This post is not about climate science, but rather about the science/media interface.
As many of you may be aware, papers that are scheduled to appear in high-profile journals (Science, Nature and a few others) are often released a few days early to journalists under embargo in order to give them a chance to do a fuller story and talk to more people about it prior to filing. On balance, this works reasonably well, and the press stories that come out are on the whole better for it (there is a bigger issue with the need for a news peg for most science stories that this practice dominates, but that isn’t the focus of this post).
But Carl Zimmer and Maggie Koerth-Baker recently reported on a situation where a high profile paper was only provided to journalists under embargo if they signed a non-disclosure agreement restricting their ability to show it to other scientists for comment.
This is both very unusual and, frankly, appalling. Science and science publishing are not a branch of the PR industry but part of an open and self-critical process of inquiry. Authors and scientists who do not want their results discussed and/or criticised should not submit them for publication in the first place. As Koerth-Baker and Zimmer make clear, articles about new papers that are simply reworded official statements are not journalism at all. Indeed, the need for journalists to get an unaffiliated opinion from the author’s peers is an essential check on the occasional tendency of press releases to go over the top when pushing a particular study, and is something that should be happening more, not less.
This post is really just about putting on record that this is not a practice that ‘scientists’ are advocating for and we, like the journalists linked above, would strongly advise that if such conditions are imposed, journalists, journals and editors do not accede to them. That will help resolve the issue of whether ‘no publicity’ is indeed preferable.
Finally, while I am sort of on the topic of science journalism, can’t we please, please, please mandate the citation of the DOI tag in any online story about a new paper? Tracking down the actual paper being described is all-too-often far more difficult than it needs to be. (For example, the doi for the study referred to above took four links and a targeted google search to find. Why?).
Science journalism is going through a tough time at the moment, and practices that take the reporting of science further away from science as a process and more towards the repetition of ‘gee whiz’ factoids, should be resisted by anyone who cares about the public’s engagement with science.
G. Séralini, E. Clair, R. Mesnage, S. Gress, N. Defarge, M. Malatesta, D. Hennequin, and J.S. de Vendômois, "RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize", Food and Chemical Toxicology, vol. 50, pp. 4221-4231, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.005