White Coat Underground

Science journalism pet peeve

I frequently read about the latest medical and scientific “breakthroughs” in the mainstream media, and in modern media such as sciencedaily.com. One commonality is lack of citations. If I’m lucky, they may cite the source journal or meeting. If I’m really, really lucky, they may even give a general date (e.g., “JAMA in June”). But I never see an actual citation. That would be one simple way to improve science journalism. A standard citation would give readers the tools to evaluate the primary source. In science, we consider that pretty important.

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. O
    June 28, 2010

    Agreed completely. I can’t even begin to count how many times a family member has asked me about an article they read in the paper/online/magazine. There is rarely a good way to track down the original science, yielding me completely incapable of answering any of their questions. I would think mainstream journalists would be required to cite some kind of source for their work…

  2. #2 Jason G. Goldman
    June 28, 2010

    And for online media, this is trivially accomplished with hyperlinks (minimally) or researchblogging.org

  3. #3 Joanne
    June 28, 2010

    The average reader wouldn’t have a clue what to do with citation information and really doesn’t care about it anyway. In addition, there are space and air time limits that journalists have to adhere to in order for their stories to be printed or put on the air. There literally is not enough time/space to put together a decent health-related story, so there’s no way we’d want to waste space with citations that only a tiny fraction of people would be interested in. In addition, citations (typically found in scientific literature) are technical enough that seeing them might alienate the average reader. There just isn’t a compelling reason to include citations in articles generated by the popular press. I do a PubMed search with whatever info I can cull from the media story and that has always been successful for me.

  4. #4 Joanne
    June 28, 2010

    Dr. O,
    Members of the mainstream media DO cite references when they quote sources. No one expects anything more (except medical personnel, apparently). Your suggestion may seem tenable to you, as medical professionals, but it is never going to happen. The reality is that the public is lucky health/medical reporters even exist at this point. The media business is in a sorry state right now. Just as physicians claim not to be able to do certain things and remain in business, there are certain things that would be ill-advised, from a business standpoint, for the media, too. If you can’t find it on PubMed using the date information and researcher names in the story, then you probably need to try harder.

  5. #5 PalMD
    June 28, 2010

    A brief citation of the study of interest is one line. There is no way every friggin word in the story is so good that a few cannot be sacrificed for one line.

    I don’t buy the “the public doesn’t care” argument. That’s condescending bull.

  6. #6 Joanne
    June 28, 2010

    Ever participated in an editorial meeting in a major market news organization? I didn’t think so.

  7. #7 PalMD
    June 28, 2010

    So you agree that MSM is responsible for it’s own failure to standardize citations?

  8. #8 Maryn
    June 28, 2010

    I agree. And I’m a member of the mainstream media (as well as a Scibling). It makes me nuts to read someone else’s story and have to go hunt/guess for what the reference might be. I think it would enhance credibility. It might be tricky for broadcast, but most broadcast stories have a web presence now, and on the web space is infinite. In print, we could develop a short form that takes minimal space – it’s really only convention that holds us back. Well, that and residual discomfort at readers looking over our shoulders. (FWIW, my own feeling that we could cite more is why my latest book, a work of journalism, has 600+ footnotes.)

  9. #9 Dr. O
    June 28, 2010

    It seems to me saying “A new study from The Journal of Interesting Data shows that fish can fly.” would not be a difficult feat to overcome.

  10. #10 PalMD
    June 28, 2010

    That’s actually done somewhat frequently, but many of these outlets receive press releases before even early e-pub and they run with it. It would be nice to see an actual citation to see if there is any merit, esp. since the article may end up being a re-hash of the press release.

  11. #11 Orac
    June 28, 2010

    Heck, if they could just put a hyperlink to the PubMed citation for a study when they say “investigators from the University of XXX reported.” I mean, sheesh. What’s so hard about that?

  12. #12 ZenMonkey
    June 28, 2010

    There just isn’t a compelling reason to include citations in articles generated by the popular press.

    More and more, there certainly is. With so much pseudoscience out there, it is vital for people to know whether a story is based on peer-reviewed research or reported by someone who doesn’t know what lies behind the benevolent-sounding name of “Natural News.” This should be an integral part of any science reporting. I completely agree with Pal that there’s no excuse for not making room for a short citation.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    June 29, 2010

    There was a lot of hallway discussion about this at SOL 2010.

