical term they wanted me to use.

    The hard bit, I think, is to separate the legitimate criticisms from the ones that amount to nothing more than “You didn’t write the piece I wanted to see”.

  7. I have a piece coming out next week for which I am expecting to get this. It is extensively cited and has been fact-checked, but I know there will be people who disagree with the central point. Bracing myself.

  8. For the GM foods piece I just did for Slate, I braced myself similarly but decided that I would respond in comments *only* to someone who’d found a real factual or interpretive error in the science. That gave me some peace of mind and helped me feel more secure in presenting my argument (after about six hours of viewing and reviewing the science and the arguments, of course). ONE commenter took issue with the science as I presented it but then said I was “technically correct,” so I’ve not had to post any errata. Phew.

    Cedar Reiner just tweeted a link to me yesterday about the “why wasn’t I consulted” issue when it comes to online writing. Some of that might be relevant, especially to what Ed said. http://www.ftrain.com/wwic.html

  9. Jacquelyn says:

    I absolutely agree with everything said here and in comments, except that I do relate to the author’s comment about hesitant about engaging in blog comments. We as scientists are often told to avoid the comments sections of posts, as they are a quagmire where the time and energy required for engagement vastly outweighs the effectiveness of participating. I am sympathetic with the author’s decision not to engage in that way.

    I wonder (and I’m genuinely curious here, not trying to cause conflict) why you chose not to engage the researcher in a phone call or further discussion to see if corrections were warranted? So much of the discussion at scio12 centered on developing stronger relationships between communicators and scientists, and as someone watching from the sidelines, it seems as though telling someone to leave a comment isn’t the same level of engagement that the scientist was willing to bring to the table.

    I absolutely acknowledge that I’m in the privileged position of never having been called out by a scientist for my reporting of their work, and so I may be naive here.

  10. Scicurious says:

    I also notice that, when scientist DO engage in blog commentary about their work…they do it like they were writing an actual comment to be published in a journal (at least, this is what has happened on my blog). I think we scientists are often very worried about what we say about our work in public, and don’t want to be seen as not thorough enough, talking too freely, or just not sounding sciencey enough. We don’t want to get judged negatively by our colleagues for something that we say in public. At least, that’s the feeling I get from this.

  11. Jason G. Goldman says:

    ” We as scientists are often told to avoid the comments sections of posts”

    I think it’s worth pointing out that there is rarely such a thing as “we scientists” – I’d wager there are equally many scientists encouraged to engage, and probably significantly more who just don’t care about what goes on in the blogosphere in the first place.

  12. Dirk Hanson says:

    This is SO common in sci/tech/biz journalism. A source comes blustering back to me: “Everything is wrong, you completely blew it.” And 90% of the time, when I say, “will you kindly point out any errors of fact I may have made,” they give the reply the researcher gave David: No time, gotta go. Ed Yong is right: The unspoken complaint is usually: “You didn’t write the piece I wanted to see.”

  13. S Todd Mitchell MD, MPH says:

    Wow. Thank you for the personal attack.

    Perhaps you unintentionally “redacted” this piece of my emails as well:

    CONFIDENTIAL OR PRIVILEGED: This communication contains information intended only for the use of the individuals to whom it is addressed and may contain information that is privileged, confidential or exempt from other disclosure under applicable law. If you are not the intended recipient, you are notified that any disclosure, printing, copying, distribution or use of the contents is prohibited. If you have received this in error, please notify the sender immediately by telephone or by returning it by reply email and then permanently deleting the communication from your system. Thank you.

  14. Aurora says:

    Until this point, this had been a constructive and measured argument.

    Seeing as you had time to write this, wouldn’t it have been more helpful to all involved if you had used that time to say what you thought was wrong with the original post (or at least give an example)?

  15. Dr. Mitchell…now that you are here, apparently with the time to post and correct, would you be able to provide counterpoints to the “gross misstatements,” “mythology,” and “silliness” in what David wrote? The issue at hand is the need for accuracy and to provide readers with corrections where necessary, in addition to ensuring that these corrections are indeed about factual information and not contention over presentation or interpretation.

    As for the email statement, David presumably was the individual to whom it was addressed, so he used it. He was the intended recipient.

  16. David Kroll says:

    I * was* the intended recipient and all email I receive related to my blogs, particularly those that belittle my writing, is open for public discussion. This is common practice. No privileged or confidential information was disclosed and you in fact cited a public URL in a federal database.

    This post is in no way a personal attack. I recognized your expertise in the area, previous success in treating patients with intravenous Legalon, offered to field your objections, and you chose not to engage. Hence, I brought this to my readers for discussion as this appears to be a common occurrence for other writers.

