Eurekalert’s lack of press release standards – a systemic problem with science and the media

I noted a link to WUWT in this NYT essay by Andrew Revkin titled: When Publicity Precedes Peer Review in Climate Science (Part One). I liked Andy’s bit of artwork to go with it, seen at right below.

I was surprised to learn the the Norwegian press release about climate sensitivity (carried on WUWT here on 1/25/13 without commentary) was not peer reviewed. That said, I did look when it first became known to me.

I generally try to locate the papers when I publish Press Releases (if the papers aren’t cited), and add the paper abstract and citation to the bottom of the PR carried at WUWT, but I am occasionally thwarted by the fact that the press releases sometimes come out before the journal early editions have a chance to update, and I thought that was the case here when I couldn’t find a paper in a journal to go with it.

The state of science PR is rife with problems like this, with many PR’s not even giving the name of the journal nor even the paper. Regular readers surely have noted times when I complain about these important details that aren’t included.

The problem is exacerbated by the science PR system, most notably Eurekalert, which is where I sourced the Norwegian PR from. You can find it here: 

http://www.eurekalert.org/bysubject/atmospheric.php

Public Release: 25-Jan-2013
Global warming less extreme than feared?
Policymakers are attempting to contain global warming at less than two degrees Celsius. New estimates from a Norwegian project on climate calculations indicate this target may be more attainable than many experts have feared.

Contact: Thomas Keilman
thke@rcn.no
The Research Council of Norway

I don’t know how good or bad the science is in that press release, much like we couldn’t tell (at the time) much about the quality of the science produced by the PR blitzes from the folks at the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project. Time eventually did tell us almost two years later, as we learned that BEST got rejected from a major journal and wound up in a Volume 1 issue1 of a brand new journal mill.

Back to the current situation, I think what is really needed now is some sort of standards for science PR, as I wrote about at WUWT previously. When Eurekalert presents what “looks like” peer reviewed science right next to other actual peer reviewed science, some sort of delineation is needed, especially when we have loose standards for including the name of the journal, name of the paper, and pre-press releases before even the journals get the papers in the early editions.

See this, where I found myself in rare agreement with Dr. Gavin Schmidt:

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/09/24/science-by-press-release-where-i-find-myself-in-agreement-with-dr-gavin-schmidt-over-pr-entropy/

A relevant excerpt of it is repeated below:

Here, in my opinion as 30 year TV/radio/web media reporter on science is what should be in any professionally produced science press release:

  • The name of the paper/project being referenced
  • The name of the journal it is published in (if applicable)
  • The name of the author(s) or principal researcher(s)
  • Contact information for the author(s) or principal researcher(s)
  • Contact information for the press release writer/agent
  • The digital object identifer (DOI) (if one exists)
  • The name of the sponsoring organization (if any)
  • The source of the funding for the paper/project
  • If possible, at the minimum, one or two full sized (640×480 or larger) graphics/images from the paper/project that illustrate the investigation and/or results.

Yet, if you go on the world’s leading science press release aggregation service,  Eurekalert, right now and examine the press releases there, you’ll find few if any that have all these features.

Given this latest incident, I think the need for basic standards in science press releases are even greater.

Andy promises a look at the BEST “press release before publication” debacle in part two. That should be interesting.

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42 thoughts on “Eurekalert’s lack of press release standards – a systemic problem with science and the media

  1. Anthony, I share your reservations about journalism and press releases. What you’ll see FAR too often in some areas out there are press releases about “New Scientific Findings” which are actually released through activist channels/funding and simply report, usually with a strong bias in wording, something that was presented at a conference held by some group or other. The “Findings” may never make it a journal, or, if they do, they make it with a great deal of the initially hyped claims greatly toned down and qualified.

    Not sure if I’ve seen it here… the term “churnalism”? Where a press release gets picked up by a wire service and then repeated practically verbatim through all sorts of news outlets. It’s noticed when a particularly colorful phrase (e.g. “the candidate outfit looked like he’d been wrung through a paper mill) gets repeated in the story from every outlet.

    - MJM

  2. Well Anthony, you should have remembered the golden rule. “If it’s Fenton, it’s fact!” You should only trust consensus approved climate information sources like Real Climate.

    /sarc….is this really required here?

  3. Bring it on!
    This is turning into trench warfare, unfortunately.
    The lay public is more confused than ever, having been told up till now that the “science is settled”.
    Surprise: excellent, qualified scientists actually DISAGREE with one another quite often (particularly regarding postulates w/o measured data, or in relatively new fields).

