To Media Covering Science: An Open Letter

Dear Mass Media Covering Science (BBC, CNN, etc):
I need some help. I often get emailed or tweets from readers, saying “hey! look at this article! Isn’t it cool/weird?! You should cover it!” I see the article. It is indeed very cool and weird. I’m all up ons. Except for one problem:
What, exactly, was the paper you were covering?
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If you’re going to cover science, real science, happening now, it’s not enough just to know that “researchers” have published in “the Journal of Sexual Medicine”. It’s not a very small journal. There’s not an exact date. It could have been any one of the last 40 articles published. I’m sure you think the topic “the g-spot” narrows it down. But it doesn’t. It’s the JOURNAL OF SEXUAL MEDICINE. At least half of the articles are on orgasm, and a good 70% of those are in women.
And then of course, who are these “researchers”? There was so much “controversy” over the topic in question that I actually had a great deal of trouble figuring out WHO the lead author was. It was buried at the end of a quote on one side of the page. At first, I thought the majority of quotes were from the lead author, but in fact they were from the lead author who disagreed with the study. And in many previous articles that I have seen, the names of the authors were not mentioned at ALL. Sometimes the journal is simple “will be published soon”. The title of the actual study is never mentioned.
It’s not like this is hard. This is, after all, the internet. This means there are things called “links”. All you need is one link to, say, the journal in question and the abstract of the article. Or perhaps maybe a *gasp* citation at the bottom the article. Just something so I can find out where I need to go to get the science behind the headline.
Sci would also like to point out that what we have here is a problem with “citing your sources”. This is something that, I believe, most people learn how to do in high school, or failing that, college (my professor mother tells me she has to teach a lot of it in college). I assume that the vast majority of the people working for your respected news source have college degrees. Presumably they have been exposed to things like the MLA handbook. Thus, they know that citing things is important. It’s also, due to the glory of the internet, very, very easy.
There are many reasons why not citing your sources is a bad habit. First, people need to know where the research is coming from. A lot of US funded research, for example, is free online. Sure, it might be really complicated to read, but everyone should be able to look at the paper, or at least the abstract (which is usually available). If you don’t provide those links, people have to rely on what YOU write, which often is more of a teaser than the real deal, and can sometimes not be the whole story. You want people to get the whole story, don’t you?
Second: if you’re just writing about “researchers” at a large institution, with no real names given, and no citations, how do we know how good the journal was, how reliable the research IS, and whether or not to TRUST it? Trumpeting a headline to the skies often results in people getting the wrong point out of your article. If we don’t have a link or information on the source, it’s hard to know whether the science is trustworthy.
And third: what if I want to BLOG about it? What if I am very concerned with the area, and want to contact the authors? And then…I don’t know who these people are, or what the article was.
So, Mass Media, please consider this. It’s a link. It’s not hard. Sci herself can teach you the html. Or, include a little blurb at the bottom of the article. Good for us, and good for you.
Happy Wednesday,
Sci

34 Responses

  1. Asking for a link is actually impractical given the way that news embargoes currently work. To elaborate: there is a time gap between the point when an embargo lifts and when a paper is actually published. For some journals, this time is just a few hours (Nature, Science); for others, it can be up to a week (PNAS); for yet others, it can be months (Journal of Zoology, I’m looking at you).
    So at the point where a journalist writes a piece, there is no paper to link to. It’s not publicly available yet. What they’d have to do is to go back to the piece after it’s been published and retrospectively add a link. And by then, they’ve got other things to work on and (as with PNAS) it’s never entirely clear when the paper is actually going to go live. You’ll notice on Not Exactly Rocket Science that I don’t link to papers either for this reason. I do, however, try to provide the DOI or, if possible, a full citation so that when the paper does come online, readers will at least be able to find it.
    That’s a more practical thing to ask mainstream media to do. However, what often happens is that people are still confused because they’ll search for something that isn’t actually out yet. I get a lot of comments and the occasional email saying something like “Where’s the paper? Your DOI isn’t working? Can you send me a copy?” or occasionally, “HOAX! This is a HOAX!”
    Of course, the best solution would be to totally eliminate the gap between embargo and publication so that the public can actually see the paper (or, at least, the abstract) when the news hits.

  2. This is something that, I believe, most people learn how to do in high school
    Oh, SNAP, sistah!!
    Seriously, though, it’s sad how right you are.