    Here’s something interesting: My wife is taking a grad class in neurobiology, and one of the instructors passed around a Seed article on a relevant topic as an example of what the public gets by way of science reporting. The negative comment the instructor made about Seed was that it lacked … references to original material, rendering it relatively useless.

  14. #14 DNLee
    June 29, 2010

    so true

  15. #15 Jason G. Goldman
    June 29, 2010

    The average reader wouldn’t have a clue what to do with citation information and really doesn’t care about it anyway.

    The average reader doesn’t need to *do* anything with a citation. The mere presence of a citation adds authenticity and suggests at least a minimal amount of preparation.

  16. #16 Chris Rowan
    June 29, 2010

    The average reader journalist wouldn’t have a clue what to do with citation information and really doesn’t care about it anyway.

    Fixed that for you.

  17. #17 Abel Pharmboy
    June 29, 2010

    Ever participated in an editorial meeting in a major market news organization? I didn’t think so.

    Sad to say that this is the kind of condescending and dismissive thinking that is causing pedestrian “we’ve always done it this way” journalism from getting crushed in the new media landscape. I’m sure that PalMD and every other sci/med blogger can tell you about the number of average newspaper readers who come to these blogs and inundate us with PubMed citations to support (or misinterpret) their points. Yes, average readers today do at least care about primary literature and will at least read a scientific abstract.

    This is also why people who get it, like Maryn “Scary Disease Girl” McKenna above, are kicking ass and taking names, moving forward, being successful – and still being REAL journalists.

    I wrote a blogpost and then an old-fashioned e-mail to my regional newspapers about this very issue noting, as did Orac, a simple hyperlink to the study in the online edition would substantially increase a story’s value without sacrificing space. The editor, Sarah Avery of the Monday Science & Technology section in the Raleigh N&O and Charlotte Observer newspapers took this to her team and – voila! – hyperlinks now appear in stories in this section. The practice has yet to filter to the rest of the organization but it’s a start – and why I still take the dead-tree editions of the N&O on weekends: they are responsive to readers.

  18. #18 Grant
    June 29, 2010

    I’ve written independently about the links issue in my blog (see link on my name). In the midst of other things, I argued that one business reason to include links is that

    “people who are reading news on-line may likely be “going around” the media, trying to locate other sources on the same issue to form their own opinion. It occurs to me that media want to be showing that they are pulling the bits well to encourage loyalty to their product and links may serve this role.”

    Just a thought — ?

  19. #19 the bug guy
    June 29, 2010

    Joanne,
    That kind of attitude is exactly why my wife dropped her Science Journalism major and switched to Chemistry. It was a bad attitude on the part of journalists then and it is even more of a bad attitude now. The citation enhances credibility while hiding the source degrades credibility.

  20. #20 daedalus2u
    June 29, 2010

    I suspect that Joanne’s point is more about MSM trying to maintain being a choke-point on information. It is about not divulging your sources so that the next person down the information chain can’t go around you.

    When you are trying to commodify information and profit from information that other people have generated, keeping the source of that information hidden or obscure is an important part of your business model.

    When MSM had the monopoly of limited broadcast analog bandwidth, it was a monopoly so they could demand a disproportionate share of the information delivery chain. With the internet, the monopoly is gone, but the attitude that the monopoly fostered for many years is still there.

    MSM isn’t going to change their practices unless they are forced to. Most of them get advanced copies of the journal articles. Journals do that to get more publicity prior to the article coming out. If the journals required the MSM articles to link to the published work or not get advanced copy the next time, then MSM journalists would do it.

    What is needed is for Google to figure out what journal article the MSM article is about and link to it. That is a service that scientific readers would actually pay money for. If the journal sent the articles to Google when they sent them to the MSM journalists, then Google could cross-reference them and save scientists a few minutes of searching time.

  21. #21 Grant
    June 29, 2010

    daedalus2u,

    I’m not sure if you’re replying to me or not.

    I wasn’t replying to Joanne, but adding to the original post.

