To see faces where there are none

This week in “neither university press offices nor prestigious journals know what they’re doing”: a professor emeritus at Ohio University who claimed he had evidence of life on Mars, and whose institution’s media office crafted a press release without thinking twice to publicise his ‘findings’, and the paper that Nature Medicine published in 2002, cited 900+ times since, that has been found to contain multiple instances of image manipulation.

I’d thought the professor’s case would remain obscure because it’s evidently crackpot but this morning, articles from Space.com and Universe Today showed up on my Twitter setting the record straight: that the insects the OU entomologist had found in pictures of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover were just artefacts of his (insectile) pareidolia. Some people have called this science journalism in action but I’d say it’s somewhat offensive to check if science journalism still works by gauging its ability, and initiative, to countering conspiracy theories, the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

The press release, which has since been taken down. Credit: EurekAlert and Wayback Machine

The juicier item on our plate is the Nature Medicine paper, the problems in which research integrity super-sleuth Elisabeth Bik publicised on November 21, and which has a science journalism connection as well.

Remember the anti-preprints article Nature News published in July 2018? Its author, Tom Sheldon, a senior press manager at the Science Media Centre, London, argued that preprints “promoted confusion” and that journalists who couldn’t bank on peer-reviewed work ended up “misleading millions”. In other words, it would be better if we got rid of preprints and journalists deferred only to the authority of peer-reviewed papers curated and published by journals, like Nature. Yet here we are today, with a peer-reviewed manuscript published in Nature Medicine whose checking process couldn’t pick up on repetitive imagery. Is this just another form of pareidolia, to see a sensational result – knowing prestigious journals’ fondness for such results – where there was actually none?

(And before you say this is just one paper, read this analysis: “… data from several lines of evidence suggest that the methodological quality of scientific experiments does not increase with increasing rank of the journal. On the contrary, an accumulating body of evidence suggests the inverse: methodological quality and, consequently, reliability of published research works in several fields may be decreasing with increasing journal rank.” Or this extended critique of peer-review on Vox.)

This isn’t an argument against the usefulness, or even need for, peer-review, which remains both useful and necessary. It’s an argument against ludicrous claims that peer-review is infallible, advanced in support of the even more ludicrous argument that preprints should be eliminated to enable good journalism.

Confused thoughts on embargoes

Seventy! That’s how many observatories around the world turned their antennae to study the neutron-star collision that LIGO first detected. So I don’t know why the LIGO Collaboration, and Nature, bothered to embargo the announcement and, more importantly, the scientific papers of the LIGO-Virgo collaboration as well as those by the people at all these observatories. That’s a lot of people and many of them leaked the neutron-star collision news on blogs and on Twitter. Madness. I even trawled through arΧiv to see if I could find preprint copies of the LIGO papers. Nope; it’s all been removed.

Embargoes create hype from which journals profit. Everyone knows this. Instead of dumping the data along with the scientific articles as soon as they’re ready, journals like Nature, Science and others announce that the information will all be available at a particular time on a particular date. And between this announcement and the moment at which the embargo lifts, the journal’s PR team fuels hype surrounding whatever’s being reported. This hype is important because it generates interest. And if the information promises to be good enough, the interest in turn creates ‘high pressure’ zones on the internet – populated by those people who want to know what’s going on.

Search engines and news aggregators like Google and Facebook are sensitive to the formation of these high-pressure zones and, at the time of the embargo’s lifting, watch out for news publications carrying the relevant information. And after the embargo lifts, thanks to the attention already devoted by the aggregators, news websites are transformed into ‘low pressure’ zones into which the aggregators divert all the traffic. It’s like the moment a giant information bubble goes pop! And the journal profits from all of this because, while the bubble was building, the journal’s name is everywhere.

In short: embargoes are a traffic-producing opportunity for news websites because they create ‘pseudo-cycles of news’, and an advertising opportunity for journals.

But what’s in it for someone reporting on the science itself? And what’s in it for the consumers? And, overall, am I being too vicious about the idea?