  3. Ooooh, excellent point Ed! I didn’t really think of it that way. But they could still provide the full title or the citation, so when it DOES come out, people can see it. (And yeah, even better would be getting rid of the embargo publication gap…)

  4. Unable to find a citation in an article about being unable to find the g-spot.
    Interesting parallel.

  5. Sometimes, researchers are to blame. Some seem to think peer review is too good for them and just put out a press release.
    Working on a blog post about this very subject, in fact, that will go up next Tuesday (12 January 2010 — I work ahead to space out my posts).

  6. Zen: go ahead and put it in the comments when it goes up, I’ll wanna see it!

  7. As a member of that dreaded MSM, I am in total agreement. And, I’m happy to say, my editors at the Times are beginning to greet my journal-paper links with open arms. See the linky goodness in my Tasmanian devil cancer story in Friday’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/01/science/01devil.html

  8. Of course, the best solution would be to totally eliminate the gap between embargo and publication so that the public can actually see the paper (or, at least, the abstract) when the news hits.
    Yes. There is something very screwed-up about lots of fanfare and noise for a paper that no-one will be able to read for weeks or months.

  9. Of course, the best solution would be to totally eliminate the gap between embargo and publication so that the public can actually see the paper (or, at least, the abstract) when the news hits.
    Yes. There is something very screwed-up about lots of fanfare and noise for a paper that no-one will be able to read for weeks or months.

  10. This may be somewhat tangential, but I feel exactly the same way about the lack of citations on images found on blogs.
    Lots of people post very cool photos or graphics without any backlinking or name of who made them. Makes me crazy. I’m working on a blog award icon for people who cite ’em.

  11. Glendon: ooops…Sci will admit she’s a big offender on that one…the ones above are from the BBC and CNN site though.πŸ™‚

  12. Carl, I have to say, the NYT has gotten much better with links in recent months. There’s nothing worse than clicking on a link only to find it’s just pointing to a search for that term on the NYT’s own site.
    For my part, I’m generally writing about blog posts in my MSM gig, and I always link to those. And I try to mention the lead author and the journal in which the paper in question appeared. But you’re right, Scicurious, I should also link to the paper that the blogger is talking about.

  13. It’s not just the MSM — this has happened on Slashdot, of all places. Or there will be a link to a paper, but actually reading the paper behind the link will reveal that the poster got the wrong article.

  14. Oh hey that’s not directed at you Sci; I hadn’t noticed it here so much.
    I think your frustration to msm’s lack of citations is similar to how I feel about art & images; everyone has some tunnel-vision to their own concerns.

  15. Oh hey that’s not directed at you Sci; I hadn’t noticed it here so much.
    I think your frustration to msm’s lack of citations is similar to how I feel about art & images; everyone has some tunnel-vision to their own concerns.

  16. Ed, almost all journals use the doi system now, and by the time a paper is made available under embargo, the doi is assigned. The link to the paper is then just dx.doi.org/doi_number. You can then link to the paper irrespective of its availability and, if you want to be really fancy, let the reader know the date at which the link will actually let the reader see the paper. Its not perfect, but it does work.

  17. I share some of Sci’s frustration – I wrote a few weeks ago on a great model of covering stories for both the public and interested scientists/science writers that came from the UK’s NHS Choices:
    http://scienceblogs.com/terrasig/2009/12/how_to_report_in_vitro_cancer.php

  18. I share some of Sci’s frustration – I wrote a few weeks ago on a great model of covering stories for both the public and interested scientists/science writers that came from the UK’s NHS Choices:
    http://scienceblogs.com/terrasig/2009/12/how_to_report_in_vitro_cancer.php

  19. Carl Zimmer: I actually left off the NY Times from the people I was addressing, as they tend to be really good about this stuff, especially recently. I wish others did the same!
    Glendon: Hey, no offense taken, you brought it to my attention and it’s something I should do!

  20. Is it sad that I instantly knew which paper you were talking about? Or is is just sad that I learned about it from XKCD this morning? πŸ™‚
    Totally agreed though. So many of these MSM articles leave me curious/skeptical/generally wanting to read more, but then I have no way of doing so. I’ll admit, I have passed one or two of them to you, hoping that as a Real Science Person ™ you would be able to find the paper when I couldn’t!

  21. Is it sad that I instantly knew which paper you were talking about? Or is is just sad that I learned about it from XKCD this morning? πŸ™‚
    Totally agreed though. So many of these MSM articles leave me curious/skeptical/generally wanting to read more, but then I have no way of doing so. I’ll admit, I have passed one or two of them to you, hoping that as a Real Science Person ™ you would be able to find the paper when I couldn’t!

