13 November 2007

Writing across the disciplines

Science, the journal, walks a narrow line between accessibility and scientific rigour. Up front the articles are for all and sundry, well anyone with a smattering of, and an interest in, science. At the back of the paper it is heavy science.

The result of this balancing act, which Nature also manages, is that many readers can't penetrate much of the back half. The editors are well aware of this, which is why Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science, has tackled the subject in an editorial Approaching Science (vol. 318, issue 5851, p 715). He also introduced a new experiment and invited readers to respond.

Kennedy sums up the issue as follows "The language used in Reports and Research Articles is sufficiently technical and arcane that they are hard to understand, even for those in related disciplines." No one would disagree with his assertion that "accessibility is a problem". And it is getting worse, as subjects become ever more arcane. "Each specialty has focused in to a point at which even the occupants of neighboring fields have trouble understanding each others' papers."

The experiment? "Each Research Article published this week and in the next five issues will be preceded by a one-page 'Authors' Summary': an account, with one figure, of what the paper reports and what its conclusions are."

The approach that Science is taking matches the way I used to describe the approach that New Scientist took to its editing. Unashamedly written for scientists, but not so much so that a seriously interested "outside" would stumble, the line was that the physics, to pick a discipline at random, was there for geneticists, for example, and vice versa.

Kennedy takes a similar tack in describing Science's experiment. "Our plan is for summaries of papers in physical science fields to be reviewed by our life-sciences editors and vice versa."

The objective is laudable,m if ambitious. "The one-page summary is intended to make clear what the investigators did, how it was done, what the result was, and its significance."

It would be wonderful if every scientific journal went down the same road. But there just aren't enough literate scientists out there. Nor enough science journalists and editors to help them with the task.

Anyone interested in this experiment can catch up on the papers that have received this treatment over on the relevant bit of the Science web site.

Let's hope it catches on. In these web enhanced days, it would be a great add on for the electronic versions of journals. No need to soil paper with the summaries. They could even make them freely available to people who do not subscribe to their journals. But that may be a step too far for the money machine that is scientific publishing.

28 October 2007

Twisted DNA experts

James Watson firmly planted his foot into his mouth recently, with his comments about race and intelligence. This should, though, surprise no one. It certainly would not surprise Clive Cookson, who recently reviewed Watson's latest book in the Financial Times.

In his review, Gene genies, Cookson writes "There is something almost otherworldly about Watson, as if he does not know what effect he is having on people." Having sat through a rambling and provocative talk by Watson, I can only agree. The man may have won a Nobel Prize, but he is also a loose cannon.

The publicity will have done nothing to harm sales of Watson's book, but perhaps the biggest beneficiary will be Craig Venter and his own book. All of a sudden, this "renegade scientist" looks like a good guy.

By a coincidence that almost smacks of collusion between the publishers, Venter and Watson were both in the UK with their new books to promote. (Cookson reviews both books.) It was Watson's own book tour that blew up in his face, leaving Venter to hog the airways.

The FT isn't the only newspaper to commission joint of the two books. The Guardian also commissioned an omnibus review, Learning the lessons of life, this time from Georgina Ferry. The Guardian tells us that Ferry is "the author of Max Perutz and the Secret of Life" – a good read, by the way – but it fails to mention the book she wrote in collaboration with Sir John Sulston, who also collected a Nobel prize for his work on gene sequencing, a subject that is central to the work of both Venter and Watson.

Ferry and Sulston collaborated on "The Common Thread" an excellent account of the race to sequence the human genome. This described how Sulston and Venter were at daggers drawn, with the former horrified by the latter's commercial approach to the scientific challenge. Given her closeness to the story, it is perhaps not surprising that Ferry is not quite as gushing as Cookson about Venter's role in the story.

25 August 2007

He advised Mrs Thatcher so he must be right

You have to be desperate to quote a clapped out advisor to Mrs Thatcher in support of your argument. When that person, Lord Monckton, is also a hereditary peer, and a retired journalist and "inventor" to boot, that desperation becomes terminal. But that is just what they do over at the grandly named Science and Public Policy Institute, SPPI, which has just published Papers by British Peer Disprove Catastrophic Human-Induced Global Warming and "Consensus".

Plenty of people have weighed in to dismember the peer's ideas. The puzzling bit for me is that an organisation should feel that advising Mrs Thatcher and being a "Lord" adds weight to their views. Both could equally be signs of eccentricity, or something even more deranged.

The idea that such a person can "disprove" all the stuff we read about climate change must also raise doubts about the credibility of SPPI. It seems that anyone can throw a bunch of grand words into its title and some people out there will take it seriously.

The problem with this set of initials, well, one of the problems, is that its title is awfully similar to a once credible outfit, the Scientists' Institute for Public Information. SIPI was in on the public engagement game, and in "educating" the media, long before the current bandwagon hit the road.

06 August 2007

Would you report on Nature Precedings?

The recent discussion about journals and their love of embargoes looks slightly strange in the light of the development of services such as Nature Precedings. This new web site describes itself as "a place for researchers to share pre-publication research, unpublished manuscripts, presentations, posters, white papers, technical papers, supplementary findings, and other scientific documents".

The description goes on to say that something called their "professional curation team" will screen submissions "for relevance and quality". But there will be no peer review.

The site seems to be a scientific version of "Digg" and the many other social networks that encourage members to vote on submissions. Nature Precedings has a place for "Most popular submissions". When we looked the hot paper, with 32 votes, was Henry Niman's "Swine Influenza A Evolution via Recombination – Genetic Drift Reservoir".

They offer RSS feeds so that you don't have to go and visit the web site to see what is happening. But how should science writers respond to this sort of thing? Are the papers "legit" enough to warrant coverage.

Friends over at AlphaGalileo used to tell me that in most of Europe science writers will not cover anything that has not been peer reviewed. How will they take to such a development when it emanates from a publishing outfit as prestigious as Nature?

The FAQ for the service says that the aim is "to share, archive and cite material that is preliminary or supplementary". You could, they say, use it as a "preprint server". Here they are following the lead of arXiv.org, which has done this sort of thing for years. This is also why Nature does not accept stuff on physics, perhaps fearful that people would see this as the heavy hand of a commercial outfit trying to respond to the open access movement.

The FAQ does not explicitly deal with media coverage, but it does say that "the content may be quoted, copied and disseminated for any purpose, but only if the original source is correctly cited". Maybe this would be an insurmountable barrier for the many newspapers that refuse to provide full details of authorship and publication when they write about papers.

05 August 2007

Foot-in-mouth disease

The whole world, if the news coverage is anything to go by, is probably beating its way to the door of the Institute for Animal Health, whose laboratory at Pirbright is implicated in the spread of the UK's latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). But click on that link and you will find that Pirbright has yet to wake up to the fact that we all want to read about FMD.

The page in question is headed "Disease factsheets". It is blank and, like the rest of the "new" web site, has a copyright date of 2006. In stead they urge visitors to "Click here to visit our old site." Follow the link and you can retrieve a file about Foot-and-mouth disease. The documents is sadly thin on useful details. Far better to read the pages on Wikipedia.

It would be unfair to expect the web weaver at the Institute for Animal Health to drop everything and rewrite the web site when news of the latest outbreak of the disease hit the headlines late on Friday evening, especially in the August holiday period. But there doesn't seem to be any sign that anyone at this institute or its paymaster, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is awake.

There is nothing on the BBSRC's home page or on its news page. The least they could have done would have been to post a link to the pages of the government department that is picking up the pieces.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has the story at the top of its front page. This takes you to a constantly updated statement.

