You may be aware that, as of recently, one of my tasks at work is to monitor media coverage of PLoS ONE articles. This is necessary for our own archives and monthly/annual reports, but also so I could highlight some of the best media coverage on the everyONE blog for everyone to see. As PLoS ONE publishes a large number of articles every week, we presume that many of you would appreciate getting your attention drawn to that subset of articles that the media found most interesting.
So, for example, as I missed last week due to my trip to AAAS, I posted a two-week summary of media coverage this Monday. And that took far more time and effort (and some silent cursing) than one would expect. Why?
I don’t think I am a slouch at googling stuff. Some people joke that the entire Internet passes through my brain before it goes to the final audience. After all, I have been monitoring the Web for mentions of ‘PLoS’ and ‘Public Library of Science’ on blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and elsewhere for a few years now. If I don’t catch a mention within minutes of it being posted, you can bet one of my many online friends/followers/subscribers is bound to quickly let me know by e-mail or Direct Messaging somewhere. If someone says something nice about PLoS, I am quick to post a ThankYou note. If someone asks a question, I try to answer or to connect the person with the appropriate member of the PLoS staff. If someone is publicly musing about submitting a manuscript to one of our journals, I am right there to give encouragement. If someone makes a factual error, I gently correct it. It is very, very rare that I need to raise the Immense Online Armies because someone is wrong on the Internet
So, why is it difficult then to compile a collection of weekly media coverage? Let me walk you through the process….
First, as you probably already know, PLoS makes no distinction between Old and New media. We have bloggers on our press list who apply/sign-up in the same way and abide by the same rules as traditional journalists (and, unlike mainstream media, bloggers NEVER break embargos, not once in the past three years since we started adding bloggers to our press list). For the kind of coverage we prefer to see, we point bloggers to the ResearchBlogging.org criteria. In return, bloggers can send trackbacks to our articles, their work is showcased side-by-side with the traditional outlets in our weekly posts, they can be discovered via Google Blogsearch, Postgenomic and ResearchBlogging.org links directly from each article, and one blogger per month wins a t-shirt and special recognition.
So, I start with blog posts first. The first thing I do is take a look at ResearchBlogging.org. Those are the best of the best posts – not merely mentioning our articles, but adding analysis, commentary, critique, context and additional information. How do I find them? I just search the site for the phrase ‘journal.pone‘. That search brings up every single post that mentions a PLoS ONE article because that phrase is a part of every possible form of the URL of the article (including the shortest one, which includes just the DOI). If a post links to our article (and that is the only way to get aggregated on ResearchBlogging.org) I will find it this way. Needless to say, this process takes just a few minutes per week.
Knowing that there are some good blogs out there that are not registered at ResearchBlogging.org (which is strange and unfathomable why – RB.org is a ‘stamp-of-approval’ place for science blogs recognized by the outside world of journals and media, as well as a nice way to get extra recognition and traffic, and even awards), I then repeat the same search – for ‘journal.pone‘ – on Google Blogsearch. This may bring up a few more posts that I did not catch yet. Occasionally, some of these are good. Another couple of minutes. Blogs are now done. Move on to traditional media….
And this is where the Hell starts. Try searching Google News for ‘journal.pone‘…?! All I get are a couple of prominent blogs that I have already counted, e.g., those blogs that are listed by Google News (scienceblogs.com blogs, Ars Technica, Wired blogs, etc.). Where are the others?
The problem is, nobody in the mainstream media links to papers.
So I have to search for PLoS and for Public Library Of Science and then figure out which ones are covering specifically PLoS ONE articles (sometimes they don’t specify, sometimes they name the wrong journal – last week an article on PLoS Current-Influenza was reported to be in PLoS ONE by a number of outlets copying the error from each other). Then I have to search for keywords for individual articles I suspect may have received some coverage. Last week, for example, I searched for “swallows+antioxidants” and “St. Birgitta”, among many others. This lasts for hours! And at the end I am still not 100% sure I caught everything. How frustrating!
