Sick of reading reports of academic papers or scientific studies that have been cribbed from a press release? Wish they’d cite the damn reference so you could find the actual paper more easily? Frustrated by the general lack of references in mainstream media stories? So was I – so I wrote an email to a few bods. I probably emailed all the wrong people*, but here’s where I started: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org. And here’s what I said:
I am writing to you with regards the publication of stories relating to academic papers. I believe it is unfair of the mainstream media to deny readers the chance to check original papers that receive publicity from the press.
The news media consistently publishes information on academic studies (particularly those involving medical science), but fails to provide proper references and this means that it is very difficult for someone such as myself, being unfamiliar with academic journals, to be able to find a copy of the research that is being reported.
As a layman, I can assure you that there are people out there (other than academics) who would be interested in seeing the original paper for themselves. I have tried to imagine what possible reason the media could have for refraining from supplying references, but cannot think of a good rationale for them doing so. The reasons that did occur included the following: the media believe their audience to be unintelligent and thus unable to understand academic papers [patronising]; the media believe that their coverage of academic papers (again, I am particularly interested in scientific papers) is so excellent that there will be no need for anyone to read the original paper [arrogant]; the journalists concerned believe that letting us read the papers for ourselves would make them superfluous [self-interested]. Perhaps I am being overly-cynical and you can provide a reason for not publishing references that I would find more palatable than the ones I’ve suggested?
If a media outlet were to take the lead by citing studies that they wrote about, then isn’t it just possible that this would benefit them? If you provide an improved news service to readers by presenting references then isn’t there a possibility that your particular media outlet would benefit by increasing its readership? Even if this isn’t the case and there is nothing in it for you – wouldn’t providing references still be the right thing to do?
I don’t mean to come across as being snide and sarcastic, but I am – so it’s inevitable that I will. Besides, the lack of references in articles about published papers really pisses me off. I just hope my arrogance, patronising manner and self-interest [after all, I’m really only emailing them because I want to see proper references. It’s not really about transparency or the public understanding of science at all – I’m just too lazy to spend time searching for studies] in this post don’t make me seem too hypocritical. Whoops. It’s been 24 hours since I emailed them and I’ve only had automated replies so far, so I’m wondering if my twattish manner might have irritated them. If you feel like joining in with this minor activism then it might be better to write something a bit less snide than my email. I’d certainly encourage people to write in as it will probably help to offset the impression that this is the work of a lone crank.
*I emailed The BBC, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Observer because these are supposed to be media outlets for grown-ups (notwithstanding the recent mentalness of the Torygraph and the conspiracy theory leanings of the Indy – or the Observer’s 1 in 58 autism nonsense come to that) and they publish stories about science and health – the very articles I am interested in reading. I emailed the Daily Mail because they are The People’s Medical Journal and if anyone should be referencing original papers it is them. At least then any curious Daily Fail readers can find out for themselves just how unremittingly awful their coverage of health and science stories really is.