    Dot Earth is a good site, because of the following:
    - NYT ensures a broad potential audience
    - NYT doesn’t engage in censorship of differing opinions
    - Most commenters stay on topic & reasonably civil
    - There is a good mixture of skeptics and agw apologists

    I recommended recently that Revkin’s should carry out an on-line debate regarding “What we know” and “What we don’t know”. Revkin could choose two “experts” to take point and counter-point on a subset of the “Great Anthropogenic Global Warming Debate.”

    My thoughts, anyway.

    Kurt in Switzerland

  4. Anthony:

    I would be grateful if anybody could tell me why a press release about a scientific paper needs to include more than or less than
    (a) the title of the paper
    (b) the author(s) of the paper
    (c) the publication date of the paper
    (d) the journal which contains the paper
    (e) the abstract from the paper
    (f) contact information so journalists can interview the paper’s author(s).

    Richard

  5. Would the above warning logo apply to publishing a summary for policy makers before the detailed findings?
    Yes, I’m looking at you IPCC

  6. Very good article, excellent points; I agree fully. My only quibble is with the acronym PR, which can mean Peer Review, Public Relations, or Press Release, to name only three expressions relevant to this discussion. May I suggest PeR, PuR, and PrR as abbreviations for the three choices?

  7. I appreciated “churnalism”.

    I briefly used Eurekalert, but it did not offer the ability to comment that does the execrable PhysOrg.asm. (Execrable means ‘of the lowest quality,’ to me recalling excrement.)

    As with all profiteering, churning, a.k.a. skimming, follow the money. If it is free on-line, you’re not the customer, you are the product. Eschew click-throughs.

  8. richardscourtney says:
    January 29, 2013 at 2:52 am

    ….I would be grateful if anybody could tell me why a press release about a scientific paper needs to include more than or less than….
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Because it is no longer science but instead is propaganda. BEST and Mueller the Janus-faced comes to mind.

  9. Professor Stephan Lewandowsky et all paper

    http://websites.psychology.uwa.edu.au/labs/cogscience/documents/LskyetalPsychScienceinPressClimateConspiracy.pdf

    NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax:
    An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science

    Stephan Lewandowsky University of Western Australia
    Klaus Oberauer University of Zurich and University of Western Australia
    Gilles Gignac University of Western Australia
    (in press, Psychological Science)

    had broad press releases and media coverage… last JULY!
    yet it still is not published in the journal Psychological Science –
    yet he feels able to quote his ‘research’ in the media frequently.

    is it withdrawn, still pending or just abandonment… you would think the journal would care about this sort of thing…

    see comments here about why it was so bad.. (but I’m sure regulars will remeber it)

    http://talkingclimate.org/are-climate-sceptics-more-likely-to-be-conspiracy-theorists/

  10. Nice one Dr John
    There could also be PR (purely rhetorical) as in the global press pointing out that the Australian BOM added 52 and 54 C colours to their prediction charts . Theses temperatures where not reached anywhere and have not since the 60′s . But hey prediction is so much better than reality.
    Maybe like all things reverse them and gain truth ie: RP becomes …….
    Recent Prediction (fail) RPF
    Reality Prevails always RPA
    Recreates poorly because? RP?

  11. richardscourtney says:
    January 29, 2013 at 2:52 am

    Anthony:

    I would be grateful if anybody could tell me why a press release about a scientific paper needs to include more than or less than …

    The problem isn’t what’s included in the press release. The problem is the press release itself. Any paper that is trumpeted by a press release should be treated with deep suspicion.

  12. This wouldn’t have been problem it seems, had it been an article about melting glaciers from a climbing magazine.

  13. The common use of the term “PR” in the field of medicine seems it may be most appropriate here…..per rectum.

  14. I agree with Dr Ware above. I work for a sports team in media and press. I’m usually referred to as ‘the PR guy’ by people who don’t know me well simply because if you want press releases I’m the guy. It’s often confused by people thinking I’m some kind of public relations officer which is very far from the case given my grumpy disposition ;)

    Has anyone tried writing to Eureka Alert to see if they have a policy of standards and a comment on this?

  15. The anatomy of the motivated rejection of science; the more hyperbolic and hysterical the narrator, the more polarized the audience in the direction of their (Bayesian) naive priors. (Jaynes’ Probability Theory, §5.3)

  16. The study has not been peer reviewed does not mean that it’s wrong??? We have seen peer reviewed papers withdrawn. The IPCC uses grey literature and screams out its findings like the Himalayan glacier melt in 2035.

    Does anyone know if the study has been submitted for peer review?

