bioephemera

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!

Comments

  1. #1 daedalus2u
    June 27, 2009

    I completely disagree with Toby Murcott’s notion. Journalists should not have access to peer review. For the most part journalists are not peers. They don’t understand the science. They won’t understand the peer review comments either. Journalists could do a better job at what they are supposed to be doing, reporting science news accurately. They don’t need access to peer review to do that.

    Giving them access to peer review will (in my opinion) only screw up peer review. Bora has a good post on “the quote”

    http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2009/06/the_ethics_of_the_quote.php

    When journalists misquote scientists, the only recourse scientists have is to not talk to journalists. When journalists start to misquote peer review, what recourse will scientists have then? Not do peer review?

  2. #2 bioephemera
    June 27, 2009

    Like I said in the post, I don’t think Murcott’s suggestion about peer review would actually work. But I think he makes a lot of good points in his article, and it’s certainly intriguing to think about how science journalism would be different *if* good science journalists did cover peer review. Finding it interesting doesn’t mean I agree with it. :)

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 27, 2009

    The idea that science journalists should have access to peer review is laughable.

  4. #4 JR Minkel
    June 27, 2009

    @bioephemera: I think you singled out Murcott’s single worst point

    @everybody: As an 8-year practicing science journalist and 2-year web reporter, I found Toby Murcott’s essay liberating. Scientists want to blame the reporters. As a reporter, I want to blame the “system,” i.e., the web news grind. Really, anybody who wants to see good science reporting needs to grasp the interlocking roles of reporters, experts and audiences. Bora Z is completely off base when he implies that the act of constructing a news story is inherently biased. Give me a break. Yes, a reporter needs time to own a beat, and definitely needs ethics (integrity, honesty, purpose). So do scientists. Bora acts like they’re all pure truth seekers. Ahem. Yeah.

    +Bonus: I’ve actually had access to peer review documents in some cases, and I will say it’s completely unnecessary if you do the reporting right.

  5. #5 Jessica Palmer
    June 27, 2009

    “@bioephemera: I think you singled out Murcott’s single worst point”

    ummm. . . isn’t that kind of my job when I comment on an article? To identify any weak spots? ;)

  6. #6 JR Minkel
    June 28, 2009

    “isn’t that kind of my job when I comment on an article? To identify any weak spots?”

    Yes, I’m told that’s the point of blogging… :)

    As written, it sounded to me like you thought his notion of opening up peer review was a good idea. Either way, I think he had better points!

  7. #7 Jessica Palmer
    June 28, 2009

    I think Murcott’s concerns about the state of science journalism are valid, and I think his article proposes some very interesting ideas. However, I have a paragraph about the myriad of problems with opening peer review to journalists, and conclude by saying I don’t think it’s feasible, so I’m sorry you got the impression I somehow supported it.

    Perhaps in another decade when peer review has evolved into its next iteration, whatever that looks like, it will be time to revisit the idea. But for now, I think it’s an interesting thing to discuss because of what it reveals about our own concept of what is and isn’t valid A) science journalism and B) peer review.

  8. #8 JR Minkel
    June 29, 2009

    I had particular reasons for reading into Murcott’s description of what it’s like to be a science journalist. See this post of mine on professional ethics in science journalism.

    I think scientists and journalists sometimes talk past each other when discussing science coverage. BoraZ’s post is a case in point.

  9. #9 Jessica Palmer
    June 29, 2009

    Your post is really interesting, JR. As someone with experience as a scientific researcher, who has also written and edited press releases, reported and edited science news stories, written a blog, taught students, and worked in a communications office (and more fundamentally, as someone who double majored in science and humanities) I find it utterly impossible to put myself into either an exclusively “scientist” or exclusively “journalist” POV. I just don’t think it’s that big of a dichotomy – or wouldn’t be, if people and professional cultures didn’t work to make it so. Which they do. But I think the question you ask, about how people would label themselves and why, is a very pertinent question indeed!

  10. #10 mediajackal
    July 15, 2009

    The idea that most reporters (including me) have time to research peer review is laughable — but so are some of the arrogant comments from scientists who have no understanding of journalism. What, you think it’s easy juggling multiple assignments, under time pressure, while making the stories accurate and understandable? Do you seriously believe that a reporter LIKES being wrong? Do you not realize that errors are embarrassing?

    I know enough about science to know I don’t know very much about science — and I am NOT too shy to admit so. More reporters should acknowledge their limits, of course. So should more scientists.

    Bora would make a lousy reporter — he assumes too much.

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