Our recent Guardian article proposed a series of measures that we believe scientists can take to improve the quality of science journalism. Our piece formed part of the run up to a debate at the Royal Institution involving ourselves and the chief online editor of Nature, Ananyo Bhattacharya.In this supplementary section of InSciOut we provide additional details and rationale for the points raised in our article. It is designed to be read in conjunction with the article, where a reader wants more information.
Point 1. Watching what you release.
Recent studies have estimated that 70% or more of science news stories stem from press releases, with the quality of the press release closely linked to the quality of the subsequent news reports...
At the same time, a recent survey revealed that about 80% of science journalists believe their workload has increased in the last five years, with 23% admitting that specialist science reporters now rely too heavily on public relations material. This combination of factors places a heavy responsibility on scientists to ensure that press releases are not written simply to generate stories, but to improve public understanding. So what makes a ‘good’ press release? Schwartz and colleagues devised a simple checklist for health-related studies to assess the quality of press releases. Their system includes basic study facts, quantification and clarity of the main results, mention of study harms (where applicable), and mention of study limitations. In addition, we suggest highlighting ‘danger points’ in interpretation, where an untrained eye might confuse correlation with causation, absolute and relative risk, or commit other logical fallacies. As yet there is little evidence on whether a more cautious press release makes it less likely to generate press stories, though most of us would assume this to be the case. Stating limitations might therefore go against our instincts so would require a mental shift in which scientists actively elevate public understanding of science above their own vanity and the pressure to achieve impact. In a blog article posted following her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Fiona Fox pondered whether a substantial amount of misleading science news might in fact stem from over-hyped press releases rather than over-hyped journalism. Few studies have directly tested this idea, but existing evidence suggests that Fox may be on to something. In the field of cancer genetics, for instance, Brechman and colleagues found that press releases and news reports were roughly equally responsible for overly simplistic or deterministic language (and see here for further discussion).A critic might well counter that it is fundamentally naïve to think that universities or journals would ever burden glossy press releases with extensive limitations or caveats. After all, what would they have to gain by making a story sound less interesting, given that the ‘arms race’ model of science/media interaction is an entirely positive feedback loop? But we would argue that it is not naïve to believe change is possible because, crucially, we the scientists have control over our public relations material; we just need to exercise it more effectively and move beyond the ‘psychology of doing nothing’. It is possible that many scientists’ propensity to minimise engagement with the press release process is adaptive in serving conflicting goals: on the one hand we may consider it vulgar to court press coverage, especially if it involves exaggerated claims; and we want to avoid guilt or blame from colleagues. Yet on the other hand we may secretly enjoy coverage because it makes us feel more important and valued. Leaving the press release entirely to others is an effective way of meeting these conflicting goals. However, from a broader perspective, we should be motivated to fight the hype because we generally care more deeply about the science being understood, and did not become scientists just to make headlines. Our group has decided to tackle this issue head-on in our own field by assessing the relationship between the quality of news reports and the quality of press releases. We are doing so for each of the 20 major universities in the UK Russell Group, so watch this space!
Point 2. Reaching Out.
It’s easy to argue thatscientists and journalists need to become more familiar with the pressures, complications and goals of each other’s professions – but how?...
One approach would be for scientists to host outreach activities for journalists, such as research internships and lab visits. We should also offer open days for specialist and non-specialist journalists to discuss principles of science philosophy and new scientific discoveries in our fields. Further, we have commonalities in trying to get published that could be revealed in such exchanges. Would journalists be willing and able to participate? If you are journalist and would welcome such a scheme, please contact us.
Points 3, 4 and 6. Being there, preparing and blogging.
It seems obvious to suggest this, but how do we do it most efficiently? …
It is often argued that scientists need to make themselves more available to participate in media interviews, that we should prepare more carefully when speaking to journalists, and that we could help journalists by adding useful information to our websites. But doing any or all of these tasks takes significant time: time that is taken away from doing our main jobs. It is worth noting, however, that the new ‘pathways to impact’ sections in research council grant proposals can help shoulder this burden by allowing us to cost dissemination activities into funding applications. We need to know what is most useful to journalists so we can be efficient. So if you are a journalist, please tell us.