One thing you will find at the BBSRC site is a PDF file of the most recent, 2002, review of Purbright. This tells us that:

"The condition of much of the Pirbright Laboratory, site infrastructure and associated housing is unsatisfactory and there is a clear need for urgent investment over the next five years in new laboratories and facilities. This should be part of a phased medium-term (10-year) rolling plan for the Pirbright Estate to be developed by the new Director with BBSRC and in consultation with DEFRA. We further recommend that IAH, in concert with BBSRC, develop a realistic and achievable plan for renovating its housing stock. We view these as urgent issues."
If there is any link between Pirsight and the current outbreak, the opposition parties are bound to beat up the Government for not responding to this statement. Such is the short term thinking of these people, and their poor knowledge of science, that they will ignore the fact that Pirbright's decline did not happen overnight, or even in the five years after the change of government.

It takes many years of neglect and underfunding to bring a laboratory to its knees. It then takes time to undo the damage. I bet they won't say that in the Daily Mail.

23 July 2007

Are embargoes bad for science journalism?

The former BBC science correspondents, David Whitehouse, is stirring up things with his piece in The Independent, Science reporting's dark secret. David does not like the embargo system. He is not alone, this is an issue that has cropped up here from time to time.

Just in case anyone does not understand how the system works, David explains that "many, though not all, journals that publish scientific research operate an embargo system. It involves sending out details to journalists provided they agree not to publish anything about them until the embargoed time."

It is David's line that the result of the system is that "science coverage can be indistinguishable across outlets". That's because everyone waits for the embargo to lapse and then shovels their articles into print. As David rightly says, the embargo system "encourages lazy reporting and props up poor correspondents".

Even within the journal system there are ways to avoid the pitfalls of the embargo system. You could read some of the lesser journals. Few put out press releases. Indeed, it is only a small coterie of the self-professed leading journals that indulge in this practice. It isn't even a long standing practice. The embargo really did not come into ots own until the 1980s.

While David makes much sense, as usual, he is wrong to finger the embargo system as the main cause of the problem. It is really down to something else that he describes when he writes: "With the embargo system and the arrival of the internet it's easy to churn out story after story, usually without leaving your desk."

It is this last factor that really kills good science journalism. many a science writer I have talked to spends little time out of the office. They just sit there, hunched over a steaming terminal, browsing the torrent of electronic information and plucking out of it the stories that will get by the news editor.

That is why we get what David describes when he writes "We have many fine science reporters in the UK but there are some poor ones that do little else but reproduce press releases and embargoed copy."

Leaving the office and visiting scientists in their own habitat makes the embargo system irrelevant. You talk to the researchers as they do their work. Most will tell you what they are up to, and you are free to write about it.

This is how Dolly first surfaced. Some say that this was down to a broken embargo, but in reality the writer had the story before that paper entered the system. As David writes: "It was The Observer, outside the embargo system, that got the scoop about Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997 even though thousands of other journalists worldwide already had the press release but couldn't talk about it for another four days."

If you really want to know what is really hot, go to a scientific conference or two. Forget about the two events that seem to appeal to journalists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. They provide nothing new.

Go to the specialist events and sit through the presentations. That is where you will hear about science that will not surface in the journals for a couple of years or so.

There are journals that will refuse to publish papers that have already appeared in the media. Well that is their threat. Someone should call their bluff.

17 July 2007

BBC Trust takes an alternative line on medicine programmes

The people who made the programmes "Alternative Medicine: The Evidence," broadcast at the beginning of 2006, may have dismissed viewers' objections, but the BBC Trust found at least some of Simon Singh's complaints to be justified. You can find the result of the Trust's adjudication on the Editorial complaints appeals findings page. Go for April.

Then again, the Trust backed the programme's makers on most of the complaints, which leads you to wonder why DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page describes the findings as "excellent news". (Please, DC, do something about that cumbersome web page.) A better phrase might be "good news" given the partial nature of the "victory".

Yes, the BBC Trust did uphold two of the 10 complaints, but from DC's comments you would have thought that it was rapped knuckles all round.

Isn't this the sort of misreporting, and spin, that DC (David Colquhoun), who usually avoids such elephant traps, likes to excoriate?

As to the two bits that the Trust did find dubious, the "summary finding" sums up the issues with content:

"The programme, while making reference to the clinical drugs administered to the patient in the open-heart surgery, did not accurately reflect the effect of acupuncture on each occasion that the operation was referred to and implied incorrectly that acupuncture was being used as the sole source of pain relief. It agreed that this could have misled the audience and upheld the complaint with regard to accuracy."
The other complaint that the Trust upheld was not about the programme's content, but about the tactics that the programme makers used to fend off criticism. As the adjudication describes it the complaint was that:
"The BBC orchestrated a letter to The Guardian without being open about its role and fabricating some of the signatories. The complainant noted that the letter “gave the impression that this was a volley of independent scientists rallying to its defence”."
The Trust also upheld this one.
"The committee ... while acknowledging that the programme had a legitimate right to write and organise the letter to defend the series, agreed that it was wrong for them not to have acknowledged that the letter was from the BBC. The Committee therefore upheld the complaint on the grounds that the letter did not satisfy the requirement to deal with audiences fairly and openly."
This last finding seems to be a symptom of the same malaise that has caused the BBC's recent problems. As the Trust put it:
"The Committee’s view was that this breached trust with the audience. The Committee agreeing that it was important for all programme makers to deal fairly and openly with the audience."
Treating the audience with contempt, with fake phone ins and dodgy editing, is a great way to lose friends.

14 July 2007

Borat's cousin mugs media

The media have been at it again. Misrepresenting research results. This time it is research on autism. And research that has yet to be through the peer review machine.

In this Statement by Autism Expert, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, complains that the reporters "did not wait until the study was complete and had been through peer review, since this is considered good practice in science and health journalism".

You would have more sympathy for the prof. if some members of the academic community didn't use the peer review system as a PR machine. Professor Baron-Cohen, Sasha's cousin, may not be guilty of this crime, but enough science reporters have been frustrated by journals' abusing the system to make the whole thing a charade.

Scientists who refuse to comment on papers that are going through peer review, have only themselves to blame if the media gets it wrong. Of course, some journals don't help by threatening not to publish papers if their authors blab.

Ben Goldacre has dissected the autism affair in his own inimitable manner, pointing the finger at The Observer and relating the story to the MMR saga that has kept him busy in recent years.

We may be witnessing a new phenomenon, Ben is not the only one to pick up on the professor's complaints. The Times has also jumped in to criticise those earlier media reports.

Perhaps we can look forward to both newspapers ignoring unpublished research when it comes along in future.

A press release on a press release

It isn't often that a team of researchers feels the need to issue a press release to counter the coverage of their work sparked off by an earlier press release. Indeed, this statement from a group at Imperial College may be unique.

It all started with a paper in PLoS Medicine on HIV and AIDS. Imperial College put out its own press release on the paper. Unfortunately, the media had to get in the way with its own interpretation. It seems that they got it wrong in what they wrote:

"Unfortunately, the news coverage has given the impression that our study shows that current scientific thinking regarding how HIV causes AIDS is wrong, and that we 'refute a long-standing theory.' This is incorrect, and is a serious misrepresentation of both our work and that of HIV researchers worldwide."
It may come as no surprise to some that the point at issue is over whether HIV causes AIDS, something that certain newspapers have denied for many a year. Seems that they jumped at the wrong opportunity to "prove" that they were right all along.

It is a pity that the scientists at Imperial don't name names. Then again, journalists can be very touchy about such things and have been known to run to their lawyers at the slightest excuse.

13 July 2007

Rocky Flats goes from bombs to wildlife

This one raised a chuckle. The Department of Energy (DOE) in the US has announced that its Rocky Flats site, the place where it used to make nuclear weapons, is to Become National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing odd in that, Chermobyl is also something of a haven for widlife, but 30 years or so ago the place also got up to some more peaceful stuff. It was a test bed for wind turbines.

