Time to ditch the press release?

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Fixing the newspapers. Photo (cc) Evil Erin.

Fixing the news­pa­pers. Photo (cc) Evil Erin.

At the National Astronomy Meeting in 2004 I listened to Dr David Whitehouse, who I think was then Science Editor at the BBC, give advice about feed­ing sci­ence stor­ies to the media. He made quite a few points, but there are three I remember.

  1. Don’t push a story on the grounds it’s the biggest / old­est / shi­ni­est / crum­bli­est etc. thing found. It’s a cliché and it’s dull.
  2. Don’t waste people’s time with the for­mula for ‘x’ where x is any­thing which really shouldn’t have a formula.
  3. Don’t use press releases.

At the time he really didn’t con­vince me. The biggest, old­est and so on remains a staple news item. Likewise Cliff Arnall has shown you can make money from non­sense for­mu­lae. What really under­mined him though was the news­room run by the RAS at the meet­ing. I could wander in there and see the press releases. The next day I could see the same stor­ies, often with little edit­ing, in the national press. If he were to give the same talk today he might find it even harder. I can go to Eurekalert and pick up a sen­tence from any press release. If I paste it into Google I will find masses of news web­sites repeat­ing the press release near verbatim.

Surely this proves pub­li­city is about get­ting your press release into the right press release mill? I might have a news story by the end of the year and so I’ve thought about what I want to achieve with pub­li­city. I’m job hunt­ing. Press cov­er­age could be really help­ful to intro­duce me and my work to depart­ments. That’s why I’m more inter­ested in qual­ity rather than quant­ity and that’s why I think David Whitehouse could be right.

The reason I was scep­tical is because of an adversarial model of researcher-journalist rela­tions. Basically this is down to two complaints.

  1. Journalists regur­git­ate press releases without any crit­ical thought.
  2. Journalists don’t regur­git­ate my press releases without any crit­ical thought.

Clearly that proves that any prob­lems in sci­ence journ­al­ism are the fault of journ­al­ists rather than my work being unnews­worthy. You can’t argue with logic like that unless you’re very drunk.

If you see journ­al­ists as a bar­rier between you and the pub­lic then bypassing them makes sense. The tar­get becomes get­ting the press release as unmangled as pos­sible into the public’s hands. This kind of think­ing is the basis behind Futurity. The journ­al­ists are a resource val­ued as far as they can repro­duce the release you’ve given them. Presumably there’s a corol­lary to this rela­tion­ship from the journ­al­ists’ side where sci­ent­ists are val­ued as far as fit­ting a mar­ket­ing niche.

David Whitehouse argued that what journ­al­ists really want is an exclus­ive. Sticking a press release out means that it’s low pri­or­ity because every­one will be able to cover the story. It wasn’t the best sales pitch because what I heard at the time was “If you put out a press release then lots of people will cover it, but an exclus­ive means only one per­son cov­ers it.” If you’re in the adversarial model then the choice between press release and talk­ing to just one journ­al­ist, who may decide not to run your story, is a no-brainer.

Now I’ve changed my mind.

My work is inter­dis­cip­lin­ary. Journals, gen­er­ally, aren’t. That means if I pub­lish my work in one journal then it’ll be missed by a lot of the poten­tial audi­ence because research­ers tend to read journ­als in their own dis­cip­line and only a few out­side it. What I need is to pub­li­cise the work so that research­ers out­side the field of whatever journal I pub­lish in will be aware of the paper. So if I pub­lish in The Journal of Obscure Astronomy then I’ll have to find some way to alert clas­si­cists and archae­olo­gists to the paper, else they’ll never read it — even if JOA is open access or the paper’s on arXiv.

Having a press release appear on a thou­sand web­sites is great for the ego, but it’s point­less if they’re a thou­sand web­sites that no-one with an interest in clas­sics or archae­ology reads. If I wanted to announce work to a small num­ber of intel­li­gent people I’d post it here. What I need is qual­ity of cov­er­age rather than quant­ity. In fact as I wrote that last sen­tence it struck me how irrel­ev­ant quant­ity of cov­er­age is.

