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.