If Futurity is the answer, then I don’t understand the question

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I’d like to blog about the Drayson / Goldacre debate before the topic gets too cold, but before I do I thought I’d men­tion Futurity. It’s inter­est­ing because it’s sup­posedly, an attempt to address a decline in sci­ence journ­al­ism. “In an increas­ingly com­plex world, the pub­lic needs access to clear, reli­able research news. Futurity does the work of gath­er­ing that news,” says the about page of the site. That’s fas­cin­at­ing because, if they’re right, I’ve com­pletely mis­un­der­stood what sci­ence journ­al­ism means.

Here’s an example. First up, a press release from the University of Michigan, Researchers find gene that pro­tects high-fat-diet mice from obesity, which starts like this:

U-M research­ers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

Next there’s the press release on the pub­licly access­ible Eurekalert, U-M research­ers find gene that pro­tects high-fat-diet mice from obesity. That reads:

University of Michigan research­ers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

Finally there’s the public-targetted story: Gene—not diet—makes mice obese?:

Researchers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even mice on high-fat diets remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

“Futurity is aimed at gen­eral audi­ence rather than report­ers” said one of the sites founders in the Columbia Journalism Review. I’ve looked at a few stor­ies and com­pared them with their Eurekalert coun­ter­parts. What Futurity offers is a dif­fer­ent head­line and an occa­sion­ally re-ordered dis­play of inform­a­tion. The link to the National Bureau of Economic Research work­ing paper in the Futurity story above comes fur­ther down the page. Is this qual­ity sci­ence journ­al­ism? I wouldn’t have thought so. I’d have called it a press release. I’m not exactly sure how you meas­ure the qual­ity of sci­ence journ­al­ism, but I would have thought there would have been more to report­ing than par­rot­ing the press release. Is this an isol­ated incid­ent? Does Futurity offer some­thing that a press-release doesn’t. Here’s the top four stor­ies today on Futurity com­pared with their coun­ter­parts on Eurekalert.

Futurity Eurekalert
‘Punk-size’ T. rex found in China
CHICAGO—A 9-foot dino­saur from north­east­ern China had evolved all the hall­mark ana­tom­ical fea­tures of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 mil­lion years ago, includ­ing a large head com­pared to its torso, tiny arms, and lanky feet well-suited for running.

University of Chicago pale­on­to­lo­gist Paul Sereno and five coau­thors describe the newly dis­covered dino­saur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edi­tion of the journal Science.

T. rex body plan deb­uted in Raptorex, but 100th the size
A 9-foot dino­saur from north­east­ern China had evolved all the hall­mark ana­tom­ical fea­tures of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 mil­lion years ago. University of Chicago pale­on­to­lo­gist Paul Sereno and five co-authors describe the newly dis­covered dino­saur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edi­tion of the journal Science.

Raptorex shows that tyr­an­no­saur design evolved at “punk size,” said Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, “basic­ally our body­weight. And that’s pretty stag­ger­ing, because there’s no other example that I can think of where an animal has been so finely designed at about 100th the size that it would even­tu­ally become.”

Photo reveals Africa’s cryptic cat
YALE—An anthro­po­lo­gist has cap­tured pho­to­graphic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ran­ging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared cam­era trap set last year by the anthro­po­lo­gist who was study­ing prim­ate beha­vior in the wild.

No equi­val­ent on Eurekalert, but Yale’s press release reads:
New Haven, Conn. — A Yale anthro­po­lo­gist has cap­tured pho­to­graphic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ran­ging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared cam­era trap set last year by the anthro­po­lo­gist who was study­ing prim­ate beha­vior in the wild.

Same name, dif­fer­ent lung can­cer
Lung can­cer in patients who have never smoked is a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease than the lung can­cer smokers get, and should be treated as such, new research finds.

It is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that the genetic, cel­lu­lar, and molecu­lar nature of lung can­cer in many never-smokers is dif­fer­ent from that of smoking-related lung can­cers, and there is good evid­ence now that the best treat­ment and pre­ven­tion strategies for never-smokers may be dif­fer­ent as well,” says Charles Rudin, asso­ci­ate dir­ector for clin­ical research at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Guide on lung can­cer in ‘never-smokers’: A dif­fer­ent dis­ease and dif­fer­ent treat­ments
A com­mit­tee of sci­ent­ists led by Johns Hopkins invest­ig­at­ors has pub­lished a new guide to the bio­logy, dia­gnosis and treat­ment of lung can­cer in never-smokers, for­ti­fy­ing meas­ures for what phys­i­cians have long known is a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease than in smokers.