Like many countries, the US threw cash at research into renewable energy in the wake of the oil crises of the 1970s. Lots of money then went into renewable (then called alternative) energy, including wind power.

The DOE was proud of its efforts in this area. At least it stopped people from talking about bombs. So when the American Association for the Advancement of Science was in Denver, Colorado, it invited the press along to hear about wind power. Just one problem, for any Brits present, the passport they had asked us all to bring didn't work. So we sat in the bus while all the Americans present sat through what was probably a fascinating account of what the DOE was up to.

It may not have been the equivalent of the "curse of Gnome" but a couple of weeks later a mighty storm came through and flattened all of those dinky little windmills.

Somehow, accounts of this episode do not seem to feature much in the modern revival of wind power.

21 June 2007

Meaningless initials

This one comes up because I receive regular email messages with "CSR" in the subject. Mostly these come from Cambridge Silicon Radio. Well, that was its name but like too many companies it has morphed into a set of cryptic initials.

A quick roam around CSR's web site provides little enlightenment. Even the company's press releases are silent on the subject.

This is dangerous. I once managed to use the name British Technology Group in an article I wrote for the Financial Times some time after the company became BTG plc.

Companies can reduce the likelihood of that sort of thing by using a phrase along the lines of "formerly known as Cambridge Silicon Radio". Just put it in the "About us" bit that seems to be an obligatory appendage to every press release these days.

In time the message sticks. It is most unlikely that anyone would mistakenly write "Imperial Chemical Industries" in an article. (Given the latest news they may even have to give up writing ICI.)

But back to those initials. Today's email brought a message from something called "article 13" with the subject "CBI CSR case studies - latest batch launched". I know what CBI stands for, but what about CSR?

The text of the message, including the web version, offers no clues. So over to the web site where we read that CSR stands for corporate social responsibility.

They actually spell it out in this non sentence "Typically in the areas of governance, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development." What they really meant to do was to put a comma at the end of the previous sentence "We are strategic advisors on risk associated with business responsibility." But let's not get too picky.

There's nothing wrong with writing about corporate social responsibility and using CSR as a shortcut, but it is usually a good idea to explain what you are up to in email messages that people might want to pass on to someone else. I mean, if someone thinks that it stands for Cambridge Silicon Radio, you will have a very baffled reader.

11 June 2007

Another unusable press release

If an organisation has a funny name you would have thought that it would offer as many opportunities as possible for journalists to get it right in any articles that they write. For example, if you send out a press release, then give a writer the chance to "copy and paste" from the release into their own articles. Indeed, for many PR people the perfect press release is one that the press simply copies and pastes, without bothering to add their own unhelpful adornments.

Pöyry Energy Consulting, for example, has those funny dots in its name. So rather than leave it to a poor hack to hunt out the right bits on their keyboard, why not put the names in a prominent place in the press release?

They have, actually, well sometimes. But the latest "News from Poyry" - yes, that is the unhelpful subject of the email message - points at a press release that is a PDF file. Just one problem, whoever created the file decided to allow journalists to print copies but not to "copy from this document," as Acrobat describes the security setting.

This is not the first press release we have seen in this format. There was another one last year. When we raised it with the PR person responsible, he replied that he had no idea why the company opted for that level of security. Our guess is that the person who made the PDF file just didn't think about the journalists who might have used the press release.

06 June 2007

A lethargic green writer

There has always been a chasm between the stuff written by medical correspondents and "health writers" on many newspapers. The former are specialist science writers whose beat includes the latest goings on on medical research. This is territory that is also the natural habitat of many science writers with a broader remit. Now, it seems, we have to find some way to differentiate environment correspondents from "green writers".

Just as health writers will cover any old tosh that deals with the human body, be it quack remedies or copper bracelets that cure snoring, while medical writers want some science behind their articles, we had always thought that an environment writer also built on scientific foundations. Indeed, many science writers also cover the environment which is, after all, a highly scientific subject.

Evidence that the green writers do not need this underpinning of science comes in the shape on an article that appeared in The Independent, My war on electrosmog by Julia Stephenson. The article is yet another in the saga of slow death by electromagnetic radiation that surfaces from time to time around mobile phones and, more recently, wifi. Ms Stephenson, whose own embryonic web site verges on the cleavage side of photography, has been feeling tired of late. Even her plants are in a bad way.

The self styled "Green Goddess" consulted her naturopath who "insisted that my exhaustion was caused by electromagnetic "smog" in my flat". Apart from finding it dodgy that anyone writing on such matters should consult a naturopath, I am puzzled that she also feels the need to talk to a "London-based complementary health practitioner". Ms Stephenson quotes Dr Nicole de Canha as saying "Any imbalance in our electromagnetic field creates a disturbance in cell structure and function, which can lead to illness in sensitive individuals."

Where, we have to ask, did Dr de Canha acquire that PhD? Therapynet, which seems to be a place for such folks to advertise their magic, tells us little beyond saying that the good doctor has a Doctorate in Homoeopathy, as well as Sports and Therapeutic Massage Diploma, Indian Head Massage, Ear Acupuncture Diploma. There is a link to Relax-O-Therapy but the website wasn't there when we clicked it.

It is depressing that a newspaper as solid as The Independent carries this sort of tosh. Perhaps the one saving grace is that they file it under "Lifestyle".

24 May 2007

Nuclear is an adjective – but don't tell the Royal Society

In its consultation document on the future of nuclear power, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) wisely avoids using the term "nuclear option". Even the overarching White Paper avoids the phrase, except when quoting a third party exercise.

The problem with the phrase is that you will find it used in many contexts to describe the most drastic option you can take, as in nuclear weapons. For example, the "nuclear option" crops up as a description in the Washington Post of the tactics used in the US Congress to block the president's nominations for top jobs.

It isn't, then, a good idea to use the term "nuclear option" when what you really mean is the option to build new nuclear power stations.

The same need for careful use of language should also acknowledge that the word nuclear is actually an adjective. Its origins are in the nucleus. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy depend on smashing up nuclei. Nuclear magnetic resonance, the old name for magnetic resonance imaging before the "N" word fell out of favour, also depends on doing things with nuclei.

Someone should tell this to the Royal Society. This august body, the highest in the land, by its own reckoning, when it comes to science, has put out the inevitable statement in the wake of the White Paper.

In the Royal Society response to Government energy plans we read that "in the short to medium term nuclear could be crucial in helping the UK tackle the challenges of climate change and security of supply". Nuclear what?

Picky? Yes. But when you are dealing with opponents who like to hold up nuclear weapons as a reason for not using nuclear power it seems silly to offer them a hostage to fortune.

It takes very little to use the right words. If the DTI can do it, why not the RS?

04 May 2007

Jumped up ladder release

The general advice to anyone writing a press release is to avoid being too clever, and not to upstage the hacks when it comes to headlines. It is good to see that some PR folks ignore this advice, or we would not have received this one from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children’s Hospital in Ohio: Nonfatal Ladder Injuries Climbing Sharply.

They pile on the groans in the first paragraph "According to a new study, the number of nonfatal ladder injuries treated in emergency rooms jumped by 50 percent between 1990 and 2005."

It may be hard for the subeditors to top these.

02 May 2007

Patently silly data on climate change

You don't have to be a climate change denier to have doubts about some of the output from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is about to gush forth with another report. A couple of interesting bloggers have found some hilarious graphs in the IPCC's output.

Over on Prometheus there is a hatchet job on numbers showing a correlation between climate change and losses due to natural disasters. Roger Pielke Jr writes "I have generally been a supporter of the IPCC, but I do have to admit that if it is this sloppy and irresponsible in an area of climate change where I have expertise, why should I have confidence in the areas where I am not an expert?"

