Nature has gone science journalism crazy, with no less than six new articles on the subject! My favorite is “Science Journalism: Toppling the Priesthood,” by Toby Murcott, who argues that coverage of peer review is a necessary component of truly investigative, accurate science journalism.
I don’t agree with everything Murcott says, but he makes some really good points:
Journalism is often described as history’s first draft. Much contemporary science journalism, however, can be seen as a second, or even a third draft. Unlike reporters covering other fields of public life, science journalists don’t get to witness earlier drafts of history-making because these are part of the peer-review process.
One way to tackle this would be to allow journalists access to (anonymous) referee comments alongside a final paper. This would have implications for how journals communicate their findings, and would need more discussion among the science community before being broadly implemented (some journals, such as Biology Direct, already publish reviewer’s comments alongside their final papers). On balance, I think it would be beneficial to science communication if this were the usual practice.
I agree that science journalism should be more critical and should portray more of the developmental phase of discovery behind the scenes.The problem is that currently, the few science journalists who have the technical chops to understand raw critiques of the science are losing their jobs, and the trend is towards simpler science coverage – not more in-depth analysis. Plus, reading peer reviews is not an easy thing to do, much less giving them the appropriate weight: it really does open the door to the sort of false debate frame that has been so problematic for climate science. So while I have great sympathy for Murcott’s case, the pragmatic part of me doesn’t think it’s feasible – at least right now.
Also in Nature, there is also an interesting piece by Nadia El-Awady on Arab science journalism, and good article by Geoff Brumfiel (who wrote that good article on science blogging back in March) on liveblogging and Twitter. Brumfiel’s piece touches on the recent Cold Spring Harbor kerfuffle:
MacArthur’s comprehensive postings were read by many scientists but they irked journalists attending the meeting. The meeting rules stated that reporters had to seek permission from speakers before publishing material on their work, rules that Cold Spring Harbor instituted in part because some journals, such as Nature, discourage scientists from talking to the press before their work is published. But those rules didn’t apply to scientist-bloggers like MacArthur and, after he posted details from a few talks, reporters contacted Stewart for clarification on the policies. The complaint was a wake-up call: “For the first time, I became aware that people were blogging about the data at the meeting,” Stewart says.
Well, um, wow. At the last two talks I’ve attended of any size, there was a dedicated hashtag and an entire screen devoted to the Twitterfall right there in the venue. Are people really still oblivious to the cloud of Tweets, texts, status updates, and blog posts all around them? Perhaps it’s more obvious in DC, where everyone has a buzzing Blackberry in their handbag or hip holster, but I think people should have adjusted by now to the possibility of amateur reporting at meetings – even nonpublic meetings. That doesn’t mean Tweeting at a scientific conference is necessarily good. I have a lot of sympathy for scientists worried about being scooped or running into patent problems later on. I’ve had friends get scooped in really shoddy, sneaky ways. But these things were happening long before Twitter, and they’ve been a force constraining openness in science for some time. Twitter didn’t create the problem, and banning Twitter doesn’t fix it.
Moving from brand-new technologies to centuries-old attitudes, Boyce Rensberger has an entertaining look at the history of science journalism – apparently Nature was already covering the field of science journalism back in 1894!
In the 1890s, there seem to have been no full-time science journalists in either the United States or Britain, although there was one notable part-timer — H. G. Wells. When he wasn’t writing science fiction, he penned newspaper articles on genuine scientific findings, arguing that there was a need for writers to translate scientists’ jargon and use writing techniques to engage non-specialists. In an 1894 edition of Nature, Wells wrote of the need to employ what today is called narrative non-fiction: “The fundamental principles of construction that underlie such stories as Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, or Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series, are precisely those that should guide a scientific writer.” (See Nature 50, 300-301; 1894.)
Quite a fun read.
And finally, there is a link (though not a free one, alas) to the recent Nature Biotechnology conference paper co-authored by Matt Nisbet, on current issues in science communications. I do feel that most of the material in this paper (the issues of media fragmentation, framing problems, incidental exposure, etc.) has been said before, much of it by Matt. But it is useful to have it integrated into one article. That said, I want to take exception to one thing – but instead of ranting at length in this post, I think I’ll save that final point for tomorrow. Happy reading!