Over at RealClimate, Dr. Schmidt has written something that I’ve found myself wholly in agreement with – the sad state of science reporting and the use of embargoes that aren’t adhered to by some journalists.
Readers may recall that I’ve made similar complaints for sometime about the sloppy press releases that are often issued from university and organization science departments that don’t even include the title of the paper or a citation, forcing you to go looking for it, sometimes unsuccessfully. Dr. Schmidt writes:
Finally, while I am sort of on the topic of science journalism, can’t we please, please, please mandate the citation of the DOI tag in any online story about a new paper? Tracking down the actual paper being described is all-too-often far more difficult than it needs to be. (For example, the doi for the study referred to above took four links and a targeted google search to find. Why?).
I fully agree.
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.
In their help section, Eurekalert talks about embargoes, but doesn’t offer any guidelines on what should be included in a science press release, leaving that up to individual PIO’s and press agents. Hence, we get more entropy in the process.
Even worse, for example, ESA’s Hubble group offers a Press release guidelines for scientists and with the exception of photos/videos doesn’t cover the basic points I list above but instead focus on style.
In a post on CompassBlogs story “Press Release Peeves” the topic is:
Journalists Comment on Science Press Releases – In a recent post, Liz asked science writers to share their pet peeves about press releases and advice for scientists on how to improve them.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE RELEASES ABOUT THEIR WORK? Clear callouts to usable art, multiple phone numbers and other contact info for the relevant researchers, inclusion of titles or links to drafts of the papers, particularly if they’re not being published in Science/Nature/PNAS.
That’s pretty much my entire list, independently derived.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In a January article From the Writer’s Desk: The Dangers of Press Releases By Charles Q. Choi he writes:
In cases where the scientists are not contacted about their research, we have “churnalism” — news released based largely if not totally on press release alone. We also have press-release farms such as PhysOrg and ScienceDaily that seem to me to do little else but repackage press releases one can find on science press releases sites such as EurekAlert.
The discovery that Maggie and I made was not that churnalism happens. There are a fair number of opinions regarding press releases among science journalists — reporters are free at some outlets to use material from them while they are prohibited from doing so at others. In many ways, press releases are kind of like the dark matter of the science news universe — invisible to the public for the most part, but they exert a tremendous force on science journalism.
The problem, as we talked with scientists, was that apparently researchers don’t often get to vet press releases before they are published. That profoundly shocked and disturbed me and Maggie. Journalists have a number of ethical considerations with whether or not they let sources read articles before publication, but the press officers who write the press releases should have no such restraints. But what I heard that night corroborated an experience of mine in the last week, where I talked with a scientist for a story who told me he didn’t see the press release on his work.
I think a revolution in science PR is needed, and some standards should be drafted and applied. It is mind blowing that in the exacting world of science, the basic informational issues I’ve outlined are not covered by some sort of standard for submission. Most journals have strict standards for submission on the input side, so why is the output side left to the whims of the writer who may not be familiar with the material, leaving gaps in the basic info (like the name of the paper), or even share the PR with the authors before setting it loose on the world?
Having submission standards for press releases would in fact reduce the churnalism and make for better science reporting overall, no matter who writes about it. There’s no point at all in holding back that basic information about the paper/study which seems to be regularly missing, and all it does is force reporters who are deadline oriented to waste more time tracking that information down, which could be better spent on writing about the science itself.
Since the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) runs the world’s largest science press release outlet, Eurekalert, the drafting of some standards for press release crafting and submission would go a long way towards solving these issues.
If you are a member of AAAS, or a PIO/PR agent reading this, I urge you to contact AAAS and/or Eurekalert and ask them to look at this essay and to consider implementing some submission standards at Eurekalert. Once that is done, the rest of the science world will follow that example.
Thank you for your consideration. – Anthony Watts
* top artwork adapted from original art at Bradley University
Related: (h/t to Tom Nelson)
It’s tempting to start calling this a trend.
Three Elsevier math journals are among the latest scientific publications to be retracting papers because fake email addresses were used to obtain favorable peer reviews.