Even more hilarious is the message on Random Thoughts dismembering another graph from the IPCC which shows that U.S. patents cause global weather-related disasters!.

As the author comments " It's obvious that increasing the number of U.S. patents issued causes normalized global weather-related losses to increase. When will the U.S. Patent Office start behaving responsibly, and stop issuing patents???!"

Er, maybe not, when asked for the page reference, Mark Bahner, the man behind the thing, reveals that the graph in question "only appear on dates that have April 1 in them".

Damn, there goes another good story. Then again, maybe someone could sell it to the Daily Mail. They'd certainly buy a piece on the impact of climate change on house prices.

21 April 2007

Even researchers can write about IT with style

Those mad fools at EPSRC recently showed their lack of judgement by inviting me to be one of the judges for this year's Computer Science Writing Competition. They made up for this lack of wisdom by also lining up some of the country's leading lights in academic IT research as judges. EPSRC has now put out a Press Release on the results of our deliberations, all done electronically with the teeniest carbon footprint imaginable.

The interesting bit as a judge from the writing side rather than an IT expert was that most of the articles made a pretty good fist of explaining their subjects. They were no worse than some of the copy that has appeared in print, and certainly better than some that has come across my desk from "professional" writers in IT.

If there was a general trap that caught all of the writers it was that they took a bit too long to get to the message, and to tell us what they were writing about. These articles were, after all, around 750 words long. More a news item than a feature.

But I reckon that most of the pieces I read could have made it into something like the Guardian's interesting technology section.

15 April 2007

Time to explode the hydrogen myth

The hydrogen bandwagon continues to roll. Only rarely does someone point out that this really is a case of the emperor with no clothes. So we must be thankful to Russell Seitz for chiming in with his piece At Last- A Genuine Hoax!.

Seitz hits the nail on the head with his observation that "hydrogen produced from H2O is a rare and precious commodity, costing a quarter its weight in silver because of the high price of American electrical power-- most of which comes from coal".

Hydrogen is just a carrier of energy. In this respect it resembles electricity. It is only a good idea if you need something to replace oil and gas in applications where you need a fluid that you can carry around.

In his attack on hydrogen from water Seitz misses reasons why hydrogen might have a role to play in a future energy system. Rather than turning coal into electricity to make hydrogen, why not get the carbon out of the coal and just use the hydrogen it contains? In that way you could tap the coal's energy without puffing CO2 into the atmosphere.

I leave it to others to calculate the thermodynamics of this idea. I raise it only because Lord Brown, the boss of BP, told me (links to a PDF file) that it is why the company is interested in hydrogen.

Another way to turn an "immobile" fuel into one that you can carry around is, of course, to use nuclear power as the source of energy for hydrogen creation. But once again the thermodynamics have to be right. And the sort of people who call for a hydrogen economy are almost certainly the last to contemplate the idea of building more nuclear power stations. They would rather see the lights go out all over the planet.

08 April 2007

Science communication in a political climate

Scientists like to think that it is the evidence that they provide that sways thinking on such issues as climate change. Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney beg to differ. Were that the case, then we would not end up with the recent poll finding that "23% of college educated Republicans think global warming is attributable to human activity, compared with 75% of Democrats".

Nisbet and Mooney raise this issue in an article in the latest issue of the journal Science. They set out to dispel the notion of many scientists who "retain the well-intentioned belief that, if laypeople better understood technical complexities from news coverage, their viewpoints would be more like scientists’, and controversy would subside".

In reality, people approach science much as they do any other subject. "Faced with a daily torrent of news, citizens use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own." From this we can conclude that it is against the Republican philosophy to believe in anthropomorphic climate change.

The press release put out to drum up interest in the article, Scientists must improve communication tactics, Science article proclaims, spells it out in a quote from Mooney. "In writing this article together, we argue that scientists shouldn't exclusively blame politicians and journalists for gridlock on issues like climate change. Part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication."

One problem with the scientists' approach to getting their message across is that they can be so convinced that they are right that they are dismissive not just of crackpots but of anything that smacks of religion. Not all scientists take this stance, of course, but a few well known media superstars certainly take this line.

Bad idea, is the message from Nisbet and Mooney. Instead, they suggest, "scientists must realize that facts will be repeatedly misapplied and twisted in direct proportion to their relevance to the political debate
and decision-making. In short, as unnatural as it might feel, in many cases, scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it."

They don't go into the implications of this for science writers. They are there though. While it isn't the writer's job to make the scientists' arguments for them, but to report what they say. But we all know that writers pick and choose the material they include in their articles. With luck they want to pick the bits that will convince their readers. Thus they are in the same boat as the scientists.

There isn't, then, any point in presenting an argument that the reader will dismiss. Then again, another issue is that if you write for a publication that reaches an audience of people who are naturally inclined in one direction, you may have an uphill struggle when writing about a piece of science that is at variance with their view of the world.

05 April 2007

Does it matter if the UK excels at research?

It may make politicians feel good, and give them something to put into their speeches, but it is hard to know what to make of the news that the UK research impact outstrips US. The press release with this headline gives Malcolm Wicks, the relatively new Science and Innovation Minister, an opportunity to gloat.

"I'm proud to say the UK produces nine per cent of the world's scientific papers and has a citation share of 12 per cent.

"Britain's 21st century knowledge economy depends on science and innovation. We are in a good position - we have excellent science and strong investment."

He doesn't quite take all the credit for the government, but the message is in there. It is also the argument that the government uses when it wants to beef up the effort the researchers in the UK put into turning that research into money. We are really really good at doing science, the argument goes, and with just a bit more effort we could make oodles of cash by innovating on the back of that research.

The question you have to ask is if there is any proof that this research excellence has much to do with the ability of companies in the UK to innovate. After all, as the report that prompted this outburst shows, the scientific disciplines where the country excels include biological, clinical, environmental, humanities, maths, pre-clinical and health, social sciences and business.

You can argue over how they manage to shoehorn some of those subjects into science, or whether they can provide the foundations for successful innovation. More important, though, is the simple minded bean counting nature of the exercise.

Plenty of countries do nicely thank you without featuring as high as the UK in these league tables. Just think Korea and Taiwan. Even Israel, whatever you think of the country's atrocious racism, does very nicely in several areas of technology.

The cue for Mr Wicks's comments is the report with the unfathomable title PSA target metrics for the UK research base. It has a detailed analysis that provides a field day for anyone who wants to theorise.

Take the first paragraph of the summary. This says:
"The UK’s strong international excellence has been achieved with lower investment compared to its competitors. On available OECD data, the UK has a relatively sparse density of people with research training. However, this has led to a high level of research productivity, in regard to both research publications and trained people."
The bit about lower investment could mean that we do it on the cheap, paying researchers badly. You could infer the same notion from the later statement that "The UK produces relatively more PhDs per unit HERD (Higher Education R&D spend) than most OSI comparator group nations." PhD students may not be as poverty stricken as they once were, but few live in the lap of luxury.

The bit about the density of people could be a sign of inequities in the way the UK distributes its spending, a theory that will strike a chord with any scientists who operates outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. Then again, those within the triangle might well point out that the fact that they are a money magnet is the reason why the UK punches above its weight.

In reality, you can probably pick over the data and come up with support for any crackpot theory you care to dream up, including those out out by the government.

04 April 2007

How does innovation work?

Like many countries, the UK has been screaming about the need for innovation. It is the only way to make the economy grow, says the official line. So Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have vied with one another to make the right noises about innovation and the science that, they believe, will make it happen. Spending more on science may not have quite the same Daily Mail appeal as throwing cash at health and education, but it has come out at least as well as these sinks of taxpayers' money. And yet we don't really know how innovation works.