    I’m still very interested to learn of your specific objections to my original blogpost and welcome your commentary here or at the original post. You clearly had the time to post this comment.

  17. Travis says:

    I find that responding to comments in a “sciencey” way is the happy medium that allows you to comment on blogs without losing your academic credibility (this may come down a bit to pseud vs non-pseud though). Whether on my blog or someone else’s, I try to write my comment as if I were talking to someone at a conference. Often that means writing as if I’m speaking with someone who asked a very naive question at a conference, but it’s a technique that I’ve found to work very well. That may be an overly conservative approach, but it means I don’t have to worry about any comments getting me in trouble and endangering my blogging activities as a whole.

    On the topic of people emailing criticisms rather than posting them online – I do get the odd email from colleagues disagreeing/adding to something I wrote in a post, and when I suggest that they post their comments on the blog (with their name or anonymously – I don’t care either way), they almost always decide not to. It’s frustrating since some of the comments could have led to very informative discussions, but I think that some people still feel that only crazy people take the time to actually post comments on blogs (although in fairness, if you visit the CBC or other large news websites, that’s largely true).

  18. Pascale says:

    I’m curious about who is telling scientists not to engage in the comments on blogs. The infamous “they?” or is there actually a policy in place at your institution? Or is it just because your academic elders don’t respect online communication?

    This intersects with our discussion on the resistance to online communication at #scio12. I really want to know about these perceptions.

  19. Dirk Hanson says:

    Dr. Kroll stands ready to field the researcher’s complaints. Modest prediction: We won’t be hearing from this researcher again, even though he started the whole fuss, supposedly in the interest of journalistic accuracy.

  20. Jane de Lartigue says:

    Great post David! I left a postdoc to become a freelance medical writer, which I’ve been doing for just over a year now. I was forewarned that you really have to develop a thick skin in this job, but I still struggle to keep a sense of perspective and not to take things personally if someone criticizes my work.
    As Ed put it you really do have to develop the ability to decide whether its relevant criticism that could be addressed to improve the piece or your style (we all make mistakes after all), or whether its simply that you didn’t write it the way they would have or were hoping to see.
    It’s good to hear that even seasoned writers such as yourself and many of those who’ve commented, who I look up to and strive to emulate, still face these issues from time to time!

  21. Pingback: Who Are They? More Musings from #scio12 | Whizbang

  22. Keith Kloor says:


    I sympathize with your frustration. If science journalists had a dollar for every time they were told by a scientist that they got it wrong.

    That said, I don’t think it was appropriate for you to publish a private email without permission from the sender. He may have “belittled” your writing, but he did it privately, not publicly.

    In this age of social media, I fear that the norms of private communication between two people have started to break down.

  23. I agree – having a name-stamped comment is a very different thing than asking someone to make a correction.

    I don’t know that posting someone’s e-mail (with their name) is necessarily the best way to create good-will between scientists and journalists, necessarily. Will this make me think twice about asking someone to make a correction in the future? Maybe. I’m not sure.

  24. My personal hesitation would be largely that a blog comment invites sustained engagement, whereas a correction just requires a quick adjustment on the part of the person who wrote the piece. By telling someone to leave a comment, I can see how that might come across as asking them to engage in a general melee where equal screen space is given to everyone. There are good and bad things about that.

  25. Well, sure– and I did say “often.” And I think there’s a big difference between caring what goes on in the blogosphere, which I do deeply, and having the time and energy to wade into a comments debate. A very common refrain I hear, even from science journalists, is “Oh, you can’t read the comments!” particularly on high-profile sites. This doesn’t invalidate the power of blogging so much as it acknowledges the fact that comments sections are their own universe with their own problems.

  26. KateClancy says:

    That was a very thoughtful and kind response, David. I am still very curious about the “silliness” you have written. I await Dr. Mitchell’s reply.

  27. I personally hear it from fellow scientists and even science writers, who basically advise avoiding comments in order to ignore trolls, climate deniers, creationists, etc. I’ve heard it communicated in terms of being time-consuming and futile, not something that would be a professional liability.

  28. Pingback: Private correspondence made public | Take As Directed

  29. Brian K says:

    Good story, didn’t need to include the guy’s name and contact information. I’d be angry too if I didn’t want to get involved in a public discussion and then had my email and contact details blasted in a post. (Just sayin’)

  30. Aurora says:

    I take your point, Jacquelyn. But I think part of the problem here is the refusal (as far as I can tell) to actually say what’s supposedly wrong. What irked me the most in this story was not that someone would rather engage outside comments, it was that they expected someone else to drop everything and phone them without having actually stated what they saw as errors.

    That and the inconsistency between asking for a correction on a blog and then saying you don’t have time to correct every blog out there.

