One of the by-products of the brouhaha (here, here) over The Atlantic article on vaccines was some interesting issues raised by the way the Knight Science Journalism Tracker handled it (here, here). If you aren’t familiar with KSJ Tracker, it’s a site that does “peer review” of science journalism. It’s goal “is to provide a broad sampling of the past day?s science news and, where possible, of news releases or other news tips related to publication of science news in the general circulation news media, mainly of the U.S.” I don’t get a chance to read it as often as I’d like, but when I do I find it measured and informative and I enjoy seeing how things look from the perspective of professional science journalists. Now I’m not a professional science journalist but I am a professional scientist who writes for the public. I don’t write under my own name, using instead a pseudonym shared by one or more like-minded public health scientists. So when I wished to register to comment about KSJ Tracker’s post about us, I was told their policy was that all commenters had to identify themselves with real names. Thus I confined my reply to this blog.
That’s KSJ Tracker’s policy and it works for them. I have no wish here to talk them out of it (although in an exchange of emails I did make an effort). Granting that the policy is the stuff of professional journalism, the assumptions and conventions which motivate it were formed when the information and authorial landscape was far different. So it seemed like an opportunity to make some observations from a non-professional-journalist-writing-science-for-the-public point of view. But first, a convention of our own. We’ve never divulged how many Reveres there are (once we said we were a non-prime number strictly less than 5, but this is a different point in time so we aren’t making that claim now). We will say that only one writes at a time, although all writers are in a sense a composite of many influences. Having said that, for clarity I will use the first person for the remainder of this, although it represents the views of everyone writing under the name revere or Revere.
With that out of the way, there are a cluster of questions here I will try to tease out. KSJ Tracker referred to us as “anonymous bloggers.” Let me try to make a distinction not everyone will buy, but which seems relevant, a distinction between a pseudonymous blogger and an anonymous one. “Anonymous” implies there is no way to know anything about you except what you way at that moment. But the Reveres (whether one or several) have written over 3200 posts stretching over years, far more material than usually available to establish authority or reliability for a writer. The pseudonym identifies us as the same writer(s) who wrote the previous day’s post, the one before that, and so on back 5 years. Most journalists are people none of us know and whose names are only vaguely familiar. Some get by-lines but don’t work for the paper where their article is published. Many news articles don’t have by-lines. There may be editors who take an active part in shaping the content and form of major (and not so major) pieces but whose names never appear. Publishers can select or suppress topics and stories (remember that there is another meaning to “power of the press”: the power of the person who owns the printing press). I have discovered — and to show you how naive I am about the news business was shocked by it — that a very large proportion of science reporting consists of barely warmed over press releases from a corporation’s, agency’s or university’s media relations office, something rarely evident to the reader.
Compared to that, the fact that we use a pseudonym seems somewhat less important. Our work is easily checkable (and we have a reasonable reputation in the science blogs world) and there is no one between the writer and the reader. We write, edit, publish and distribute without having to get anyone else’s permission or cooperation. There is no unrevealed mediation between writer and reader that is the rule in the world of professional science journalists. If our blog post were a press release written by an unidentified press officer at NIH, good science journalists would check with independent experts. Nothing prevents reporters from doing that for pseudonymous bloggers when they are publicly involved in an issue of substantial public interest. Moreover the Reveres as a blogging entity are not unknown in the world of public health itself. We can see on our referrer log that the blog is read in health departments and government agencies nationally and internationally on a regular basis.
Still, KSJ Tracker’s reasoning is that without having my real name, there is no way for them or their readers to know how credible I am. I offered to reveal myself to KSJ Tracker if that was the issue. We considered that an unnecessary concession but we were willing to make it. However the Reveres were not willing to reveal publicly any name writing under that authorship. There are various reasons for that, not none relevant to our authority. In discussing this with KSJ Tracking I did note a delicious irony. I edit an open access journal that practices open review — the names of the reviewer are known to the authors and vice versa, and the reviews are accessible for all published papers. We believe we get better and more constructive peer review this way. Most major scientific journals upon which professional science journalists rely, however, practice blind review — the reviewers and the authors are unknown to each other. The belief is that the content should speak for itself. This means that both our position and KSJ Tracker’s are internally inconsistent. It’s something to ponder.
Finally, I’d like to make some observations about how science writing is changing. The world of professional science journalism is shrinking as print journalism and the news industry is transformed by the failure of conventional media’s business model in the Age of the Internet. The paradox is that there is more good science writing for the general public done now than ever before. The ability to be one’s own writer, editor, publisher and distributor means that a motivated scientist can reach thousands or tens of thousands of readers who may be interested in his or her own specialty. Scienceblogs.com has well trafficked sites on archaeology, volcanology, ornithology, physics, etc., etc. Maybe some of us aren’t as skilled writers as the pros (although there are bloggers whose writing I’d put up against any journalist’s), but we know the science much better and we can do and say things about it that journalists can’t. Professional journalists and reporters often complain that without the main stream media doing the grunt work we wouldn’t exist. True, if you look at my posts, they often have a recognizable style: an opening paragraph followed by a pull quote (sometimes two) from a news article. I do use news gathering agencies and reporters as a stepping off place for many posts, but much of that is style. When I write about the same scientific articles they write about I read the article and don’t depend on them for what it says. But I still like to quote their stories because I want to give them credit for what they do and I have made it a habit to give the reporter’s by-line when I source a link. I do that on purpose.
If we didn’t have free and easy access to the work of journalists and reporters would that change our blogging? Yes. We would handle less breaking news and current happenings. But we have access to the same press releases, and now via live streaming, many of the same press conferences they do. We use the same sources they do. If I wanted to take the time I could call up scientists and interview them about what their paper means. But most of the time I don’t have to because I know what it means. I have their views. They are in the paper. I can tell readers what it says and can give my own views on it. Why should you believe my version of what the paper says if you don’t know who I am? You might because you have been reading me for a long time and have found what I say reliable. You would have the same problem with most reporters or journalists, whether you know their name or not. Let me turn the question around: why should you believe the views of Dr. X. of University Y when you’ve never heard of him or her and only know their title and nothing else? There are enough examples of how experts’ opinions are shaped by things other than science. At least if you read us regularly you have a sense of what those opinions and extra-scientific commitments are. We are depressingly consistent here.
KSJ Tracker’s question about the authority of a pseudonymous blogger is a good one because it opens up a Pandora’s Box of other questions. It’s like science itself. Trying to answer one question usually leads to many new ones.