It sounds good. It’s some­thing people can meas­ure in column inches but real­ist­ic­ally 10 column inches in two papers is not twice as good as 5 inches in one paper. Sharing links is easy. If the story appeared in just one major site, the link would be passed around. Appearing in more papers aids dis­cov­ery, but the stor­ies will all be say­ing sim­ilar things about the work. I was told that the recent pub­lic­a­tions on the Antikythera Mechanism appeared as news stor­ies in all the qual­ity papers in the world. But I bet if I were to sit down and read them all I’d find very little new inform­a­tion after the first three stor­ies. Certainly appear­ing in more qual­ity press is a bet­ter res­ult, but the size of the read­er­ship for the major news sites is such that appear­ing in just one major site will still deliver more reach than a hun­dred minor sites.

It also looks like a prac­tical way to aid good journ­al­ism. I’m will­ing to bet that any sci­ence journ­al­ist with even a bit of tal­ent would like to see the end of press releases being called news. If we rein­force the idea that a recycled press release is news then there’s no call for spe­cial­ist sci­ence journ­al­ists because any­one can recycle a press release.

That’s why I’ve decided the next time I have a story — if the journal doesn’t have its own media policy — I’m going to try pitch­ing it dir­ect to a journ­al­ist rather than via a press release. I’m not com­fort­able with this. Every day you can see press releases work­ing in the papers and if web­sites recycle mater­ial big num­bers are attract­ive. But maybe that’s a safety net? If news sites really are put­ting up press releases as news then even if attempts to pitch the exclus­ive fail you can always fall back on a press release. That’s another reason press releases shouldn’t be the first option.

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.

Blogging and the English Law

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donkey
A guest appear­ance from the law. Photo (cc) Jürgen Schiller García.

First a dis­claimer: My legal qual­i­fic­a­tions go as far as an A-Level I did at nightclass.

Nonetheless I’ve been read­ing a few posts recently on English law by other blog­gers and they all seem to be mak­ing the same mis­take. The blog­gers are intel­li­gent, fair and reas­on­able and the make the assump­tion that English law would be too. So I’m throw­ing up some points for dis­cus­sion, most of it applies to blog­gers around the world, but there are one or two stings for blog­gers based in England and Wales.

Tip One: Be a multi-millionaire

This is use­ful in any legal sys­tem, but espe­cially in England when you real­ise where the law comes from. We don’t have a 20th cen­tury or 19th cen­tury legal sys­tem in the UK. It’s a multi-layered cake of cases which has been built up over the cen­tur­ies. Old laws remain in effect because they’re often use­ful. For example until a few years ago the legal defin­i­tion of murder in England dated from Lord Coke’s rul­ing in 1597.

Murder is when a man of sound memory, and of the age of dis­cre­tion, unlaw­fully kil­leth within any county of the realm any reas­on­able creature in rerum natura under the king’s peace, with malice afore­thought, either expressed by the party, or implied by law, so as the party wounded, or hurt, &c. die of the wound, or hurt, &c. within a year and a day after the same

It was only updated recently because life-support machines were mak­ing the year and a day clause questionable.

A lot of law is like this, it isn’t form­ally writ­ten down. It’s com­mon law which means there’s a huge tra­di­tion of rely­ing on pre­ced­ent and find­ing the right pre­ced­ent is where a lot of law­yers make their money. Unfortunately there wasn’t a medi­eval inter­net and English legis­la­tion is a bit slow. Laws developed for a time when few people had access to a press are being called into ser­vice for libel on the inter­net. There are few pre­ced­ents, so hav­ing a very good law­yer to make your case is a massive help. Incidentally, the fact the law goes back many cen­tur­ies in the UK is part of the con­tri­bu­tion to the fact that Scottish law is not the same as English law. Changing one doesn’t neces­sar­ily have much effect on the other.

Parliament could codify the law, and every so often they do. There’s plenty of demand for new laws though so older laws tend to get tidied when the clam­our gets loud enough. With my big cyn­ical hat on, there’ll be an elec­tion soon and all the politi­cial parties will want fund­ing from donors with deep pock­ets. These would also be the kind of donors who are best pro­tec­ted by a vague and pur­chased justice and will want to fund parties with other pri­or­it­ies, as par­lia­ment­ary time is lim­ited. It’s not going to change soon. Simply declar­ing swathes of com­mon law out­dated isn’t a prac­tical option either. If you want a bet­ter libel law then you’ll need to pres­sure MPs to change it.
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