  17. I lean more towards free speech and freedom of the press to report anything and everything. That mean there should be no standards. Reporters can judge on their own whether they think it’s news, and we can judge on our own if we agree. I think this applies with science as much as any other field. Now, if the paper has been published, then by all means it’s great if that information has been added as well, that’s just good reporting. I think modern life already has generally too many standards and licenses and regulations and barriers and red tape and the like (like the requirements that interior decorators are accredited and licensed in Florida), I really don’t think we need more of that when it comes to the press, I think we need less.

  18. Only slightly off topic, but I wonder if I might solicit some help with this. A recent NY Times article makes this claim:
    “In the Northern Hemisphere, snow coverage this past December was the greatest since records began in 1966, Rutgers University’s Global Snow Lab reported. But Dr. David Robinson, a climatologist at Rutgers, warns that year-to-year fluctuations and regional differences can deceive casual observers. In general, he says, there has been an “overall decline in snowfall.”

    I don’t believe it’s true that there has been an overall decline in snowfall. Can someone help me dispute this?

  19. Dear Anthony

    The following is on Real Climate and really is beyond parody but who is the mysterious graduate student is it our Gav :-).

    I tried to post in tips and notes? So please delete but preferably devote a post to it so we can go beyond parady?
    Regards

    S

    I recently got an email from newly graduated Math(s) major (mildly edited):

    I am someone with a deep-seated desire to help the planet remain as habitable as possible in the face of the trials humanity is putting it through. I’d like to devote my career to this cause, but am young and haven’t chosen a definitive career path yet. My bachelors is in pure math and I am considering graduate study in either applied math or statistics. I’m curious what you would recommend to someone in my position. Between getting, say, a PhD in statistics vs. one in applied math, what positions me best for a career in the climate science community? What are its acute needs, where are the job opportunities, and how competitive is it?

    My response was as follows (also slightly edited):

    As you may know I too started out as a mathematician, and then moved to more climate related applications only in my post-doc(s).

    I can’t possibly give you ‘the’ answer to your question – but I do suggest working from the top down. What do you see specifically as something where someone like you could have maximum impact? Then acquire the skills needed to make that happen. If that seems too hard to do now, spend time on the developing your basic toolkits – Bayesian approaches to statistics, forward modeling, some high level coding languages (R, python, matlab etc.), while reading widely about applications.

    One of the things I appreciated most in finding my niche was being exposed to a very large number of topics – which while bewildering at the start, in the end allowed me to see the gaps where I could be most useful. At all times though, I pursued approaches and topics that were somewhat aesthetically pleasing to me, which is to say, I didn’t just take up problems just for the sake of it.

    I’ve found that I get more satisifaction from focusing on making some progress related to big problems, rather than finding complete solutions to minor issues, but this probably differs from person to person.

    But what do other people think? How should people prepare to work on important problems? Are there any general rules? What advice did people give you when you were starting out? Was it useful, or not? Any advice – from existing researchers, graduate students or interested public – will be welcome.

    Bookmark and Share
    Comments (pop-up) (87)

    87 Responses to “What to study?”

  20. here is a test of peoples principles

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/07/29/press-release-2/

    In this case the paper lasted a day or two before two amatuers pointed out the main issue.
    Now, of course, perhaps we want to talk about how a lead skeptic, mcintyre was coaxed into doing last minute analysis….

    pot kettle etc.

    REPLY: Mr. Mosher, my gut wants me to tell you to go to hell. My brain says this:

    1. The draft was accelerated due to me being told that your study buddy, Muller, was going to be in front of Congress yet again with his dog and pony show paper. I wanted the members to have a second opinion, just as I did during his first circus.
    2. I made it very clear the paper was not peer reviewed. Note that it said DRAFT.
    3. The TOBS issue was one we didn’t see as all that important initially because of the way we were doing the analysis, that said we embraced the criticism and have a new analysis that specifically deals with that.
    4. Mr. McIntyre sent me an email, totally unsolicited, two days before I planned to release the draft. He asked “can I help?”. I accepted his offer and told him how he could, and he agreed. Your insinuation is not only wrong, but emotional.

    Now, if you have a problem with any of this, you know how to reach me. – Anthony

  21. Why would a press release be “peer-reviewed”? It is a press release. That tells us something.

    Who are the peers? News organizations, universities, etc have line managers and editors who are paid to perform such functions. They may, or may not, have internal guidelines and policies which are made public at their discretion.

    ————-
    (is “evening” a typo?)