  22. Being a part of MSM, too, I think there are two main factors at play:
    1. Many journalists rely on press releases, such as those posted on EurekAlert, AlphaGalileo or university websites. And they do not always contain the information you’re asking for (DOI is still quite rare there).
    2. There is still a trend to keep the sources to oneself, because it’s viewed as a “professional resource”. If a writer reveals them, then people could go straight to the original material, omitting the MSM article completely. It may sound stupid if we’re talking about peer-reviewed journals, but when some MSM “journalist” writes a piece based solely on “New Scientist” for example, it’s not something he/she would like to disclose… Sad, but true.

  23. thanks for writing this, I hope it works!!!

  24. I agree, I can’t stand that kind of coverage. But my biggest beef remains that journalists too often don’t understand zilch about what they are covering, and extrapolate the most frivolous consequences while obscuring the essence of the study. It infuriates me.
    I feel like bashing those journalists and their bosses a bit more, though. They are the first to complain about the fact that ordinary media, allegedly an essential institution to democracy, is being dissolved by the interweb. They seem to miss the fact that bloggers are exposing journalistic weaknesses, and that the proper reaction is to step up.

  25. You’re making the mistaken assumption that MSM actually wants to inform anyone. Their job is to draw and keep people on their site so they can be exposed to as much advertising there as possible, so as to make the site more attractive to sponsors. That’s why misleading headlines, obscure studies, and overblown results are the order of the day. They don’t want people to get distracted by the science and go off for more. They want people to say “oh, this is kinda cool; I oughta tweet about it to my friends”. This is also why they exaggerate (or even invent) controversy.

  26. Like the freaking “spoons are a dangerous health risk” thing that appeared in Science Daily the other day! At least they directed you to the press release, which took you to the report, wherein you could find out that the research really didn’t prove that spoons are dangerous at all!
    Made me so angry!

  27. Although I agree with Ibis that one of the major problems here is that Truth does not hold much of an incentive in part of the MSM, it does hold some power in the media, just as it does in any other sphere of life (I’m not even certain that scientists can necessarily cast the first stone when it comes to “overblown” results). The power that Truth holds is somewhat simple, it allows people to make predictions that are more accurate than Untruth, and in the end people figure this out – if a movie reviewer says that the best movie all year is “Couple’s Retreat” it won’t take very long for the public to start ignoring that reviewer. I think that the underlying problem is that many members of the MSM (and the general public, and even perhaps some scientists) don’t really understand how scientific Truths are revealed, and that what is needed more than anything else is a wider understanding of the process by which Science reveals Truth.

  28. Although I agree with Ibis that one of the major problems here is that Truth does not hold much of an incentive in part of the MSM, it does hold some power in the media, just as it does in any other sphere of life (I’m not even certain that scientists can necessarily cast the first stone when it comes to “overblown” results). The power that Truth holds is somewhat simple, it allows people to make predictions that are more accurate than Untruth, and in the end people figure this out – if a movie reviewer says that the best movie all year is “Couple’s Retreat” it won’t take very long for the public to start ignoring that reviewer. I think that the underlying problem is that many members of the MSM (and the general public, and even perhaps some scientists) don’t really understand how scientific Truths are revealed, and that what is needed more than anything else is a wider understanding of the process by which Science reveals Truth.

  29. Of course if they’d just used the headline “Scientists Have Difficulty Locating G-Spot” we’d all have nodded sagely, said “So what else is new?” and moved right along.

  30. Laserboy speaketh teh sense.

  31. @22
    I could not believe they used that headline to talk about measuring medicines! It’s like having “Is your toilet trying to kill you?” as the title for an article about water conservation.

  32. This ties into a conversation I was having with a relative the other day. She mentioned a story in a regional newspaper about how “scientists had found” that some fruit, apparently used in Chinese medicine, was good for something or other. The story being a typical “scientists say X is good for Y, followed by quotes” thing, I used it to start a discussion about how sample size, controlling variables, or how well it replicated other results were vital to know if you wanted to have any confidence in the conclusions.
    Newspaper stories actually citing the paper would be a great way to reduce the barrier to people being able to think about the science they’re reading about, which is maddeningly difficult at the moment.

  33. And here’s the post I promised earlier: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2010/01/tuesday-crustie-flavour-of-day-is.html
    It describes how a new crab species was featured on wire services, apparently before putting down a single word for a scientific paper.
    Peer review should come before a press release, not the other way around.

  34. And here’s the post I promised earlier: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2010/01/tuesday-crustie-flavour-of-day-is.html
    It describes how a new crab species was featured on wire services, apparently before putting down a single word for a scientific paper.
    Peer review should come before a press release, not the other way around.

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