12 May 2006

Who should write press releases?

The Royal Society continues to offer advice to scientists with research to communicate. Its latest stone tablet is the report Science and the public interest: communicating the results of new scientific research to the public.

The 26-page document has a section on "lay summaries media releases". Here we read that "Researchers should seek advice, when needed, about what the appropriate context for their results is and should be alert to how their results may be used by
other individuals and organisations, such as campaigners or policy-makers."

This goes on to urge researchers to tip of "relevant regulatory bodies" if "research results are considered to have implications for the public". We then read the somewhat surprising claim that "Most regulatory bodies have well-established
mechanisms for assessing the implications of research results".

For once, the report does not point the finger solely at the media. Far from it, it tells us that "Misleading media reports have occurred because of inaccurate press releases about the results of new research."

The blame isn't totally down to the scientist, Sometimes, we read, "researchers whose results have been described have not always been consulted about the content and style of the press release. Sometimes too researchers produce inept summaries of their work in an attempt to gain publicity for their work."

The report makes a lot of sense – after all the committee behind it may not have anyone from the "Grub Street" side of the media it does include some experienced journals folks, such as the editor of Nature. However, it also raises a few questions. Won't the whole process of releasing results become even more bureaucratic if even press releases have to go through peer review?

Then there are those of us who feel that only a lazy journalist relies on press releases to set their agenda.

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