If we did there would be no reason for the Economic and Social Research Council to launch a new initiative: £2 million for Targeted Initiative on Innovation. The money will go to "eight different research projects focusing on innovation". Among the things they will investigate are, says the announcement:

  • How can the rate of innovation be increased to enhance economic growth and competitiveness, while the direction of innovation simultaneously steered to achieve social and environmental sustainability?
  • What are the options for public policy at different levels to increase innovation and steer towards such policy objectives?
  • What economic, social and managerial factors enable an economy such as the UK to best capture high value from increasingly global innovation processes?
  • How is it best to model and measure emergent innovation activities and systems?
All this is happening under the banner of the Advanced Institute of Management Research. As a part of the same package, AIM, as it calls itself, has also awarded seven Innovation Fellowships. one area that these people will delve into is that of innovation in the service sector, something that recently cropped up on the agenda when the UK's R&D Scoreboard suddenly added the sector to its number crunching.

As the ESRC announcement puts it "with over 75% of employment in the UK now being located in services, we need to enhance our understanding of service innovation".

Another topic for discussion is "green innovation". It isn't enough, it seems for innovative stuff to be "sustainable". We also need to look at how it happens. Or, as the announcement puts it "can the rate of innovation be balanced with the need to achieve environmentally and socially sustainable levels of innovation?"

01 April 2007

Nearly half of Americans believe that Darwin was wrong

The fact that Charles Darwin was himself of a religious turn of mind, and saw no conflict between evolution and his belief, does not mean anything to most Americans. A recent NEWSWEEK Poll found that 90 per cent of Americans believe in God. Nothing wrong with that, but following this belief, it turns out that it colours their views on other issues where science should be their guide. As the article puts it:

"Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view."
We mention this here only because it shows that science writers clearly have an uphill struggle. There may be people in our community who don't believe in man-made climate change, partly because a handful of maverick scientists fuel their belief, but has anyone ever come out against evolution, even though that too has a smattering of sceptics?

The other question is, where are these people? They seem to be like Americans who voted for Bush. There are plenty of them, but you never meet one.

26 March 2007

Slaves to science

One of the delights of the Royal Society is its historical archive. It must be one of the oldest repositories of scientific history.

It is also good that the RS takes this part of its activity seriously. Hence its efforts to buy up important documents when they become available, even when they were previously "liberated" from the RS's own collections by dubious means.

The latest entry on the history front is the piece on Slavery and the Royal Society. There is also a short video by Professor Lisa Jardine, whose dad, Jacob Bronowski, was also a fine commentator on the history of science.

The piece points out that certain prominent members of the RS were themselves involved in companies that were active in the slave trade.

Now, of course, the only form of slavery that the RS supports is that of lab grunts who are chained to their test tubes and petri dishes in the pursuit of yet more publications.

22 March 2007

Is the best science buried on the internet?

With the word Google turned into a verb, the world of research has changed. And that includes how journalists do their research. Want to bone up on an obscure topic that has hit the news? Google it. Much easier than maintaining a tattered contacts book.

There are, though, pitfalls in using Google, or whatever search engine turns you on. It is by no means a guarantee that you will find the best information.

We have evidence for this in a research paper from a group at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University. The group took home a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of £45,173.12 for the project The World Wide Web of Science: Emerging Global Sources of Expertise. "The aim of this research project is to assess whether and to what extent the Internet and the Web are transforming access to sources of scientific expertise."

The paper that wraps up the project The World Wide Web of Science: Reconfiguring Access to Information describes what they got up to in great detail. It tells us that they looked at a set of hot topics, including "climate change, HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation, governance, and trade reform". They also set out to "triangulate on patterns of access through the use of Webmetrics, interviews and case studies of issue areas".

While this use of language explains why they got the grant from the ESRC, it doesn't make the resulting paper all that user friendly. But read on and you can see how some of the researchers they talked to go about their "Googling"and such. In essence, without the Web, these folks would have a hard time.

The Oxford group then took the interesting step of checking what is out there on the Web, a "Webmetric Analysis," and compared it with the strategies of the people they talked to. They plugged in a set of keywords and stood back and watched what happened.

One such analysis looked into the keywords "Climate Change, Climate Changes, Ozone Depletion and Global Warming". Then they refined it and drew a "Web space graph" showing the connections between the hits. The graph looks like a web created by a spider on some very dodgy drug.

The outcome is that these days many researchers "rarely use libraries or seek out offline copies of journals; this is too costly in terms of time and effort (and perhaps money for photocopying)".

The Oxford researchers really wanted to look into the notion that the Web is "democratising" science. As they put it they wanted "to explore how the Internet and Web are reinforcing the role of existing sources of information, or tending to either ‘democratize’ or centralize patterns of access conforming to the expectations of a ‘winner-take-all’ process of selection".

Their conclusions are frustratingly inconclusive. They conclude that the results:

... could suggest a reinforcement of existing networks of communication and research. Alternatively, it might represent a winner-take-all process within more specifically defined research areas. Finally, proponents of the globalizing and democratizing impact of the Internet and the Web might find evidence in the sheer size and scale – and low density - of the global networks of information exchange identified by our Webmetric analyses.
Fortunately, the researchers have let their hair down a bit and allowed themselves to put out a press release over on the ESRC's web site. Even the title, Key science websites buried in information avalanche, goes beyond anything you can immediately detect in the paper.

The release also tells us that:
New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) clearly shows that anyone using the Web to make their information available must now pay attention not only to the quality of their sites but also how easy they are to find.
I like the "clearly shows" bit. It wasn't that clear to me, but I am not a researcher in the social sciences. Other bits on the press release that are also hard to find in the paper include some interesting points.
The "visibility" of information on the Web is of increasing importance. Do people looking for research results on climate change or terrorism find themselves directed to a few top sites rather than a wide array of diverse sources? Do they encounter the most highly regarded researchers rather than marginal ones?
There's more in there, and anyone interested in the topic should read the press release as well as the paper. Dr Ralph Schroeder, one of the researchers, sums up the key messages in one of those cooked up quotes:
"This will be an issue not just for policymakers, but for educators, organisations involved in science and research communication, regulators responsible for access to the Web, and citizens who are concerned with the diversity and richness of the information world around them."
Our take is that scientists need to be a bit more careful in how they manage their web sites. Not only do they have to make them user friendly, they should also ensure that they stay up to date.

21 March 2007

Still time to dash downunder for the science hacks gabfest

AlphaGalileo has this one on the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists.

Participants include science editors from the Economist, Financial Times, Asahi Shimbun, the editors-in-chief of Nature and of Scientific American, senior reporters from BBC TV, radio and World Service, and some 50 journalists from developing and emerging countries.
Anyone want to sponsor another delegate?

20 March 2007

Channel 4 and its problems with science

The last person I'd usually point to is George Monbiot, who lives in an alternative world with his constantly negative view that always stops short of offering solution to the problems he posits. But it is too good to miss Don't let truth stand in the way of a red-hot debunking of climate change on Guardian Unlimited.

Sadly, it isn't Monbiot who makes it worth visiting the page. It is the observation from one of his readers, RogerINtheUSA:

Channel 4 has always had a problem with science. No one in its science unit appears to understand the difference between a peer-reviewed paper and a clipping from the Daily Mail.

Manages to skewer two fine media outlets in one go.

19 March 2007

FT referees war between medical journals

When The Lancet came out against its owner's trade in arms fairs, it seemed like a possible case of biting the hand that feeds you. But now, in Spat erupts between medical journals the Financial Times reports that the BMJ, "the former British Medical Journal," has called on researchers to boycott The Lancet.