Point 5. Thinking big.
This, we acknowledge, will be an on-going source of disagreement between journalists and scientists.
It is a very common complaint by scientists that news stories related to their specialisation contain key factual errors. And it is an equally common complaint by journalists that scientists cannot see the big picture: that they cannot realise that their ‘key error’ is someone else’s minor detail. The scientist will counter: ‘who is able to judge what is key and what is minor except an expert in the field?’ (i.e. themselves). And the journalist will counter: ‘who is able to judge what readers will actually read except an expert in the journalism profession?’ (i.e. themselves). Each has his/her own agenda when communicating the science. Revealing that agenda and negotiating it would be a start to thinking big in smaller ways that do not compromise the science. This raises a crucial related question: is the public appetite for scientific detail routinely underestimated in the media? Certainly, TV documentaries these days on science seem to contain less and less actual information and more ‘wow’ – a point echoed with characteristic lucidity by Martin Robbins – and this also seems true generally of documentaries in other topics, such as history, arts or economics. More research on the public appetite for scientific detail would be welcome.
Point 7. Making it public.
In many fields of science, including our own, there is almost no incentive for scientists to publish their work in open access journals instead of the more prestigious journals with pay-subscriptions.
Paying for open access publication in top journals is very expensive for scientists, costing thousands of pounds per article, whereas truly free open access journals are often of inferior quality. It is important to remember that scientists and universities are judged, and funded, on the basis of where they publish. This has never been truer than in today’s ultra competitive market, where science faces significant funding cuts. Therefore a scientist in our field (and particularly a junior researcher) who decided to publish only in free open access journals would be severely hampering their career prospects. At the same time, senior scientists in safe positions are often reluctant to commit to free open access because most of their publications will be co-authorships with junior researchers who, in order to be competitive, need a CV marked by strong papers in respected journals.So how can we change this system? As we see it, there are three possible solutions. The first is to hope that open access journals will gradually become more prestigious than the rest. This is a chicken-and-egg problem: we submit our work to different journals based on our judgment of the importance of the work and the prestige of the journal; a journal has to adapt its editing decisions to suit what is submitted and can only grow in prestige if better work is submitted to it; yet better work will be submitted only once it has grown in prestige. This has happened in a few specialist domains but is not happening for the more prestigious cross-disciplinary journals (such as Nature and Science). The second way is to change the way scientific publications are judged for quality, both formally and informally. This is a laudable aim but seems very unlikely to happen anytime soon. Finally, government policy could change the rules for publishers and universities. This is perhaps the most promising avenue, but is also very difficult because science is an internationally competitive pursuit, and any publishing restrictions for UK scientists could ultimately disadvantage the UK.
Point 8. Watching the neighbourhood.
As scientists we are constantly criticising, correcting, and commenting on science in our own fields as anonymous peer-reviewers of grants and papers. Yet few of us do the same thing when science steps outside academia and into the media. Why is this?
Part of the problem is that many of us don’t think its in our job description and are simply too busy. Added to this is ‘the psychology of doing nothing’, where – as noted earlier – our inactivity may help us achieve secretly desired goals. Another issue is that public criticism could make influential enemies, most notably the people who will anonymously review our next paper or grant application. Many of us are also very cautious in ascribing blame. It often isn’t straightforward whether the fault lies in the original science, in the press release, or in the news reports – and so we rightly hesitate to criticise without knowing all the facts. This problem could be solved by investigating the issue, although this in itself takes time and needs to be undertaken quickly before the news story is dead. Such investigations require significant effort for us – we can’t expect to be given the same amount of time to comment on a press story as we would expect for reviewing a paper or grant!
Point 9. Getting the facts.
For more information on the research project we have initiated, please see our current research page. And if you have ideas for research, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Note added on 8 March:
In a comment on our Guardian piece, Dr Andy Williams refers to two articles published in the Lancet that exemplify the differing goals of scientists and journalists. They can be downloaded here and here.