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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 13, 2011

Freedom of the Press: Science Reporting Division

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Posted by Derek

There's been an interesting dispute playing out over the last few weeks about science reporting. Here's a summary, but I'll give one as well: it all got started with David Kroll, aka "Abel Pharmboy" of the Terra Sigillata blog (and another, Take as Directed). On that latter site, he'd written about science articles in the popular press, and the line between having a scientist fact-check a piece about their work, and giving that same scientist editorial power.

Ananyo Bhattacharya, editor of Nature, then wrote a column in the Guardian on the topic, where he warned that there was indeed a line that could be crossed:

". . .It's a trap I've fallen into in the past. Either a scientist you have talked to insists on checking the final version of the story with the threat of "withdrawing" their contribution to your piece (it feels churlish to point out that they have already agreed to speak to you on the record) or, an hour or two before deadline you're struck by a creeping fear that somewhere, something is dreadfully wrong and so you call on one or more of your friendly sources to read it over. . .Part of the problem is that many scientists interpret the journalist's request that they "check the facts and your quotes only please" rather loosely. Some are under the impression that because their lab carried out the work being reported, they have some sort of ownership of the subsequent coverage. This is not the case."

But then the Guardian ran a strongly dissenting view from three neuroscientists from Cardiff University. Their take was that peer review is the secret sauce, and that accuracy is the greater good:

Science is different for four reasons, one categorical, three of degree. The categorical difference is the process of peer review. Every research article in a reputable scientific journal has been through a process in which between two and five independent experts (normally anonymous) have made extensive comments. . .

Overall, since press credibility relies on both accuracy and independence, and since the question of allowing sources to check articles (or parts of them) raises a tension between these pillars, the burning question is: where should the balance be struck?

We believe that public trust in science, and in science reporting, is harmed far more by inaccuracy than by non-independence. Contrary to Bhattacharya's claim that "the reader is not a scientist's first concern," public understanding is our overriding concern when communicating with journalists.

As it happens, these very authors had recently been scorched by sensationalized reporting of their work in the British tabloids. Now, I agree that for an accurate picture of any given scientific project, I'd sooner bring in a paleolithic Amazonian shaman for his take before turning to the Sun or the Daily Mail. But I still have to disagree that accuracy is the absolute trump card - I'm willing to accept some moronic misrepresentations in order to keep things more honest, and I think that honesty is best served when things don't run quite so smoothly. We should all keep each other on our toes - the alternative is an invitation to logrolling and groupthink, which can do more harm, in the long run, than sensationalism.

And it should go without saying that the Cardiff researchers' appeal to peer review just doesn't stand up. Five minutes over on Retraction Watch will show you what peer review is capable of letting through. And there are plenty of good scientists who will tell you about what peer review is capable of keeping out of the journals as well. No, it's a very imperfect system. I'm not saying that I can think of a better one at the moment, but appealing to it as if it's one of the glories of civilization is silly. (I see that I'm not alone in reacting this way).

And a bit more than silly - it's arrogant as well. This is what we as scientists have to look out for, the de haut en bas attitude where we come in and explain all the complicated stuff to the peasants. People can detect that, you know, and when they do they get suspicious (and rightly so, at times) that we have something to hide. No, speaking as a scientist, and a blogger, and (mostly on the opinion side) perhaps a journalist as well, I think we're better off with a system where everyone keeps an eye on everyone else. If we get too cozy and consensus-driven, we're going to invite real trouble.

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Press Coverage


1. Mutant Dragon on October 13, 2011 9:35 AM writes...

Well said and quite true.

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2. Hap on October 13, 2011 9:45 AM writes...

I don't know that I'd want to have to get approval from a source for a piece of writing, but if everyone understood the research, it probably wouldn't be news. Most times, you can try to get multiple sources (hopefully not connected to one another) to discuss an issue, but with research embargoes and with research that may not have many practitioners (or whose practitioners have a common educational lineage), that may not be possible. It seems like the misunderstanding of a piece of research is more likely than dishonesty and spin (and can amplify the effects of the latter two), and erring on the side of minimizing it would help improve reporting on research more than the assumption of mistrust.

I also wonder if this isn't an argument against press embargoes - the embargo helps the publication to control the spin of the research and makes it harder for journalists to check the concepts and implications of the research with other sources. In essence, getting other sources are another version of peer review, which is imperfect but decent.

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3. CMCguy on October 13, 2011 10:07 AM writes...

Derek you give the impression that accuracy and honesty are somehow disconnected but these should be on the same coin. Journalistic ethics (or courtesy) used to better demand fact and quote checking but not sure as ingrained practice anymore (particularly at Tabloids) but indeed the author/editor has ultimate responsibility/say for what is published.

