Health/Science/Academia – References Please!

August 19, 2008 at 6:17 pm (Campaigns, Media) (, , , , , )

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: news@dailymail.co.uk, dtletters@telegraph.co.uk, newseditor@independent.co.uk, reader@guardian.co.uk, reader@observer.co.uk, and newsonline@bbc.co.uk. And here’s what I said:

Dear X,

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?

Regards,
Y.

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.

12 Comments

  1. dvnutrix said,

    Splendid initiative, jdc. If the NYT is happy to do it then other ‘quality’ papers should be happy to follow suit. I can’t begin to put a number of the times that someone has been wittering on to me in a concerned manner about some newspaper/TV/radio story or other and then when I try to look it up, I can’t identify the paper.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Thanks dvnutrix. I wish I’d used the NYT as an example now. If they don’t reply fairly soon I might send a follow-up email citing the NYT as taking a lead that should be followed.

    You’re quick this evening, btw – four minutes must be a record time for a comment on my blog!

  3. wilsontown said,

    Your e-mail doesn’t come across as particularly snide to me. I might have left out your suggested reasons for omitting references, but even they seem to be fair points. I hope you get some useful replies. You’d have thought at least the Guardian would have something sensible to say on the subject.

    That said, I usually find that the ‘quality’ newspapers usually give you enough information (typically one of the authors and the title of the journal) to locate the paper. But not always. Even then, the papers are not always available to the general public, which is a disgrace (but not the fault of the newspapers).

  4. jdc325 said,

    “That said, I usually find that the ‘quality’ newspapers usually give you enough information (typically one of the authors and the title of the journal) to locate the paper. But not always.”
    Aye – I remember complaining to the BBC once that not only had they neglected to cite the study they were writing about, but they hadn’t even given sufficient detail to give me a clue as to how to find the paper. I actually mentioned the authors’ names as being one clue that may have been helpful to me. To be fair, they did include the full references in one of their emails to me (there were several emails going back and forth on this) – I just don’t understand why they couldn’t have put the refs on the website in the first place. It would have saved us both time, after all.

    “Even then, the papers are not always available to the general public, which is a disgrace (but not the fault of the newspapers).”
    True enough – that’s another problem for me to worry about. My next campaign really should be to make papers freely available. A bit ambitious maybe, but… I suppose it doesn’t hurt to make a bit of noise about these things from time-to-time.

    I was also thinking about press coverage of unpublished studies. One thing that bothers me is that the media can print a story about some unpublished work that may in the future turn out to be hopelessly flawed – or even fraudulent – but will they ever print a retraction of the story that they (prematurely) published but now know to be false? And if it’s unpublished work, then no member of the public can check it at the time and the fact that a paper is unlikely to print the ultimate uselessness of the study (unless it is fraudulent work – then there may be a juicy story in it) means there would be no correction of the false impression people would then have.

    Thanks for your comment Paul.

  5. healthy distrust said,

    An odd synchronicity…I sent this e-mail to the reader’s editor at the Guardian today (before reading your blog)

    A question for you: what’s The Guardian’s policy when it comes to linking to outside sources, particularly when it comes to stories reporting on research in academic journals? I notice that, for example, in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science columns all the links included in the piece as reproduced on badscience.net are excised; I also notice that most health/medical stories reporting on published studies do not link to the studies, or to anything else which may be relevant to the interested reader looking to get a bit more information. The New York Times seems to have adopted a policy of linking to sources – see for example this story on morning sickness, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/19/health/19real.html?_r=1&ref=health&oref=login, which links not just to the study in question but to others which give background on the topic.
    The Guardian is frequently cited as being one of the most web savvy of newspapers, why, then, is it failing to keep up with one of the most important and exciting developments in online journalism?

    Martin Nisenholtz, head of the NYT’s senior vice president for digital operations, has an interesting essay on the evolution of newspapers online and the Times’ move to hyperlinking here: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nmw;idno=5680986.0001.001;rgn=div2;view=text;cc=nmw;node=5680986.0001.001%3A4.2

  6. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for your comment HD – it was a weird (but nice) coincidence that we both wrote to the Guardian within about 48 hours of each other. Interesting blog BTW – we seem to get narked about similar things re media coverage of stories. I’d be interested in whether you get a response from the Guardian, so if you want to drop by with a comment if/when you do hear back (or leave a link if you decide to blog your query).

  7. Nash said,

    The NYT employs fact checkers. It helps protects the paper from litigation. Maybe that’s why they publish their sources and link to them.
    I don’t think any UK paper does the same thing.

  8. Dr* T said,

    Clever initiative JDC. It will slow the wheels of churnalism a bit, so probably met with resistance – one reference I’ve been given recently after enquiring was this one.

    Eco-friendly Houseplants

    Hmmmm……..

  9. jdc325 said,

    Dr* T – that is a quality reference. I expect to see whale.to being cited any day now.

    Nash – good point, and something I wasn’t aware of.

    Thanks both for your comments.

  10. healthy distrust said,

    I doubt it has anything to do with fact checkers – surely if a journalist is writing something for publication (s)he, or his/her editor has in mind the potential for litigation and is working around it, or with it. I think it really is to do with some seriously outdated thinking about the danger of directing people from your site to another site, and the ad revenue knock on effect this is alleged to have. Now, we know that the voodoo economics of the original dot com boom made a nonsense of a rational online economic model (6 eyeballs, 90,000 dollah, yeah, sure, here ye go), but yet, old print media still seems to subscribe to some similar nonsense model. I’m not entirely convinced that the argument that sites like Google, which are dedicated to redirecting users, are sound as a business model (they may only work because there’s only one of them), but someone, somewhere, in the news media needs to be thinking about this. I’m not an economist, but the Nisenholtz essay I ref’d in my comment above makes at least a case for thinking about it. Like I say, I don’t understand the economies of online information transfer, but he makes a good case for setting up a media organisation as a nexus of editors filtering the crap from the non-crap, and directing readers to the good stuff online, which will keep them coming back; which will keep the advertisers happy and the revenue flowing in. Or am I dreaming?
    (aside): I described Martin Nisenholtz in the last comment I left as ‘the head of the NYT’s senior vice president for digital operations’ – this was a typo; I didn’t actually mean to imply that the head of the NYT’s senior vice president for digital operations has a name and an existence different from his body (called, perhaps, Chad) – that was just a case of giddy fingeredness.

  11. jdc325 said,

    “I hope you get some useful replies. You’d have thought at least the Guardian would have something sensible to say on the subject.”

    Nothing so far… I’m not optimistic.

  12. BBC Science Journalism Review « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] I had a bit of a whinge about this a couple of years ago. Here’s what I wrote at the time: Linky McLink. […]

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