As you would expect, the FT refrains from taking sides. It is up to others to decide if Reed Elsevier's small income from the unsavoury activity, "a little more than 0.5 per cent of its total annual sales of £5.2bn last year," says the FT, is any less palatable than the BMJ's income "largely from pharmaceutical industry advertising".

The odd thing is that The Lancet set the ball rolling back in September 2005, but only now has the BMJ weighed in. Perhaps they were responding to the recent piece on The Guardian's blogfest.

Now we have the item pasted all over the BMJ's home page. This has a link to the editorial in question.

You will have to buy access to the article, if you do not have it already. You can, though, for the time being at least, read the "rapid response" slot to the editorial. At last count, the comments were two to one against the BMJ's stand.

As Christopher E Nancollas, a GP from Gloucester, puts it

You write "The BMJ has no wish to see the Lancet diminished." Well, you could have fooled me. Calling for contributors to boycott the Lancet will lead to its closure, which would almost certainly benefit the BMJ. Is there a hint of self interest dressed up as moral outrage in this article?
This one could run and run. But there is still little sign of action on the part of other publications the Reed Elsevier roster.

Declaration of interest: I hold a few shares in Reed Elsevier, from the days when I worked for them. Now they just pay my pension.

13 March 2007

Global warming gets Media hot under the collar

Any journalist worth their salt wants to be provocative. It goes with the teritory. That's why they will happily pounce on flimsy stories that don't really stack up. The journalists will try to justify their behaviour on the grounds of public interest, the same excuse they use when publishing pictures of princes out on the razzle with their girlfriends.

This is the only possible justification for the recent Channnel 4 programme on climate change, The Great Global Warming Swindle. The TV programme, it seems, presented the sceptics' view that climate change has nothing to do with people. Or rather, they aren't the cause of it.

For once, the rest of the media have not allowed their colleagues to get away with murdering science. They have come out flaming. One such response comes from medialens in an article Pure Propaganda - The Great Global Warming Swindle.

As usual, the people who have always taken a contrarian view, often because that is how they earn a living, welcomed the programme. But medialens brings together a pretty devastating overview of the media coverage of the programme.

In particular, they quote The Independent, which talked to one of the experts who appeared in the programme, Professor Carl Wunsch. It is worth quoting Wunsch at length:

"I am angry because they completely misrepresented me. My views were distorted by the context in which they placed them. I was misled as to what it was going to be about. I was told about six months ago that this was to be a programme about how complicated it is to understand what is going on. If they had told me even the title of the programme, I would have absolutely refused to be on it. I am the one who has been swindled."
The moral of the story is that scientists should be careful, very careful, when they talk to reporters. In particular, don't talk to people if you are not familiar with their work.

When advising scientists on dealing with the media, I tell them never to talk to certain tabloids, those that have never shown the slightest interest in writing sensible science stories. It seems that Channel 4 now has to join that list of media that you don't touch with a bargepole.

07 March 2007

Cool response to global warming

You may have thought that the media went into overdrive on the recent IPCC report on climate change. Some observers beg to differ. Matthew Nisbet, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American University, reckons that "The inability of the IPCC report to break through to the public about the urgency of climate change is just more evidence that relying on traditional science communication strategies has increasingly limited returns."

He explains his stance in A “Two Step Flow of Popularization” for Climate Change. His line is that "other public engagement methods are sorely needed".

Why? Partly because of some fundamental errors. As he says, "the Friday scheduling of the report's release couldn't have been worse".

You can always argue about when best to launch something. I always suggested something that gave the weeklies – Nature, New Scientist, Science, The Economist etc – a chance to dive in with their usually deeper analysis. Governments certainly like Friday for bad news stories because readers' minds are on other things.

Then there is the report itself. By being "a technical backgrounder, a massive synthesis of the state of climate science" this means that, for journalists, "an authoritative distillation of past research [is] a tough story to make exciting. The there is the fact that "the main themes of the draft report had been predicted for a few months, eliminating any real surprises".

Lots of leads to similar assessment so the media coverage. Well worth reading. His view that those seeking to get the message across should look beyond the media makes sense. But then it is much harder to tell if the report has had any impact. Indeed, maybe the very methods that he advocates really happened. It just won't show up in the headlines. Which is where we came in.

04 March 2007

Do biomedical researchers believe in evolution?

Is this article, we saw it first on Slashdot, another good story missed by the pack? It refers to an essay, effectively an opinion piece, on PLoS Biology Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word.

With the usual overkill list of authors that makes it hard to give due credit, the introduction to the essay says:

The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word “evolution” is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.” Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word “evolution” by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives.

The authors looked at papers published in recent years on antimicrobial resistance. They then ruled out any that didn't really deal with the evolutionary aspects of the topic. Next they looked at where the authors reported their work, in journals given over to evolutionary biology or biomedical research.

Guess what, "in journals with primarily evolutionary or genetic content, the word 'evolution' was used 65.8% of the time to describe evolutionary processes" but "in the biomedical literature, the word 'evolution' was used only 2.7% of the time".

The bottom line, the essay says, is that "evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers."

Another tree or two saved from the paper mill

So many publications are rushing into electronic only versions that it is hardly news. One, though, caught our attention when it appeared in the Romeike Daily Media Bulletin.

We read there that:

The Waste Paper Magazine is no longer available in print. From this month, the newsletter covering sustainable waste management is available online at http://www.crn.org.uk/wastepaper and is updated on a monthly basis.

With that title, you wonder why they bothered with dead trees in the first place.

02 March 2007

DTI raids science budget, but hacks miss the details

I am surprised that none of the reports that I have seen so far of the raid by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on the science budget refer to the fine print. Can it be that they have done no more than read the press release?

As I reported in my "Labnote" on Science|Business, The vultures descend on the UK's science budget, there are some nice ironies buried in the detailed "explanation" from the Treasury. This reveals where some of the money has gone.

One interesting statistic is that £27 million went from the science research councils for the "Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive". By coincidence, this number is just £2 million shy of the amount taken from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. And what does EPSRC do? Among other things it supports research into electronics and electrical equipment.

There's another one. Science is all about measuring things. So laugh as the DTI switches six million smackers "between Science Research Councils and National Measurement System".

We are supposed to be talking to the world about science, so smile ruefully as you watch them switch money between "Science and Society and nonvoted expenditure on the Natural Environment Research Council". Not much money, to be sure, but a lot for a programme that does not need lots of expensive kit.

You need to be a better bean counter, or a journalist with more time to kill, than I am to understand will the switching of "non-voted non-cash to capital".

I'm sure there are other tales like that buried in the data. But to get them you need to put in a bit of effort.

01 March 2007

Why The Lancet is up in arms

I know from personal experience that relationships between editors and publishers can be fraught. The Lancet has taken the feuding to new levels. As Richard Smith, ertswhile editor of the British Medical Journal writes in A matter of life and death on the Guardian's Comment is free blogfest.

Smith reports on the moves by the editorial team on The Lancet to get their owner, Reed Elsevier, out of the arms trade. Well, trade in arms fairs.

His line is that "The hypocrisy of selling arms and health is particularly galling for the Lancet and its readers - because the Lancet has established itself as the world's leading global health journal. It is concerned not simply with scientific research that advances western medicine but also with poverty, injustice, environmental destruction, and war - the factors that mean life expectancy in the poorest countries is little over 30."

Where, Smith asks, are the other editors in the empire? "The Lancet has taken the bold step of speaking out against its owner's excesses, but little has been heard from the editors, authors, and readers of the other 2000 journals published by Reed Elsevier."

It is all very well for the editor and staff of "the world's leading global health journal" to campaign, but what about the people who work on a small trade journal that is hanging on by the skin of its teeth?