One of the biggest issues I see with science reporting is translating the complex concepts in to understandable way to public and all to often the true message or meaning can come out as a moronic misrepresentation which then become a fact in public mind. How much effort gets wasted subsequently trying to overcome such poor reporting. The problem frequently lies more with scientists being ineffectual communicators but the knowledge of many in journalism/public/government does generally promote extensive watering down.

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4. Hap on October 13, 2011 10:16 AM writes...

It might also be good for scientists to remember that once you publish something, it isn't completely yours - people can't use your work in ways inconsistent with the patents or copyright laws covering it, but you don't own its interpretations or implications. Once it's in the open, people's thoughts on it are not within your control.

My wife and I argued about literary interpretation - one of the books she was reading ("Turn of the Screw"?) had a preface by the author insisting that the book was not in any way intended as an analogy, yet scholars insisted on interpreting it as such. Other than the fact that sometimes peoples' unconscious says and means things that they did not consciously intend, once something leaves your mind, it works by entering the minds of others and ceases to be solely yours.

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5. Hasufin on October 13, 2011 10:19 AM writes...

I think most editors face not dissimilar problems.

I am the layout editor for a quarterly newsletter which is devoted to chado, the Japanese way of tea. As an American who doesn't practice chado and doesn't speak fluent Japanese, I am heavily reliant on various other people for help with the content - sometimes the material is plainly in a language which I cannot read.

Once you put forth an article for review, everyone feels the need to put their touches on it. Very often a simple "would you check to make sure I copied over the katakana correctly?" or "Could you provide some more supporting information about that temple? I don't know if all of our readership will understand its significance." gets turned to matters of grammar, tone, and organizational politics.

Even in such a relatively unimportant arena as chado, I'd be very wary of running articles past the interview subjects. It's not necessarily that the articles put people in a bad light - they don't - but they don't present the subjects in the same way as the subjects would, and offering the article in advance is readily interpreted as offering a platform to the subject. That simply doesn't end well. When you get into charged topics, I can't imagine but that this is magnified still further.

I can hardly say that one should never consult with the interview subject, but as was put forth "very cautious pre-publication consultation with scientist sources was acceptable and often necessary, but with the ground rules well-articulated in advance."

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6. One Acronym on October 13, 2011 10:35 AM writes...


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7. HelicalZz on October 13, 2011 10:50 AM writes...

I'll focus on this one comment to make my point.

....the journalist's request that they "check the facts and your quotes only please"

When I read this my first thought was 'why is the journalist requesting this?'. Fact checking is important, but I guess I'm a bit old school in the idea that this is a responsibility of editors/fact checkers. Yes, the journalist should indeed do all possible to insure accuracy, but I consider editorial oversight to be the difference between 'press' and 'blogging' (no offense).

Having an editor is a peer review of a different sort. The journalists first responsibility is to the story, the editors to the publisher. The opinions / interpretations are not questioned outside of appropriate for 'our' publication (as they can be in science peer reviewing), but the accuracy of facts should be challenged and confirmed.

A journalist shouldn't provide a complete story and request opinion on 'just the facts and quotes'. It is a bit ludicrous to honestly expect that from anyone other than a disinterested party (who would be unlikely in a position to confirm/deny). Instead an editor/checker should instead communicate with a 'can you confirm A, B, and C please, as we are using these facts in an upcoming piece'.


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8. Cellbio on October 13, 2011 10:59 AM writes...

While I agree that some scientists talk down to the masses, and this is a diservice, I am not sure this is the biggest issue with scientific journalism. Selling pre-packaged messages, equating noise with reason (Jenny McCarthy) are more troubling than the quirky scientist who wants control.

My wife had quite a run of her work being newsworthy, with pieces done in national magazines and nightly news. After that came many requests for contributions to more stories. With her good charm she developed rapport with the journalists, and learned that stories she was contacted about were already written from the perspective of opinion, conclusion etc, and all they were doing was trolling for quotes to use to burnish the piece. They were "selling" to audiences they already knew, marketing to a target demographic with known opinions about the work, preaching to the choir (think of either NPR or Fox News and you know this happens all the time). Sure there are better news folks, but the bulk of journalism is no different than the ad agency that made the futuristic Euro-Joni piece. In this setting, it is totally understandable to want to hold agreement to participate until final content is seen as much of it is of such poor quality that a scientist would not want to be associated. Not really editorial power, but demanding that one not be abused by the piece. My wife decided to deny all requests rather than ask for final approval.

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9. weirdo on October 13, 2011 12:13 PM writes...

Wait, wait, wait.

Do you really think that many/most science journalists are perusing scientific journals on a daily basis?

No, they're getting press releases from PR departments of universities, or even the journals themselves.

Pointing the finger at the journalists is hardly the whole story. Read some university press releases first (with QUOTES FROM THE PIs), then decide who is to blame for how often science is "mis-reported" in the press.

