Scientists, journals, and science journalists behaving badly

Science journalism plays an extremely important role in translating the almost impenetrable jargon and style of journal articles into languagethat can be digested by the general public. Hence it is important that they convey accurately and in a balanced way the main conclusions of the research. But in order to make their work appealing to the general public, scientists make often make passing claims in their papers that are not as well supported by their data but catch the eye of journalists who then give them undue weight. Seth Mnookin has pointed out recent examples where this practice has caused widespread public misunderstanding of the results of research.

Now Carl Zimmer highlights a disturbing trend that is guaranteed to make this problem even worse. When as article is submitted to a journal that the editors think will make a splash with the public, they will release it prior to publication to journalists, who can then research the article and prepare their stories for publication. The journalists are under an embargo to not publish their articles until a given date, usually the date on which the journal appears in print.

This is a well-established practice that serves everyone well. It enables good science journalists time to do a careful study and speak to authorities in the field to get feedback and alternative views, it gives the journals publicity, it gives scientists who do good work greater recognition, and it enables the public to get in lay language the results of important research that may be hard to understand from the original papers.

But it seems that some journals and scientists are trying to game the system. They, like politicians, have discovered the importance of first impressions in shaping a story and are adding to the embargo agreements a new clause that prohibits journalists from sharing the work with other scientists. The problem with that is, of course, that journalists are then dependent only on what is written in the paper and their own expertise, and thus the resulting articles will be heavily slanted in favor of the article’s authors, more like press releases than actual journalism.

Zimmer pointed out how recent one-sided reports on genetically modified foods causing massive levels of cancer in rats that caused considerable alarm was a product of this system and would have benefited from critiques of the research since the work seems to have serious flaws. He has denounced this system and called upon his colleagues to do the same.

This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY. If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY.

What is surprising is that the journals need the journalists more than the other way around. If the major media outlets refuse to go along, the journals will give in. And yet, it seems like even major news outlets like the BBC, AFP, and Reuters have gone along with them.

They should be ashamed of themselves.


  1. left0ver1under says

    If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY.

    Zimmer’s point is not just valid but necessary, since some of the “papers” may be (are?) written by people with agendas, with a profit motive, and they want publicity before their work is checked (see: Pons and Fleischman, Andrew Wakefield).

    However, I would suggest not walking away from such agreements, but walking to them. Take one of their “confidentiality agreements” and expose the name of the company and the people promoting it. Reputable scientists and companies wouldn’t have a problem with that. (Corollary: Anyone who has a problem with that isn’t a reputable scientist or company.)

    Let’s see if any reporters have the courage to do that. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if science journalists act like political, sports and business journalists, more interested in careerism than doing their jobs.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Politicians and corporations have US journalists tamed into groveling servility: anybody who can’t grab that big brass ring stuck through their noses and yank them around just isn’t trying.

  3. ibbica says

    But in order to make their work appealing to the general public, scientists make often make passing claims in their papers that are not as well supported by their data

    This isn’t happening only to please the journals and the journalists and the public.

    This is a habit that many scientists are finding themselves forced to get into, to find funding for their research. Yes, there exist federally-funded agencies like NSF and NSERC that are supposed to fund “basic” (i.e. non-biomedical/translational/profitable) research, but their budgets and grants are considerably lower than those of other federally-funded agencies.

    And if you replace “federally-funded” with “privately funded”, the discrepancy is even worse…

  4. alanuk says

    What concerns me are abstracts. These are convenient bite-sized summaries for the use of people in a hurry to avoid the inconvenience of having to read the actual paper. Thus a journalist can take a glance at the abstract, knock out a quick piece on the same subject, and still have time for a quick one before closing time. A worse sin is citing a paper having only read the abstract.

    Much better if the abstract serves to inform the potential readers of the purpose and nature of the research to be described in the actual paper -- with a view to enabling them to decide if the paper is worth their time reading. The actual findings should be not be summarized in the abstract.

    Of course the abstract serves an additional hidden purpose; enabling the poor benighted soul, cut off from the actual paper by a pay-wall, to gleam a little of the paper’s content. But that is an argument against pay-walls, not an argument in favour of abstracts.

  5. Nathan & the Cynic says

    >>it wouldn’t surprise me if science journalists act like
    >>political, sports and business journalists, more interested in
    >>careerism than doing their jobs.

    I’ve actually long maintained that our political coverage was 1/100th as good as our sports coverage we’d have the best informed electorate in the world. After all, for any even vaguely popular sport you can pull up scads of information about how the athlete or coach performed. There are well written summaries of every event, no matter how trivial, available which were almost always written by an eye witness at the game. Journalists have massive amounts of access to the coaches and athletes. In the major sports any coach or athlete you behaves badly is admittedly dissected. Would that our political coverage could reach those levels.

  6. Anonymous Atheist says

    As long as pay-walls exist, abstracts (including results) should too. They have existed long before Internet pay-walls, even long before the Internet. The lazy journalists will find a way to be lazy even without abstracts (the journal or author can privately summarize it for them, or they can read just the introduction and the conclusion), and in the meantime your idea would deprive the interested public from the ability to even learn what they can from abstracts, which often already are much more informative than the popular news coverage of them, and also include the countless thousands of journal articles old and new that didn’t get any popular news coverage.

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