It is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that the genetic, cel­lu­lar, and molecu­lar nature of lung can­cer in many never-smokers is dif­fer­ent from that of smoking-related lung can­cers, and there is good evid­ence now that the best treat­ment and pre­ven­tion strategies for never-smokers may be dif­fer­ent as well,” says Charles M. Rudin, M.D., Ph.D., asso­ci­ate dir­ector for Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Lung can­cer in never-smokers is the sixth lead­ing cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Nanotubes may yield greener solar cells
CORNELL—Using a car­bon nan­otube instead of tra­di­tional sil­icon, research­ers have cre­ated the basic ele­ments of a solar cell that may lead to much more effi­cient ways of con­vert­ing light to electricity.

The research­ers fab­ric­ated, tested, and meas­ured a simple solar cell called a pho­to­di­ode, formed from an indi­vidual car­bon nan­otube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the research­ers describe how their device con­verts light to elec­tri­city in an extremely effi­cient pro­cess that mul­ti­plies the amount of elec­trical cur­rent that flows. This pro­cess could prove import­ant for next-generation high effi­ciency solar cells, the research­ers say.

Carbon nan­otubes could make effi­cient solar cells

Using a car­bon nan­otube instead of tra­di­tional sil­icon, Cornell research­ers have cre­ated the basic ele­ments of a solar cell that hope­fully will lead to much more effi­cient ways of con­vert­ing light to elec­tri­city than now used in cal­cu­lat­ors and on rooftops.

The research­ers fab­ric­ated, tested and meas­ured a simple solar cell called a pho­to­di­ode, formed from an indi­vidual car­bon nan­otube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the research­ers — led by Paul McEuen, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, and Jiwoong Park, assist­ant pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical bio­logy — describe how their device con­verts light to elec­tri­city in an extremely effi­cient pro­cess that mul­ti­plies the amount of elec­trical cur­rent that flows. This pro­cess could prove import­ant for next-generation high effi­ciency solar cells, the research­ers say.

To me the stor­ies on Futurity look like re-headlined and slightly tweaked press-releases. The table above is not an entirely fair com­par­ison so if you’re scep­tical you can click on the links to see the stor­ies in full. Futurity has a yel­low masthead.

One of the points Ben Goldacre made in the Times Higher debate was that not every pub­lished study is worth a whole news story. The end res­ult would be the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project which fol­lows the Daily Mail’s attempt to clas­sify everything in the world as things that cause or cure can­cer. In the case above obesity is a com­plex prob­lem with diet­ary, hered­it­ary and social factors. There’s no magic bul­let to solve the prob­lem. It’s a com­plex story that needs con­text to make sense but you’re not going to get that from a press release. What is prob­ably a very good piece of research has been turned into quite a bad story.

It might be more inter­est­ing to ask “Why are around 35 top uni­ver­sit­ies releas­ing warmed-over press releases on a web­site when the pub­lic already have access to Eurekalert?” You could make it sound quite sin­is­ter. Are the rich uni­ver­sit­ies attempt­ing to hive off pub­lic interest away from Eurekalert so they don’t have to com­pete with Hicksville State University? Alternatively is it an attempt to dis­tance the uni­ver­sit­ies from some of Eurekalert’s more eccent­ric contributors?

There’ll be more from me on sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion over the next month as I’ve been think­ing about it for a few months now. One idea I’m not keen on is that the prob­lem is the mass media. Clearly they con­trib­ute, but Futurity shows that when you bypass sci­ence journ­al­ists alto­gether the res­ult looks amaz­ingly sim­ilar to the kind of report­ing people com­plain about.

I’ll con­cede that there could be some­thing really clever about Futurity which couldn’t be done by tweak­ing Eurekalert. I’m no media expert so it’s entri­rely pos­sible that there’s some big prob­lem that Futurity is the per­fect shape fix, but if Futurity is the answer, then I don’t under­stand the question.

2 thoughts on “If Futurity is the answer, then I don’t understand the question

  1. The idea seems to be to get Google News and Yahoo to carry Futurity’s items auto­mat­ic­ally, or as I put it, inject press releases dir­ectly into our news bloodstream.

  2. A prob­lem with that is that Google News already car­ries Eurekalert, though I can’t see it feed­ing Yahoo News dir­ectly. That seems an awful lot of effort to get into Yahoo. I’m won­der­ing if the cur­rent site is there to see if a demand exists, and if it does then they’ll start re-writing more access­ible press releases.

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