    Sci bloggers/journalists: if someone emailed you pointing out a mistake but stating they didn’t want to jump into the comments section, would you discount it because of that unwillingness?

  31. RogerTheGeek says:

    Email flows over the Internet in clear text readable by almost anyone. I’m not sure why organizations want to use the legal postscripts other than to try to intimidate people. If you want to protect email, encrypt it and share the credentials with the recipient who has signed an NDA. Otherwise, don’t hide behind those statements thinking that you are somehow legally protected. When you send someone an email message, it is out of your control.
    Moral of story: once email leaves your outbox, you should assume it could end up anywhere, including the front page of the Washington Post.

  32. Josh Witten says:

    It is worth noting that the CONFIDENTIAL label is not really binding. Rather, it serves as a notification that there may be privileged material in the message, which might warn a recipient about legal ramifications of sharing things like patient details and to unintended recipients how to courteously deal with sensitive information.

    Unless the information is something specifically covered by law, such as national defense secretes or patient data, including such boilerplate at the bottom of a message cannot bind the recipient to a confidentiality agreement without their consent.

    Furthermore, the act of sending the message in plain text through third party servers not under the sender’s direct control essentially negates the expectation of privacy, as the US Supreme Court has ruled on things like text messaging.

    To actually claim that someone has stolen & disseminated secrets inappropriately requires the injured party to demonstrate that they were actively and diligently maintaining the confidentiality of the information, which Dr. Mitchell clearly has not.

  33. David Kroll says:

    Perhaps, Brian. But if one goes to the original post he criticized (a link that I’d put here no matter what), you’ll see that 1) referenced him by name and 2) enthusiastically promoted his clinical trial to health care professionals who might find themselves treating Amanita phalloides mushroom poisoning.

    I welcome the criticism – I’ve even put up a new post requesting discussion on this particular topic.

  34. Jacquelyn says:

    If I asked someone if they’d have a conversation with me about a piece and they refused, and told me to leave a comment on their blog, I’d probably be a bit miffed. Just the act of typing as opposed to speaking takes a long time. I still don’t understand why, after all of our “trust-building” talk at scio12, the original request for a conversation was denied.

  35. Scicurious says:

    I would say, if someone emailed me and said “this is the problem here, you stated x where it should be y”, absolutely I’ll make the correction without a comment necessary. It’s when you get something like “this whole piece is horrid” without specifics that I get miffed.

  36. Kejia says:

    In the time it took to write the email and indignant comment, this scientist could have pointed out at least one factual error. But facts were secondary. What he wanted to do was to have the power to monopolize your attention, vent freely, and hang up the phone with the satisfaction of having asserted his self-importance.

  37. David Kroll says:

    Jacquelyn, I definitely wanted to engage with the writer to learn what might be incorrect in my original post. My request to put this on the blog comment thread was partly practical and partly one of wanting readers to hear directly from a physician who has done more to popularize the use of intravenous milk thistle than anyone in the US.

    The practical point is exactly as I wrote in my response to him: you were at ScienceOnline, right? I was absolutely consuming with the activities during the meeting and in the days leading up to it when I was hosting Andy Revkin. If you didn’t see me much, it was because I was running people, wine and musical equipment between Raleigh and Durham and managing media relations through much of the meeting. The only time I sat at my computer in about 10 days was to craft discussion notes with Seth and Maggie.

    I’m all for developing relationships but I also have to be realistic in my own time commitments. Again, as of writing this reply to you, I have yet to receive any notification of factual errors in my original post. And, if I may ask you, would the paternalistic and condescending tone of such an email sent to you cause you to respond differently?

  38. Thanks for your reply, David! I absolutely understand the time commitment concerns (and I was indeed at ScienceOnline). That, for me, is a barrier for engaging with commenters on blog posts in general, and particularly on the coverage of my own work. I think there’s a tough terrain to navigate here– your time and energy ,which has already gone into researching and writing a post, and the researcher’s time and energy, which may preclude a detailed blog engagement. I can see how from each of your perspectives, it may have seemed as though each of you were prioritizing your time over the others’. That is, I wonder if to you, the researcher was saying his time was more valuable than yours, while to him, it maybe came across as though you thought your time was more valuable than his. Meanwhile, neither of you probably think that. Or am I just putting words in everyone’s mouths? Ha!

  39. Jim Cox says:

    I don’t see any indication in Dr. Mitchell’s emails that he expected confidentiality, per se. He only wanted to avoid making a detailed public commentary. The fact that he found fault with your article would not normally be considered confidential, by any standard. The blanket warning at the bottom of his email stating that the communication MAY contain confidential information is utterly meaningless.

    Having said that, I do think there is something discourteous in calling him out like this. Evidently, your readers could easily figure out that it was Mitchell you were referring to.