  22. Much has changed in the “academic” world since I started in the mid-60′s. Most of us were teaching professors first and researchers second. Over time the number of graduate students began to exceed the market for “professors”. Universities were funded by provinces/states, with funding usually related to enrolments. As costs escalated faster than funding, universities began to look for research monies to expand the cash flow. The glut of grad students fed the workforce needed to staff the research institutes. These institutes, however, often were soft funded, relying on continuing grants for their existence. Universities helped secure the funding because they could “skim” profits off the grants. We now have a huge share of “academia” and many “government” research institutes that operate completely outside of the “old” university structures.

    The need for continuous temporary (project) funding necessitates rapid production of results. The established peer review system does not support such a system. I published many papers in the top journals in my field. Most of them took months, if not more than a year to clear the review process, a time lag that is non-functional for securing new grants just to stay alive. There also usually was a second lag between acceptance and actual publication. Hence, the established research/publication structure mitigates against proper peer review, and the press release and other pre-publication activities become absolutely essential to continued employment. Because “government” has become the major soft-funder, and often sets the research agenda, the entire system has degraded to a “fast-food” “prove-me-wrong” scenario. Can you imagine how many “scientists” would be unemployed if the Canadian and U.S. federal governments greatly reduced their current research funding. Good scientific research takes time.

  23. richardscourtney: I would be grateful if anybody could tell me why a press release about a scientific paper needs to include more than or less than….

    In a word: paywalls

  24. Thanks for posting this, Anthony. I use EurekAlert often in my reporting, so the warning is welcome. Perhaps EurekAlert could include a prominent disclaimer that press releases are no substitute for the actual study.

  25. My reply to Mr. Mosher is above. I suggest Mr. Mosher think very carefully about his response, unless of course its another one of his famous drive by shootings where he never returns to the scene.

  26. Policymakers? Yeah, they used to be called solons, after the Athenian statesman. A statesman from after the Ancient Greeks forgot their brilliant solution to elites and experts that is Sortition, that incorporated VoterID as Pinakion, and voting machines Kloterion. I am sure that any intelligent skeptic, randomly drawn, could do as well as a “policymaker.”

    Lessons easily learned – or not learned, mere tradition – are as easily forgotten. The Ancient Greeks bought their lessons with blood, as for instance, of the 300 of King Leonidas I at Thermopylae. Leonidas said, “Having come this far, try to take! MOLON LABE!”

  27. As I young bohemian I hung out with artists, (or perhaps con-artists,) who were always trying to get stuff accepted without producing evidence or data. However we at least had the decency to explain we actually didn’t have any evidence or data, but would surely find some, if only we had the money, which would allow us to quit our jobs as dishwashers and be (supposedly) “truly productive.”

    We called it “getting an advance.” (I never got one.)

    By the way, any time one of us did get our hands on a bit of extra money, we were “truly productive,” but only in terms of whooping it up.

    Why it some of these young scientists remind me of my younger self?

  28. Establishing a standard for science press releases is long overdue. Press releases in the days of print were used to clean windows. Editors and reporters knew that most of the release progenitors sat with a trumpet in their free hand blowing false notes on the paper. The best release writers could be trusted to give the details necessary for a reporter to follow up, to define the actual newsworthiness and context of the announcement, but these writers were few. (If you’re a PR guy working for a corporation, your daily job is to write these things, or at least have a rollout ready. You jazz it up to keep your job.)

    Gavin Schmidt’s list above is the minimum that should be at the bottom of every science press release as a simple listing. But there needs to be another category for those who can’t get their papers peer-reviewed, or published, because the content rocks the status quo, the vaunted ‘scientific consensus’ the public has fallen for. A Giordano Bruno Index (GBI).

    You need only read what Agence France Presse (AFP) does reporting climate science–check out climate stories on rawstory.com and the profoundly ignorant comments–to understand the necessity.

  29. Steven Mosher says:
    January 29, 2013 at 6:11 am

    here is a test of peoples principles

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/07/29/press-release-2/

    In this case the paper lasted a day or two before two amatuers pointed out the main issue.
    Now, of course, perhaps we want to talk about how a lead skeptic, mcintyre was coaxed into doing last minute analysis….

    pot kettle etc.

    Uh-oh… it’s the Emotional (AKA, “Bad”) Mosher again. Clearly he hasn’t moved past his perceived problems. Don’t type angry, as your spelling and grammar go to pot, Mosher. Oh, and get over it.

  30. I really don’t know why you put up with Mosher any longer. I know that you are not one for censorship Anthony and you welcome the debate from all aspects but Mosher no longer debates. he’s back firmly in the “we must save the world for our grandchildren at any costs even if the science won’t stand up ” camp. ( a camp I might add, that he and Fuller never left in my opinion )

    His posts here are no longer debate but clearly hostile to both the host and the commentators below the articles. His posts appear to be nothing but disruptive and contrary. Adding nothing to the value of the site.

