Mike the Mad Biologist

ScienceBlogling Ed Yong asks a good question about scientific embargoes–the practice of giving reporters press releases about to-be-published research on the condition that they don’t publish before a certain date: “Does science journalism falter or flourish under embargo?

Opponents of embargoes believe that the practice, to use Ed’s phrase, leads to shoddy ‘churnalism.’ But it’s not clear to me how one investigates published research.

First, most science journalists lack the expertise to criticize much of what they cover–it’s not that they’re stupid, but they’re not going to know more (most of the time) than the researchers in that field. Moreover, it’s not clear exactly how one could rigorously critique a paper one hasn’t seen yet (sometimes the paper isn’t even released ahead of time). Fundamentally, however, it’s just not clear what there is to investigate. This isn’t like a corrupt politician, or denying the use of torture. The paper will out there: anyone can comment on it.

This, to me, highlights one of the fundamental problems inherent in science journalism: covering research findings, unless it’s really shoddy science (which happens), is ‘churnalism.’ The only way it couldn’t be would be to write an informed critique of the work, and, heaven forbid, the best people to do that aren’t journalists, but working scientists in the field. They can do so formally, in journals, or informally (blogs, etc.). And as Ed notes, the public at large needs this translational filter (even if the filter doesn’t always work so well).

Sadly, there are many areas in science that would benefit from investigative journalism:

  1. How are proposals really funded? As I’ve noted before, there is never a detailed article about how things get funded–only vague generalities. Compare that to the attention to detail found in political reporting.
  2. Are grants and funded projects meeting their goals? If not, why not?
  3. What are the priorities of the funding agencies and the sections within the funding agencies? Are the funded projects addressing those goals? Hell, most working scientists would like to know that.

These are just a few areas where an enterprising investigative journalist could make his or her mark. But a published paper?

Stupid.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard Carter, FCD
    July 5, 2009

    In theory (but not always in practice), embargoes give journalists time to consult with ‘working scientists in the field’, to help them report accurately to other non-experts. I think, on the whole, this is a good thing – although embargoes can be misused.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 5, 2009

    The thing is, none of that stuff has anything to do with science per se, and that kind of investigative reporting can be done by people who don’t know jack shit about the scientific content. In my opinion, the unique role that science journalists can play is to act as an expert interpreter of complicated jargon-filled technical research paper for the generally educated interested public. And for this kind of reporting, “scooping”, embragoes, and other happy horseshit are meaningless, because the value added by the journalist is not being the first to tell people that a new paper on blah has just been published, but rather being the most effective at explaining the shit.

    Ed happens to excel at exactly that kind of science journalism.

  3. #3 QrazyQat
    July 5, 2009

    I think there is something wrong with these embargoes, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the journalism side. It’s that science is being done via PR, and this inevitably leads to the scientists and their publicists misrepresenting science and how it works. For instance, the most common thing is describing one’s research as overturning previous science when it usually, almost always, just reinforces one previous idea over another, and builds on previous work. This leads to the public being understandably confused and thinking that science is not to be trusted, since what we know now will be completely overturned at any moment.

  4. #4 Prozac
    July 6, 2009

    The problem with the press is that it tends to write down it’s own incorrect impressions of what science is doing, and the science side of things sometimes can’t explain it in plain enough language to make the picture clear. Of course, this isn’t just a science problem, as any field with a lot of technical jargon faces this.

  5. #5 BillJ
    July 7, 2009

    There are a few other things science journalists can do with research findings. They can pick out and highlight the aspects most interesting or important to the general public (sometimes not the main thrust of the research). And they can put the findings into a social and political context, elaborating on the ramifications of the finding in the wider world outside of science. Or sometimes the journalist has a broad multidisciplinary view than the research and can see the research finding’s importance to fields the researcher wasn’t even thinking about. The embargo gives time to contact scientists in those other fields, explain the research to them and ask what they make of it.

  6. #6 David Dobbs
    July 7, 2009

    What would investigative science journalism look like?

    One answer: My story on the overexpansion of the PTSD Dx. Dirt, and lots of it, dug up for view.

    Links here: http://is.gd/1qfES

  7. #7 QrazyQat
    July 8, 2009

    The problem with the press is that it tends to write down it’s own incorrect impressions of what science is doing, and the science side of things sometimes can’t explain it in plain enough language to make the picture clear.

    If you look at how science is promoted — by the scientists and their organizations’ PR departments, they start a lot of the incorrect impressions through trying to make their findings sound more exciting and groundbreaking.

    The embargo gives time to contact scientists in those other fields, explain the research to them and ask what they make of it.

    Rare, but possible.