    If you are replying to me, I’m not writing about scientists, etc., locating the links, but conveying to the non-science public that the bits that make up the story have been pulled together. They don’t have to read the links, as such, but gain the impression that the story is there.

    In a sense you could read your point about “not divulging your sources so that the next person down the information chain can’t go around you” as traditionally (i.e. in a print-only environment) arising competition with other journalists and newspapers.

    Now move to a WWW setting. If readers sense you’re not covering it well, for whatever reason, well justified or not, they’ll go around you. (As an aside, I’m sure I’m not the only person that uses the media to get the topic, but look elsewhere for the “real” content. As a consequence I have no particular loyalty to any particular media source, as you can get the topics pretty much anywhere.)

    I’m suggesting that by adding the links media might encourage readers accept that their material is “where it’s at” and from that build loyalty.

    With the WWW there are always means for readers to get around a media report, even if it’s just searching for blogs writing on the topic. In a sense I’m suggesting the the WWW may have up-ended the older notion protecting your sources from other *journalists*, at least for science journalism, so now it’s better to expose them to *readers* — ?

    (Just random thoughts in the wee hours…)

  22. #22 bsci
    June 29, 2010

    Tangentially related, but the most recent example of this pet peeve that is bothering me is: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/opinion/27dowd.html

    It’s an entire article about how cell phones might be as dangerous as smoking with paragraphs of random speculation and references to only a single sentence noting actual research on this topic.
    One Swedish study that followed young people who began using cells as teenagers for 10 years calculated a 400 percent increase in brain tumors

  23. #23 Vicki
    June 29, 2010

    This is particularly annoying with online sources. Sometimes they provide (perhaps automatically) not really relevant links: if the story is about research by Professor Jane Doe of the University of Wherever, I get a link to the homepage for U. of Whatever, when I could use a link to, at least, Professor Doe’s page (or the department page). A link to the paper, or press release, would also be useful.

    As PalMD has noted, links don’t use up space on the screen. And if you’re going to do a sidebar, with “outside links,” make them useful: I don’t usually need a link to the foundation that sponsored Dr. Doe’s research. But it seems to be easier to provide unrelated links on the topic (e.g., previous papers on Homo floresiensis for a story on new research/claims about that species, rather than a link to the actual new work).

  24. #24 Peter Beattie
    June 29, 2010

    » Joanne:
    The average reader wouldn’t have a clue what to do with citation information and really doesn’t care about it anyway.

    Translation: You will deny any responsibility to increase the knowledge and/or skills of your readers, and you will go on telling your readers what they do and do not care about. Charming.

    I’m wondering: do you just cater to what you think is an audience that is stupid and complacent, or is it just your journalism that keeps them so? Oh wait, that’s the same thing…

    Ever participated in an editorial meeting in a major market news organization? I didn’t think so.

    Quite the dick move, Joanne. But apparently not even you yourself can boast of that experience, what with your completely unfounded arrogance about ‘we know best what our readers want and need’ and ‘there’s simply no space for citations’. Two of the absolute basics of journalism anyone worth their salt has learnt are: we don’t know half as much about our readers as we think; and anything can be shortened.

    But then, that’s mainstream journalism for you, where mediocrity is a mark of distinction. Here, any ideas involving quality will be fought with tooth and nail—dismissing them as naive, ill-advised, and untenable—lest the cosyness of the status quo be upset.

    The media business is in a sorry state right now.

    Well, call Stockholm, I say. The really pathetic thing is to see so-called journalists thinking of their audience as stupid and complacent, a perfect example of ‘projection’ if I have ever seen one. Small wonder, actually, since you think of it as “the media business”.

  25. #25 Matthew F
    June 29, 2010

    I like the idea. I happen to have as a very minor duty copying news stories from a university news site to a science department’s own news site, and nobody looks that closely at what I do…. so I’m going to start adding a pubmed or journal article link to every article where one exists, until someone complains.

  26. #26 James Sweet
    June 29, 2010

    A brief citation of the study of interest is one line. There is no way every friggin word in the story is so good that a few cannot be sacrificed for one line.