    I’d cut him adrift and let him bloviate in the echo chambers of the usual suspects.

  31. Midwest Mark says:
    January 29, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Only slightly off topic, but I wonder if I might solicit some help with this. A recent NY Times article makes this claim:
    “In the Northern Hemisphere, snow coverage this past December was the greatest since records began in 1966, Rutgers University’s Global Snow Lab reported. But Dr. David Robinson, a climatologist at Rutgers, warns that year-to-year fluctuations and regional differences can deceive casual observers. In general, he says, there has been an “overall decline in snowfall.”

    I don’t believe it’s true that there has been an overall decline in snowfall. Can someone help me dispute this?
    ===================================
    They never tell you what time line they cherry picked do they?
    Yes, it has decreased from 2002, and there has been a steady increase since 1966…..

    http://stevengoddard.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/2012-finished-with-record-snow-extent/

  32. They need to either be willing to be in the dock or thrown off it. If they don’t want to be peer reviewed, they should be pier reviewed like witches of old (I note that burning them stopped the Medieval Warm Period) who were thrown into deep water and if they didn’t drown they were obviously witches.

  33. Don’t forget Wahl and Ammann’s press release of May 10, 2005 announcing that all our results were “unfounded”. One of their two papers was rejected; the other wasn’t published until over two years later (and its SI wasn’t published until three years later.)

    The press release did not accurately describe their findings. On every empirical point, they got results nearly identical to ours (tho they spun matters differently.)

  34. Anthon

    Mosher’s been selectively quoting you and deliberately misrepresenting you at Lucia’s blog. Check out below comment I made on the blog

    http://rankexploits.com/musings/2013/a-defense-of-the-ncdc-and-of-basic-civility/#comment-108972

    This was Mosher’s comment

    http://rankexploits.com/musings/2013/a-defense-of-the-ncdc-and-of-basic-civility/#comment-108871

    He represented as if you were upset about Greg Laden and wanted to sue because Greg Laden showed you in bad light. He deliberately hid the bit that you were upset because Greg Laden lied about your post on the meteorite thread and spread deliberate falsehoods about that post

    Mosher’s just doing the same thing at Lucia’s blog with the above post I showed. And he claims to be a friend of yours, in the same blog. Some friend he is! Probably has ” adjusted ” the meaning of friendship in line with his beliefs.

  35. Richard Courtney asks:

    I would be grateful if anybody could tell me why a press release about a scientific paper needs to include more than or less than
    (a) the title of the paper
    (b) the author(s) of the paper
    (c) the publication date of the paper
    (d) the journal which contains the paper
    (e) the abstract from the paper
    (f) contact information so journalists can interview the paper’s author(s).

    I agree that all this information should be included on press releases, and I would be surprised if it is not. But Press releases should not be confined to this information.

    This information is published regularly in periodicals like Current Contents. The trouble is there is an absolute avalanche of publications coming out every week. They are presented using highly specialised language for understanding by scientists in specialist fields. That is true for the papers abstract, or summary of the papers findings.

    The overwhelming majority of research papers are of limited or no interest to the general public.
    If authors or an institution feels the publication is “newsworthy”, that is of interest to the general public, it is entirely appropriate and helpful that they issue a press release.

    The press release will have a description of the project that is in more general language than that of the abstract, so its significance can be understood by non specialists. Press releases are, or should be, as the name implies, released to the press, so that scientifically literate journalists who are thereby alerted to the research can then make use of all the information Courtney describes, and more, to asses the claims made in the release, and write a story that is both interesting and understandable by the general public.

    The problem comes when no such checking is undertaken and the release is uncritically served up to the public.

    Institutions issuing relases prior to peer review run the risk of a repeat of the infamous cold fusion debacle of the 80′s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_fusion

  36. I do get some enjoyment from reading Mosher’s comments because I like seeing him exposed when he recirculates old and rehashed misinformation. I think his ilk only strengthens the case for rational exchange. His posts reveal that he’s a man lost in time who cannot appreciate the new revelations of science. At his age, he’s too invested in many youthful years of getting in wrong.

    In a way, it’s sad, but I think we can all learn from the responses, here on WUWT, to Mosher’s drive-by and old-in-the-tooth comments. After all, he’s still not alone in his belief of what soon will be yesteryear.

    Mosher, please correct me if I am in any way out of line here. I’d love to read your response. You quite are interesting my friend. (I mean friend in the same context of which Mosher claims friendship.)

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