For science reporters, there’s the Ingelfinger rule promulgated by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1969. It states that the journal will not publish any papers with results that have been previously published elsewhere and/or whose authors have not discussed the results with the media. NEJM defended the rule by claiming it was to keep their output fresh and interesting as well as to prevent scientists from getting carried away by the implications of their own research (NEJM’s peer-review process would prevent that, they said). In the end, the consumers would receive scientific information that has been thoroughly vetted.

While the rule makes sense from the scientists’ point of view, it doesn’t from the reporters’. A good science reporter, having chosen to cover a certain paper, will present the paper to an expert unaffiliated with the authors and working in the same area for her judgment. This is a form of peer-review that is extraneous to the journal publishing the paper. Second: a pro-embargo argument that’s been advanced is that embargoes alert science reporters to papers of importance as well as give them time to write a good story on it.

I’m conflicted about this. Embargoes, and the attendant hype, do help science reporters pick up on a story they might’ve missed out on, to capitalise on the traffic potential of a new announcement that may not be as big as it becomes without the embargo. Case in point: today’s neutron-star collision announcement. At the same time, science reporters constantly pick up on interesting research that is considered old/stale or that wasn’t ever embargoed and write great stories about them. Case in point: almost everything else.

My perspective is coloured by the fact that I manage a very small science newsroom at The Wire. I have a very finite monthly budget (equal to about what someone working eight hours a day and five days a week would make in two months on the US minimum wage) using which I’ve to ensure that all my writers – who are all freelancers – provide both the big picture of science in that month as well as the important nitty-gritties. Embargoes, for me, are good news because it helps me reallocate human and financial resources for a story well in advance and make The Wire‘s presence felt on the big stage when the curtain lifts. Rather, even if I can’t make it on time to the moment the curtain lifts, I’ve still got what I know for sure is good story on my hands.

A similar point was made by Kent Anderson when he wrote about eLife‘s media policy, which said that the journal would not be enforcing the Ingelfinger rule, over at The Scholarly Kitchen:

By waiving the Ingelfinger rule in its modernised and evolved form – which still places a premium on embargoes but makes pre-publication communications allowable as long as they don’t threaten the news power – eLife is running a huge risk in the attention economy. Namely, there is only so much time and attention to go around, and if you don’t cut through the noise, you won’t get the attention. …

Like it or not, but press embargoes help journals, authors, sponsors, and institutions cut through the noise. Most reporters appreciate them because they level the playing field, provide time to report on complicated and novel science, and create an effective overall communication scenario for important science news. Without embargoes and coordinated media activity, interviews become more difficult to secure, complex stories may go uncovered because they’re too difficult to do well under deadline pressures, and coverage becomes more fragmented.

What would I be thinking if I had a bigger budget and many full-time reporters to work with? I don’t know.

On Embargo Watch in July this year, Ivan Oransky wrote about how an editor wasn’t pleased with embargoes because “staffers had been pulled off other stories to make sure to have this one ready by the original embargo”. I.e., embargoes create deadlines that are not in your control; they create deadlines within which everyone, over time, tends to do the bare minimum (“as much as other publications will do”) so they can ride the interest wave and move on to other things – sometimes not revisiting this story again even. In a separate post, Oransky briefly reviewed a book against embargoes by Vincent Kiernan, a noted critic of the idea:

In his book, Embargoed Science, Kiernan argues that embargoes make journalists lazy, always chasing that week’s big studies. They become addicted to the journal hit, afraid to divert their attention to more original and enterprising reporting because their editors will give them grief for not covering that study everyone else seems to have covered.

Alice Bell wrote a fantastic post in 2010 about how to overcome such tendencies: by newsrooms redistributing their attention on science to both upstream and downstream activities. But more than that, I don’t think lethargic news coverage can be explained solely by the addiction to embargoes. A good editor should keep stirring the pot – should keep her journalists moving on good stories, particularly of the kind no one wants to talk about, report on it and play it up. So, while I’m hoping that The Wire‘s coverage of the neutron-star collision discovery is a hit, I’ve also got great pieces coming this week about solar flares, open-access publishing, the health effects of ******** mining and the conservation of sea snakes.

I hope time will provide some clarity.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.