Not just is there a big difference in time and effort spent between finding blog posts and finding media articles, but there is an even bigger disparity when one considers what results come out of these searches. I have been doing this for a month now. I expected that there would be poor blog posts and poor media articles, that there would be good blog posts and good media articles, and that there would occasionally be some excellent blog posts and excellent media articles. So far, that is true…. except I have yet to discover an excellent media article. As a rule, the very best coverage of every paper in the past month was done by a blogger or two or three. Then there are some other, good pieces of coverage in both the New and Old media, and then there are some really bad pieces in both realms as well (not all blog posts I count here are really bad – they may just be too detailed, technical and dry for lay audience because the blogger is intentionally targeting scientific peers as audience, which is fair thing to acknowledge).
So, every week, it takes me a few minutes to find the very best coverage (which is on blogs, usually those aggregated on ResearchBlogging.org). And then I spend hours looking for remnants, in the traditional media, which turn out to be so-so, some OK, some not so good, some horrible. If I wasn’t paid to do this, I would not do it – it cannot be good for my long-term mental health.
The resistance to post links is an atavism, a remnant of an old age before the Web. I know (because I asked many times) many good science journalists keep trying to add links, but the editors say No. The traditional media has still not caught on to the Ethic of the Link, which is an essential aspect of ethics of online communication.
I can think, off the top of my head, of three good reasons why everyone who publishes online should include a link to the scientific paper described in the article (just post the DOI link that comes with the press release if you are on the press list – if it does not resolve immediately, it is not your fault, you can always blame the journals for being slow on it – though this should never happen with PLoS articles):
Reason One: I will not go crazy every week. I am assuming that every scientific publisher has people on the staff whose task is to monitor media coverage and each one of these people is cussing and cursing YOU, the Media, every day. Try to make friends with people who provide you with source material on a regular basis.
Reason Two: Media coverage is one of the many elements of article-level metrics. Furthermore, links from the media affect the number of views and downloads of the article, and those are also elements of article-level metrics. Number of views/downloads then, in the future, affects the number of citations the work gets which is also and element of article-level metrics. Thus omitting the link skewes the ability of readers and observers to evaluate the papers properly.
The current ecosystem of science communication has a scientific paper at its core, additions to the paper (e.g., notes, comments and ratings, as well as Supplemental materials, videos posted on Scivee.tv, etc) as a shell, and incoming and outgoing links – trackbacks, cited papers, citing papers, links to other papers in the same Collection, links to other papers with the same keywords, and yes, incoming links from the media – as connections building a network: the entire inter-connected ecosystem of scientific knowledge.
By not linking to scientific papers, traditional media is keeping itself outside of the entire ecosystem of empirical knowledge. By doing this, the traditional media is fast making itself irrelevant.
Reason Three: if an article in the media discusses a scientific study, that scientific paper is the source material for the article. If the link is missing, this is an automatic red flag for the readers. What is the journalist hiding? Why is the article making it difficult for readers to fact-check the journalist? Something does not smell good if the link is not provided (or worse, it is impossible to figure out even who are the authors and in which journal did they publish – yes, that is more common than you think).
The instant and automatic response of the readers is mistrust. Every time you fail to link to the paper, you further erode whatever trust and reputation you still may have with the audience. You soon cease to be a legitimate source of information. Sure, most readers will not go hunting for the paper to read it in order to fact-check you. But two or three will, and they will let everyone else know if your article is trustworthy or not, either in the comments under the article on your own site, or on their blogs which will be quickly picked up by Google (remember: Google loves blogs).
So please, media types, hurry up and catch up with the world. The 21st century is already a decade in – you really need to do some very fast learning. Right now. Or you’ll go extinct in a nanosecond. And despite my reputation, I never said that I’d consider that result to be a Good Thing. We are in this together, you just need to do your part. To begin with, start linking.