Does Advancing Product Advance Science?

I’ve said I’m not writ­ing, but I’m still read­ing. There’s a rum­pus about accred­it­a­tion for blog­gers at Eurekalert! In an ideal world I’d want to re-write this to include ref­er­ences to later posts like More About the EurekAlert! Smackdown. It’s not going to hap­pen for quite a while though, so I thought to post what I have while it’s still timely rather than wait till I can fin­ish it.

Stop sign
Stop, one way. Photo (cc) David Dennis.

Coming back to the Eurekalert and blog­gers story. The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is not allow­ing blog­gers to register for access to embar­goed art­icles. The only way in is to be a reporter in the media. The view among blog­gers is unsur­pris­ingly that blog­ging is import­ant enough to war­rent media cre­den­tials etc. Therefore how can the AAAS, own­ers of Eurekalert take this pos­i­tion? I’ll try and give an example with a story from Eurekalert which I’ve not com­men­ted on, which really you think I would.

Peruvian cit­adel is site of earli­est ancient solar obser­vat­ory in the Americas looks like the per­fect story for me. I have an interest in South America and an interest in ancient astro­nomy. This is a par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing story because there are some oddit­ies in it like two obser­va­tion points, and it appears that these oddit­ies are based on sound archae­olo­gical evid­ence. So why aren’t I writ­ing about this? Well there are a few holes in my know­ledge for this period. Chankillo is much earlier than the Inca Period and it’s well away from the bet­ter known Peruvian civil­isa­tions, so I need to read about it. I can’t read the paper online as my uni­ver­sity doesn’t have an online sub­scrip­tion to Science, so it’ll have to wait until I’m next in Leicester. If I had had access to the press release whilst under embargo then I may have emailed one of the authors to ask a couple of ques­tions and asked for a copy of the paper. This is where the prob­lems start.

As a researcher with an interest in ancient astro­nomy I’m the mar­ket for this Science art­icle. I have to be one of the most likely people to pay $10 to access this for 24 hours, or pay $139 for a sub­scrip­tion. Providing aid to give away free cop­ies of mater­ial is bad for product sales. Not in this case. I’ve simply not paid for it and not com­men­ted on it, but pre­sum­ably at the mar­gins it’s bad.

The next factor is that the sort of blog­ger who signs up to embar­goed releases is also prob­ably the sort of blog­ger who is going to be more ana­lyt­ical in read­ing the press release. A press release might not just be edited and regur­git­ated, there’s a chance that it’s going to be examined ser­i­ously. I ima­gine a lot of the time the res­ult will be pos­it­ive, but not always. Is this bet­ter than the story going in to papers uncri­tiqued? The embargo doesn’t mean that the cri­tique won’t hap­pen, but it will usu­ally hap­pen after the release has ceased to be a news story. So refus­ing early access to blog­gers may be a tool to con­trol controversy.

The final factor is that the rela­tion­ship between Eurekalert and the main­stream media isn’t pass­ive. The AAAS are try­ing to place Science as a major journal of record in com­pet­i­tion with Nature. They need to sell stor­ies to the major media organ­isa­tions, and one bonus they can give them is exclus­iv­ity. Excluding blog­gers is a vis­ible sig­nal that this is premium inform­a­tion, it’s cer­tainly not avail­able to all and sun­dry and thus more valu­able. Bloggers in return can be expec­ted to report on it any­way because they are gen­er­ally more interest driven than audi­ence driven.

The cost is that I haven’t pos­ted a story which I’d expect 500‑1000 page views on. On the scale that the AAAS is work­ing at that’s not a big loss and you’ve prob­ably read it else­where anyway.

Simplistically you could argue that blog­gers and the AAAS are approach­ing the same pos­i­tion from two oppos­ite dir­ec­tions. From the blog­gers’ point of view the AAAS should be work­ing to help dis­sem­in­ate sci­entific find­ings, and that by doing this their prestige will grow. The AAAS in con­trast seem to be tak­ing the pos­i­tion that they need to pro­tect their prestige and that by doing this they will be in a bet­ter pos­i­tion to advance sci­ence. Hence the restric­ted access. By advan­cing the eco­nomic value of their product they advance science.

If blog­gers are going to change atti­tudes they need to show that they can add value to AAAS media strategy. The simplest solu­tion is a boy­cott. They could with­draw com­ment­ary on stor­ies from Eurekalert until the AAAS make efforts to reach out to them. This won’t work. One is that there wouldn’t be the solid­ar­ity among blog­gers for this to work as a scheme. The other is that even if there were solid­ar­ity ini­tially, sooner or later one blog­ger would read some­thing so inter­est­ing that, in this par­tic­u­lar case, the boy­cott would be broken — which would be fol­lowed by another and so on.

I don’t think the AAAS are Bad Guys. In fact they seem to be open to dia­logue. I think they don’t believe the media envir­on­ment has changed as much as some blog­gers do. Given that blog­gers are immersed in their medium then the AAAS may be right (and after writ­ing this I see Hsien Hsien Lei tackles this in a pod­cast). So long as they have the num­ber one out­let then any change is a risk. The best solu­tion prob­ably isn’t adversarial, but per­haps to reach out to the less well pub­li­cised but non­ethe­less inter­est­ing research else­where. It’s not cur­rently in the AAAS’s best interests to change the status quo. They’re on top of the heap. However, it could be in the best interests of press officers of other journ­als to chal­lenge this.

If I were hand­ling PR for the Journal of Obscure Studies, then cul­tiv­at­ing blog­gers might be use­ful. The blog entries would need to respect the embargo, but the links back to the Journal of Obscure Studies could be help­ful. It would also demon­strate to the media that people (i.e. poten­tial read­ers for advert­isers) were excited about obscure things and there was a buzz about this research. Time for blog­gers to be talk­ing to the PR people of their own learned soci­et­ies perhaps?

I’m not expect­ing to write another press release for a year, but as a note for when it does hap­pen I think I’ll make a point of see­ing if half a dozen blog­gers would be inter­ested in car­ry­ing the story and com­ment­ing on it. If they are and they agree to respect the embargo, then they’d be lis­ted in press release as part of the world­wide buzz on the topic. Feel free to take this idea if you’re doing some­thing sooner.

Hsien Hsien Lei is keep­ing track of the dis­cus­sion on her site if you’d like to read other views.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. This post prob­ably explains why the AAAS takes the line that it does. It is not sci­ence report­ing or even sci­ence writing.

    Not sure what it is, actu­ally. Lots of words, but no clear story. In my days as a news editor in the dis­tant past I would have required a major rewrite, mostly to cut it by three quarters.

    Forget about embar­goes. They are for idle journ­al­ists, who are happy to eat what they are fed, and their zoo keep­ers who want to con­trol the spectacle.

    The best journ­al­ists avoid embar­goed stor­ies. They find their own.

  1. March 16, 2007

    […] Don’t miss Alun’s a thought­ful post at Archaeoarchaeology that con­siders the role of blog­gers, sci­ence, media and the […]