    I have to agree with Joanne on this one, but of course that only applies to print media, and even then primarily newspapers (magazines typically have more space to work with). I don’t expect the New York Times print edition to start putting citations at the end of articles — there’s just not room.

    But there’s absolutely no excuse for omitting it from the online version.

  27. #27 PalMD
    June 29, 2010

    There’s a print version?

  28. #28 Vicki
    June 29, 2010

    PalMD: What do you think we use to line the bird cages?

  29. #29 Grant
    June 29, 2010

    Matthew F,

    Good work! If you have the time, could I suggest you try DOI links rather than direct links to the journals. If you want examples, just check any blog post listed at Research Blogging: http://researchblogging.org/

    In fact, just look at the examples in the list of articles on the top page of Research Blogging itself.

  30. #30 PalMD
    June 29, 2010

    I think that Researchblogging.org actually has something to offer MSM in terms of ideas, community, and cross-promotion.

  31. #31 PharmacistScott
    June 29, 2010

    Because of format and style, I’ll cut MSM, particularly print, some slack, as long as the author includes enough information to allow me to find the article easily. Some combination of lead author, publication name, publication title, and year will usually do it. If the article can’t be found in PubMed based on this information, the full citation should really be provided.

  32. #32 BlindWatcher
    June 29, 2010

    Jason (15) said:

    The average reader doesn’t need to *do* anything with a citation. The mere presence of a citation adds authenticity and suggests at least a minimal amount of preparation.

    ZenMonkey (12) said:

    With so much pseudoscience out there, it is vital for people to know whether a story is based on peer-reviewed research

    I am not a science professional and don’t have access to PubMed etc – hence I thought I’d throw my opinion in…

    I would strongly support the 2 views that I have sited above. I need to know whether the research is peer-reviewed and/or have some indication of how reliable it is.

  33. #33 Maryn McKenna
    June 30, 2010

    This is a very provocative and interesting comment thread, and I am sulking that (because I am skipping across multiple time zones and relying on my iPhone because my ‘puter batteries are pathetic) I can’t participate in as nimble and responsive manner as I want to. But enough about me. From my POV, as a former print-only journalist now living mostly on the Web, out-linkage is where the MSM still really fail.

    There is a persistent and bizarre refusal to link to anything that is not a publication’s own archives (I can’t offer an example because I can’t multi-task, but any NYT story of any length will suffice). That takes in outside references — citations, and also non-sci/med databases and even govt repositories — and, shamefully to my mind, it includes other publications print or Web that have covered the same story. When I was still in a newsroom, which was only 4 years ago, I argued myself hoarse contending that linking to other pubs that had covered the same story or originated it might have harmed our credibility in the print-only era, but enhanced credibility and transparency in the Age Of Links. I got pretty much nowhere.

    The refusal to acknowledge earlier authors — scientific authors, other journalists, etc. — is so deep-rooted in US journalism that it is way beyond a professional practice; it’s more like an article of uninterrogated belief, and therefore regrettably unassailable.

  34. #34 PalMD
    June 30, 2010

    Thanks, Maryn. I think that single comment is worth a ton of examination.

  35. #35 Nigel
    June 30, 2010

    BlindWatcher, you do have access to PubMed: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/

    From my perspective, if a journalistic science article that interests me lacks citations, and if I cannot track down the citation (and it is not always easy, even with PubMed) it goes from being potentially useful information to virtually useless.

    And it is not just major MSM sources that omit citations in this way.Even New Scientist can’t be relied upon for citations, and press releases of teh sort found on university sites and sites such as EurekAlert generally lack them. I realize that a press release usually appears long before the relevant paper actually appears in a journal, but surely it is not the practice to put out a press release before the work has passed peer review, and is, consequently, “in press.” Why do they not at least tell us where the work is slated to appear? If nothing else, surely this would greatly increase any benefit the press release has to the researchers and their institution.

  36. #36 Blake Stacey
    June 30, 2010

    A hyperlink to the original journal article is information the newspaper should already have, which costs nothing to add and will only make people like them more. I mean, if an individual reader doesn’t care, then the extra underline doesn’t make a difference, but if they do appreciate it — or if they discover that they do — then they’ll be coming back.

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