26 February 2007

Page turns to science

Researchers of all ages continue to complain that anyone who gets involved in popularising science can end up on the receiving end of sniffy comments from colleagues who see such activities as at best a distraction from real work, and at worst dumbing down. The naysayers don't quite say the same thing about teaching, but that is probably only because to come out of that particular closet would be to court professional death. After all, education is in the job spec and is supposed to be as important as research.

So there isn't likely to be much support for an idea put forward by Larry Page, whose main claim to fame is that he set up Google. Page put forward his ideas at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS has put out a News Release on Page's ideas, along with a video of the presentation, some of them would cause fits among the opponents of public dissemination.

Take the suggestion, as reported in the release, of "tying tenure and grant money to the media impact of research". Can you imagine it? Along with details of what you have done over the years, you have to include newspaper clippings about your earlier projects.

They haven't gone that far, but in the UK at least, some of the public bodies that fund research require recipients to devote some of their efforts to Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST). This seems to be influencing at least some scientists.

I recently helped run a two hour session on dealing with the media for young and mid-career scientists at Sussex University. One of the people who attended said that she was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that she should join in the PEST game. As well as the growing pressure from research funders, she also thought that being more visible might get people to take her research more seriously, buried as it usually is in obscure journals.

It wasn't just potential the fame and glory, or even the need to keep the grant income flowing, that interested her. Working as she did on important issues for youngsters with a disability, she felt that the people who could pick up her ideas and use it needed to understand what she does.

This may be some way from Larry Page's arguments, but it is certainly a case worth considering, especially if you are of the view that most of the science writers who write for large audiences ignore this sort of thing in favour of the usual safe stories.

05 February 2007

The ethics of journals

The boom in nanotechnology means that there is now a rush to get out journals that feed on the surrounding industry of ethics and safety. Springer joins the race going with a new journal, NanoEthics: Ethics for Technologies that Converge at the Nanoscale. Crazy title. Guess they have to make money before the move to open access puts commercial journals put of business.

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04 February 2007

The rules of journalism

A blogger withe twee name of Sans Serif (or is it sans serif?) has come up with 12 and a half rules to be a good journalist. Interesting and amusing as they may be, they aren't really rules so much as slogans or aspirations.

Maybe it is the way they are billed that suggests this. After all, what is the difference between "Chase Your Dream" and "Do What You Love"?

In among this laudable but probably useless stuff – it is after all saying that it takes a particular personality type to be a journalist – there is also the odd practical tip of real value. I particularly like the suggestion "Don’t Be The Loyal Member Of Any Party, Group, Club, NGO". In effect, this is saying be a sceptic.

That advice is also a key to the difference between journalists an writers, and why it is hard to be both. Writers can use their ability to string words together to good effect, to persuade readers to buy a line.

Interestingly, sans serif's rules say nothing on technical things, like learning how to write or to sell articles, something that you do even if you are not a freelance journalist. No reason why rules should cover that sort of territory. It is just that this is the sort of question asked by people who want to get into the business.

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03 February 2007

Portuguese science tackles an attitude problem

They may not have quite the same planet sized chip on their shoulders as engineers, who are for ever complaining that people confuse them with the mechanics and technicians who mend vacuum, cleaners, but scientists the world over like to complain of their lot. It seems that in Portugal they really do have something to moan about. An article in The Scientist, A Portuguese Science Association Reaches Out, kicks off with the statement that "Portugal is a country where being a scientist is still not considered a career by most of its population and it's a place where funding for research comes almost exclusively from government sources."

Back in November 2004 a group of young life scientists decided to do something about this and set up the Associação Viver a Ciência (VaC). Their idea is to do something about attitudes to science in Portugal. And they are doing this on a shoestring. The annual budget of an €140,000 or so wouldn't buy one of those studies of the subject that we go in for in the UK.

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02 February 2007

Royal let down on climate change

Anyone who was hoping for something substantial in the way of a response from the Royal Society on today's IPCC report on climate change is in for a disappointment. We mention this only because they trailed their response earlier today in the puzzlingly content free press release we've already mentioned. Now that we have it, we find that despite the title, A time for action on climate change, it is actually less outspoken than the statements made by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir David King.

The bottom line is that "We need both to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Those who would claim otherwise can no longer use science as a basis for their argument." Well, I never.

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Royal Society winds up the excitement

The poor old Royal Society has sunk to new depths of pointlessness in its latest "press release". Like everyone they are keen to climb on the bandwagon shoved down the hill today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So we get to read the Royal Society pre IPCC report statement.

They have persuaded Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, to say: "The IPCC is the world's leading authority on climate change and its latest report will provide a comprehensive picture of the latest scientific understanding on the issue."

Er, yes. Maybe the point of this exercise is to alert all those slavering hacks to the fact that "The Royal Society will be issuing a short statement in reaction to the report on Friday".

Most of the writers who will cover the report are clearly desperately short of people they can talk to.

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28 January 2007

Future of science debate begins

The BBC's take on Sciencehorizons, Future of science debate begins, naturally avoids the gobbledigook churned out by the people behind the venture .

26 January 2007

Sciencewise – or may be sciencedumb

For a movement that strives to reach out to a wider public, the PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology) brigade knows how to shoot itself in the foot. For example, it is hard to know what to make of this:

"...creating excellence in public dialogue to inform better policy"
What does it mean? How do you "inform policy"? What is the guff about "creating excellence"?

Here's are simpler alternatives that say the same thing:
"... public dialogue for better policy"

"... better policy through public dialoque"
You could even make it truly revolutionary with something like:
"... listening to people for better policy"
Not great, but that's because the starting point doesn't help. It would be better to come up with something altogether more punter friendly. It might also help to add what policy they are on about here rather than deeper down in the page. Catchall slogans like that are meaningless.

Life is too short to dismember the page's title:
Building the commitment and capacity of government to engage in public dialogue on scientific developments
Go on, unpick that one yourself. Catchy isn't it.

The first sentence on the page, a mere 41 words, is not much better. It rambles on, saying, among other things, that the idea is that it "helps policy makers in Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform decision-making in emerging areas of science and technology".

For a start, they mean "help to commission". In general that's how you should use "help" in this sort of context. Often you can get away without the "to" but in this case it is essential if you don't want the reader to lose the thread. Good grief they even get it right when they they say "to inform decision-making" although once again they are informing something decidedly odd. You can inform "decision makers," perhaps even "the decision making process," but not decision making.

And what are these "emerging areas of science and technology"? What makes them so important? Why put it in unexplained? Why can't we talk about the old areas of science and technology?

All this, and more is on a new venture, Sciencewise "funded by the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI) at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)".

I wouldn't go on about stilted writing in webland, such is its prevalence, were it not for the fact that this is supposed to be about communication and talking to, or is it at, the public. The underlying idea also seems to be pretty sound, which makes it all the more sad that the front door for the venture is so intimidating.

This page reads like one of those reports – written, I might say, without the help of a professional to keep out waffle – used to justify throwing more money on to the PEST bandwagon.

Sad, really, that after 20 years or more PEST has sunk to such depths. Those of us who kicked it off, when they used the term understanding rather than engagement, just wanted to persuade people to take science, engineering and technology more seriously. We've won that battle in some important circles. The Treasury, for example, now sees the value of investing in R&D. But you won't get much further if you obfuscate like that.

The danger of falling into the jargon trap, where only the initiated can understand the language, is that it intimidates newcomers. It doesn't have to be like that. Indeed, the DTI proves as much in its own press announcement of the new venture.

The press release that unleashed this stuff on to the world tells us that the initiative is "designed to get the nation talking about the science and technology of the future". As this shows, the press release is written in English, which just goes to show that you can get this sort of thing right if you put professionals on the case.