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10. KT on October 13, 2011 12:34 PM writes...

As a journalist of 25 years I've covered many beats and in every one of them there was always a source who wanted to control the content. The short answer is professional journalists do not allow that to happen. But, it is also naive to think that accuracy shouldn't be the stock in trade regardless of the topic.

At the end of the interview I run back through and double check to make sure I have thoroughly understood the salient points and ask for clarification if not. If I have to do so when I am writing the story I will contact the source again. Mainstream newspapers write at an 8th grade level and it takes skill to do explanatory journalism and convey complex, multi-page research in eight column inches or 30 seconds. I don't "burnish" my pieces with quotes, but I am required to provide balance and since I don't work for the New Yorker there isn't a lot of real estate to work with.

Fact checkers can't make complex science understandable nor is it their job.

My biggest time wasters are scientists who don't understand what a deadline is, who won't acknowledge a request for an interview, who want to do the entire interview through set questions by email (introduces too many errors), and who forget that if their congressperson doesn't hear/read and understand their work in the news that funding may not remain available. Unless, no offense Derek, they are only willing to take industry funding. And even then, industry decision makers still read the news.

The nice thing about online news is if there is a factual error, it can easily and immediately be corrected.

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11. cynical1 on October 13, 2011 1:30 PM writes...

Weirdo is right. Case in point - Is there a single (non-infectious) disease out there that scientists haven't claimed to have found the responsible gene(s) which in turn will lead to treatments and/or a cure? And even in the infectious area, CCR5 antagonists are very underwhelming drugs against HIV (unfortunately).

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12. Hap on October 13, 2011 2:04 PM writes...

Press releases argue that scientists are biased creatures and that letting them have control over an article might not be a good idea, but why should a PR release be the sole source of anything substantive about anything?

If policy X were being debated, the press releases for the political parties involved might be useful guides to their opinions but wouldn't seem to be a useful source for what the consequences of the policy are. I assumed that journalists would have to check with other knowledgeable people to get other opinions and reasoning from people with less at stake.

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13. David Kroll on October 13, 2011 8:14 PM writes...

Derek, thanks so much for covering this discussion - it's really gotten some legs over the last month or so and has raised a lively and surprisingly civil debate. At my Take As Directed blog, the comment thread on the original post is pure gold because it has attracted some of the top names in science journalism today. I reposted the summary at Terra Sig on the C&EN site hoping to draw some chemists into the discussion.

I wrote the original post because I was very much like KT #10 in thinking that journalists never ran quotes past scientist sources. I've been interviewed about a hundred times and only had the opportunity for pre-pub review of my quotes one time. Instead, I learned from Vincent Racaniello's interview with Trine Tsouderos at the Chicago Tribune that fact-checking with scientist sources is pretty common, albeit with very strict ground rules.

I think that much of the debate stems from us trying to parse best practices from a wide spectrum of journalists (dedicated, first-rate science writers vs. tabloid hacks) and scientists (dedicated, concerned communicators vs. ego-driven self-promoters). Some scientists sometimes don't understand that journalists are trying to make a story for broad consumption and not fit in every possible detail of the science; some journalists sometimes don't appreciate how much they don't know about a story they are covering.

The best of both seek not only the truth but have the greater desire to make the truth understandable to the widest possible audience.

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14. hibob on October 14, 2011 1:14 PM writes...

Ya know, scientists can google reporters too. If you don't want a wildly inaccurate writeup, refuse interview requests from the journalists whose work you find to be wildly inaccurate. Then tell them (and their editors) why they didn't get an interview.

Weirdo: Excellent point.
Hap: Clearly a press release should be considered biased. But it's still fair to consider it to have been vetted by the organization/person that released it, and to be an accurate portrayal of that organization/person's (public) opinion of the matter. If you wrote it, you own it. If a research institute can't be bothered to police it's own PR, it's hard to fault the journalists for writing about what they say instead of what they mean. In the ranks of bad reporting, a journalist who accurately copies and pastes the nutty claims made on a press release without independent verification is still miles better than the one that turns mundane claims in a press release into REALLY BIG NEWS (without bothering to verify those claims either).

Overall, I'd never request veto authority. I request the editor's contact information and a preview, with the understanding that if they greatly exaggerate the story my rebuttal would be on the editor's desk before the article went public.


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15. Hap on October 17, 2011 3:30 PM writes...

I don't think relying on press releases releases the entity putting one out from responsibility for its dishonesty, but I thought that the whole point of journalism was to evaluate information, and not just to take a source's word for it. The press release, after all, isn't hard to get (and is likely to be free) - the information that's worth something is what the honesty/reliability of the source is and how other people with the appropriate technical knowledge and as few conflicts as possible evaluate the information. If you can't get that information or don't care to, what is the point of your journalism exactly?

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