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Science. Communication. Community.

Scientist in the newsroom, or journalist in the science lab?


A scientist-turned journalist-turned scientist debates whether or not to send out a press release to publicize his own research upon its publication. Did he make the right choice?

by Ian Campbell

(Image credit: trebol-a via flickr)

(Image credit: trebol-a via flickr)

Homecomings are always a little awkward, and my return to science was no exception. Equipped with a fresh perspective on communicating science to the general public, I immediately faced the dilemma of how to promote my own research. And I fumbled.

After 10 weeks interning at a daily newspaper as a science journalist last summer, it was time to go back into the laboratory. I turned in my spiral-bound interview notebook and picked up my heavy old lab notebook, complete with its carbon-copy, non-detachable pages. I stopped chasing down hot tips for stories and returned to chasing down statistically-significant data points. It wasn’t long before my newsprint-coated fingers were instead stained with “Coomassie blue.” My readership of thousands was trimmed to a readership of tens.

Those tradeoffs were just details, though. The real shock that my life had changed arrived when I started drafting a manuscript to submit to a scientific journal. I’d just spent the entire summer summarizing these exact sorts of publications, reporting scientific breakthroughs to the general public. I’d sifted through a lot of bad writing to highlight important discoveries. And now here I was, writing a scientific paper myself. No pressure, Ian, but it’s got to be good.

I had no doubt that my scientific findings were sound. I wouldn’t be submitting it, after all, if I didn’t think my findings were worthy of reporting. But now I was used to thinking like a journalist. I wanted to spread the news! Should I write up a press release about my work? Should I call the local newspaper? The TV station? Maybe I should tip off CNN, I thought for a moment.

I found myself facing a real existential crisis. One of the main reasons I’d applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship was so I could spread the news about new discoveries, to make science more accessible to the general public, to raise scientific literacy, and to help people see that federally-funded research returns important results. And now, after 5 years in grad school, here I was with my very own scientific results to report. Not letting the world know would be an act of hypocrisy.

Although almost all science research is, in my opinion, critically important, not all research is appropriate for news reporting. There’s only so much space in print and only so much time on the air. It would be overwhelming (and impossible) to report on every single scientific publication, of which there are thousands every week.  It would be overwhelming even to report on every article in the so-called boutique scientific journals like Science and Nature.

By issuing a press release about my own research, would I be raising awareness about my important work, or would I just be adding to the background noise of journalism? Was I deluding myself about how much the average reader would even care?

After considering this, I decided not to write a press release. This may have been a bad choice, it turns out. Just a few weeks after my paper was published, a popular New York Times story covered a separate study with a similar conclusion. That study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that a popular kind of laboratory mouse is not a great tool for studying sepsis, trauma or burns. My research was evaluating the use of laboratory mice to study atherosclerotic plaque rupture, an event that causes blood clot formation and therefore heart attacks and strokes. My co-authors and I showed that three commonly-studied types of mice are very different than humans in key aspects that make them inappropriate for drawing conclusions about the human manifestation of heart disease.

While I have no delusions that, had I submitted a press release, my own research would have been one of the most popular stories in the New York Times, the PNAS article was a strong reminder that my research is still important. Even if I’m never interviewed by Ira Flatow or Bob Hirshon or Ed Yong, you and I and everyone we know need to keep talking about science and communicating its importance. That’s what being an ambassador of science is all about.

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7 comments on “Scientist in the newsroom, or journalist in the science lab?

  1. Sarah
    February 19, 2013

    Really interesting article about your unique perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  2. kelly tyrrell
    February 19, 2013

    And the more good scientists there are communicating their work, the better off we all are!

  3. Nick
    February 19, 2013

    I too enjoyed reading about your experience between the two worlds. As a bench researcher, how does one even write a press release and where does one send it? Something even this basic is not taught to those of us doing the research.

    Also, I see the large popularity of the NYT article coming from unwarranted and broad claims by the researchers which are mostly echoed by the by the journalist. The journalist even acknowledged that the article was rejected by Nature and Science before submitting to PNAS where “Dr. Davis could suggest reviewers for his paper, and he proposed researchers who he thought would give the work a fair hearing.” Essentially bypassing the normal review process (and implying that the article did not receive a fair hearing from Science or Nature). The general public won’t catch these types of nuances and just take the story at face value – “Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Humans’ Deadly Ills” & “As a result, years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads.” This presents science and animal research in a negative light and does not provide balanced coverage of the debate (the other side of the debate can be seen in the comments section). While this sort of manuscript raises important considerations for the science community (just as your paper does!), I am concerned that the story will be reduced to a single sound bite in the mind of the general public. So, where does the balance stand? Should this be a discussion with the general public and in the NYT? If so, is it the reporters responsibility to provide a balanced story? Would this have generated as much interest if the journalist had done so?

  4. iancampbell_sci
    February 20, 2013

    Nick, great points you bring up. Actually, you’re on to two posts I’m planning for the future on how to work with your university’s Public Information Officer (PIO) to prepare a press release on your original research, as well as a post explaining the curious case of PNAS submission. The direct and indirect submission system is something few people know about and worth of bringing up.

    (On a side note, does anybody know if there are other journals with this sort of submission system where a noteworthy individual can champion your manuscript?)

    I agree that the NYT article is missing some key points that would present a more balanced view of the issue. The Jackson Labs (a major supplier of research rodents, so admittedly not an unbiased source) has a rebuttal worth reading: http://community.jax.org/genetics_health/b/weblog/archive/2013/02/13/why-mice-may-succeed-in-research-when-a-single-mouse-falls-short.aspx

    The challenge to present all sides of an issue forever haunts journalists, and I think it’s especially difficult for science writers. Oftentimes, it takes understanding of nuances to identify valid counterpoint(s) in technical studies, and it’s rare that the journalist is a true expert in whatever topic he or she is writing about. To under-report is clearly unethical, but knowing when to stop investigating and start writing is a constant battle. When do you stop? How do you fit all the perspectives into the constrained space of print or recording? Unfortunately, I don’t think anybody knows the answer.

  5. Nick
    February 20, 2013

    I didn’t even know that a PIO existed (not surprised, just didn’t know), I will look forward to that post.

    I was mostly annoyed by the title of the NYT article. It seemed like trying to create a controversy for publicity sake more so than a issue of identification/understanding of nuances. I thought your single line – that the PNAS article “showed that a popular kind of laboratory mouse is not a great tool for studying sepsis, trauma or burns” – did a much better job of providing a balanced statement of the work. It is not nearly as eye catching though.

  6. Chris Campbell
    February 20, 2013

    It seems to me that science has its own procedures for assessing the significance of findings. Coverage in the New York Times may make something well known, but does not make it important. News coverage may flatter the scientist and gratify his relatives (hey, I’m Ian’s uncle) but it does not enhance the significance of the work. General news coverage should focus on surprising new findings (with due cautions about the need for additional investigation) or on surveying the range of findings in an interesting field. Otherwise, it is just background noise.

    One thing that it’s always important to convey in general news reporting is some sense of the scientific process for gathering, analyzing, and testing data. Too often the public has some vague image of the mad scientist suddenly grasping truth in a flash of insight. It’s important to have a better feel for the cumulative and repetitive nature of the undertaking–for empiricism.

    Chris Campbell

  7. Pingback: For Scientists: This Is Where The News Comes From | Figure One

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This entry was posted on February 19, 2013 by in Health, Research, Science Journalism and tagged , , , .
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