The press release says that "Community groups, schools, families and friends up and down the country are invited to get together in village halls, classrooms, living rooms and pubs to have their own sciencehorizons discussions using the free packs." Great. Let's hope they don't go near the web site. With luck they will, instead, land on sciencehorizons, "a national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society".

Saying all this may screw up my chances of getting any more work out of the DTI, but someone has to warn them that it is important to use language that matches the messages you want to convey.

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25 January 2007

Dirty tricks close in on open access

There's an interesting taster over on IWR Blog about a nice scandal uncovered by Nature. It seems that the heavyweight publishers of expensive journals have been, horror of horrors, using PR people to advise on their campaigns to fend off the rush to open access.

There probably wouldn't be much surprise at this revelation were it not for the fact that "Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, American Chemical Society as well as the Association of American Publishers (AAP)" had signed up "a PR man whose career has been spent putting a positive spin on fraudsters like Jeffrey Skilling of Enron and denying scientific evidence of climate change".

The puzzling things is that the advice they got is so lame. As Jim Giles on Nature puts it:

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and "paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles".
Other advice, that the opponents of open access should paint the move as some sort of communist plot, seems to come from someone completely out of touch with the scientific world. Scientists are notoriously non-conformist.

It would be amazing if commercial publishers, including Nature, which has done its bit to question the open access movement and is flooding the market with new paying only journals, did not indulge in some lobbying, subtle and not so subtle. But it seems counterproductive to have to sign up someone who, from these reports, makes Tony Blair's spin doctors sound like models of correctness.

There's a nice "Editor's note" at the end of Jim's story:
In the original version of this story, Susan Spilka was reported as emailing a note that said "Media massaging is not the same as intellectual debate." It should have read "Media messaging", and has been changed accordingly.
Both versions seem perfectly reasonable to me. And since when did people check their emails that carefully?

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24 January 2007

Do these people really want you to write about them?

Welcome to Advance Nanotech it says on the home page. Unfortunately, it says the same thing on every page I visited. That's because the poor souls at Advanced Nanotech have been sold a pup by some whizzy web site designer.

Here's what's wrong with it. You have to visit the web site to see what's new.

I have several ways of tracking web sites for their press releases. The most obvious, but least productive, is that you sign up to receive press releases from the people behind the site.

A slightly better choice is to use a "robot" to visit the page at predetermined intervals and to report back when it finds something new. For this I use a nice bit of software called Copernic Tracker. I have it set to do an early morning trawl before I start work. It checks some pages daily, others once a week, and some every month. If it finds that a page has changed, it highlights the new bits. I can then click on the links to get the new material.

The best option for following a changing web page is the RSS feed. This automatically lets me know when there is something new. Such is the boom in RSS feeds that you almost feel tempted to forget about any company that doesn't offer this feature.

None of these approaches works on the Advanced Nanotech web site. Whoever designed the pages has come up with some neat visual effects. Sadly, they are user hostile. No "sign up here for press releases" slot, no RSS feed, and pages where Tracker can't find a unique address that will change when something new crops up.

Pity, it is an interesting company, worth reporting. I'll see if the company's PR consultants can explain this strange behaviour.

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23 January 2007

Perishing publishers

"Scientific articles are tailored to present information in human-readable aliquots." There you have it then. The foundation stone of all those journals that researchers love.

This is the first sentence in the abstract of a paper on BioMed Central, Publishing perishing? Towards tomorrow's information architecture.

Funnily enough, the rest of the abstract is in English and makes sense. Who would argue with the sentiment that "To truly integrate scientific information we must modernize academic publishing to exploit the power of the Internet."?

The language of the first sentence reminds me of a comment someone made at a meeting last week. It was a reference to an engineer who had written an impenetrable report. His excuse, my contact said, was that if he had known how to write he would have gone to Harvard. The authors of the paper with that delightful first sentence are from Yale.

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21 January 2007

Cooking up some PR

Given that much of cooking is chemistry, it isn't unreasonable for the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) to turn to a chef when seeking publicity as it has in its latest press release, Chemical engineers look for the ‘Jamie Oliver’ factor.

The challenge will be to find "50 ‘ChemEnvoys’ who will take up the gauntlet for chemical engineers worldwide, promoting their essential contribution to the world we live in". Engineers in general have a hard time explaining what they are up to. Chemical engineers may find it even more difficult than the rest of the pack, given that they deal with those nasty "chemicals" that everyone loves to hate.

Some put the engineers' poor record in communications down to the fact that they spend a lot of their time writing arcane reports that only other engineers can understand. Another line is that the whole life of an engineer is spent worrying about, and solving, problems. Scientists, on the other hand, can dream to their heart's content and make all sorts of fanciful claims. They aren't the people who will have to turn their discoveries into inventions. That will be down to the engineers.

All power to the IChemE's elbow. But even if they can find, and train, 50 brave souls, they will have to put a lot of effort into getting the message across, not least because the media have never worked out how to cope with engineering as a subject.

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18 January 2007

The clock ran out the mouse

The "doomsday clock" promulgated by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a PR stunt of breathtaking simplicity, and longevity. The clock is 60 this year, making it one of the oldest marketing tricks around.

Originally there to warn of impending nuclear Armageddon, the clock is now just one of those portfolio tools that doom mongers throw around. To confirm its status as a PR stunt, look no further than the Royal Society, which now latches on to any piece of paper with a slightly scientific tinge and uses it as an excuse to cook up quotes from its President. The latest such emanation, Martin Rees comment on doomsday clock, contains the usual stuff that is all to easy to agree with but that leaves you asking "so what?"

The answer to that so what, of course, is that an increasingly gullible science media will give mileage to this stuff. Optimists will say that it is a sign that science is now more important, hence the media interest. More cynical souls will say that the Royal Society puts it out because it knows that an uncritical media will publish just about anything thrown at it.

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16 January 2007

A video nasty heads for court

The US's patent system must be in a mess when the country's most successful patenter gets hot under the collar. IBM used its recent appearance at the top of the US's patents league last year to have a go at the state of the country's patent system.

The computer company doesn't actually go for patent trolls so much as the general issue of patent quality. But you can see why the system is in bad odour when you read Internet video patent suit hits Google and Apple.

The law firm Pinsent Mason, on Out-law.comm, reports that a company that isn't in the online video business any more is suing a bunch of people who are in that trade. The company flicking its writs turned off the lights on its video operation in 2002. Now it has rubbed the magic lantern and become a patents business.

Just how strange they do things over there becomes clearer when you read that the litigant didn't even file for its patents until 2001, "five years after the company was founded and after some companies were already offering video and audio material for download".


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14 January 2007

That's the way to do it

Headlines really can capture the subject of a press release without being too complicated. Hot on the heels of the University of Edinburgh's baffling press release about a centre that will do something unknown, comes an announcement from an outfit just down the road and that just happens to be about that very same seat of learning. This time the headline says it all:


Apart from the shouty capital letters, there's nothing to upset anyone here. Well, up to a point, the people behind this press release insist on using the label "Edinburgh Technopole" to describe what is in reality a property venture. "One hundred and twenty-six acres of rolling parkland located at the heart of a cluster of internationally recognised research institutions, provide the backdrop for up to 500,000 sq ft (46,450 sq m) of high quality buildings designed to meet the flexible needs of research and technology based companies."

There's nothing wrong with universities bringing in the professionals like Grosvenor to handle their property schemes, but why not use the well recognised "science park" label?

The technopole tries to deal with this one by explaining that the idea is "to become not just a Science and Technology Park but a genuine scientific community where shared resources encourage shared ideas, engendering cross-fertilisation between different disciplines and synergy between different projects". Quite a few traditional science parks would insist that they manage to achieve this fashionable mixture of buzz words without borrowing a label invented in France.

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