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Originally posted June 25 2007 at 21:06 under Physics and General. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled.

Stop Press: A Vaguely Science Post!

The Who at Glastonbury 2007

Ars Technica has a decent piece on press releases and the framing of science journalism that’s worth a quick read. Science communication through the medium of press release is something I’ve, well, complained about before. While I might be the sort of person tends to see at least the contents page of every issue of Nature there’s a lot of stuff out there, and I’m certainly not following things so closely which aren’t my “field”. So I see a lot of interesting stuff, in the biological sciences for instance, the same ways as others—through the press. The main source of information for the press is, of course, those afore mentioned press releases.

I think the Ars article makes a couple of good points that it maybe doesn’t emphasise enough. The first is that the press release is inherently biased to cast as positive a glow upon the story as possible. It may be just me but this has always felt somewhat at odds with the (and I’m searching for the right word here a bit) ethical standards of results reporting. Of course even in journal publications there’s a certain amount of positive spinning going on, but it’s almost as if it’s some unwritten and accepted code (“typical results” anyone?), with limits which professionally can’t be crossed. Once in the hands of a press officer however that moral code is much diluted. Their very job isn’t to discover the truth of nature, but is to make their institution and its members look as good as they possibly can. And the amount of spin acceptable to the press (who often, in the case of science reporting, aren’t necessarily in a good position to spot it) is quite a lot larger than that acceptable in the scientific journals (where if nothing else good refereeing ought to at least partially prevent it)..

The second is the communication between the actual scientists and the press office has to improve. Scientist must be willing to take as much responsibility for press releases about their research as they would for any other publication. This doesn’t need to mean forming the press release themselves, but it does mean taking a guiding hand in its writing and being strong enough to refuse to allow something out which makes misleading claims or over emphasises results (there is a corresponding responsibility on press offices to give their scientists the ability to do this). This may be a burden on time (but hey, what are grad students for ;-) ) but it is a vital one if the public understanding and perception of science is to actually improve in an era of instant cut and paste journalism. That itself is vital for the future support and well being of science. Addressing this point would actually go a long way to solving the problems of the first point.

There are some other things which have struck me that the Ars article didn’t so explicitly cover. Given the press officers often aren’t experts in the areas they are drafting releases for one must wonder on occasion just how much of the release is their reworking. In some cases there is the worrying impression that some of that spin may have been there before the press office got involved in things. That sort of leads into the whole press release before the paper (or with no reference to the paper). There really is no reason to be writing a press release before the paper is submitted, unless you really do have something totally Earth shattering (that’s not a new material that might lead to better hydrogen storage in fuel cells one day, maybe. It’s more like a table top cold fusion device ready to go into mass production tomorrow).

One other I thing I think of importance is that there must also be more effort to educate people on the importance of critically evaluating the information they are receiving. I believe the most important part of this is to teach to consider the source of that information. It is vital to realise that press releases are spun by whoever is issuing them (institutions, pressure groups, government); that they are less reliable than things lifted straight from the pages of a peer reviewed journal. Also in there must go the fact that science is a process—one statistical study tends to need confirmation (or repudiation) by others.

Oh, one other thing from the Ars article. It mentions (and links to another article on) embargoes. I’ve never quite understood that whole thing. I’ve never seen a compelling reason not to simply release all those nicely crafted press releases the same day as the journal, which gives everyone a level playing field (and allows other scientists who might be asked for comment a chance to properly evaluate things), rather than releasing earlier with an embargo.

Anyway, other people have probably had greater thoughts on the public understanding of science. I’ve just been thinking about it a bit lately, so I thought I’d write some initial impressions down.

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This Crazy Fool

Dr Ian Scott
Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

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