The circumstances in which scientists are science journos

On September 6, 2019, two researchers from Israel uploaded a preprint to the bioRxiv preprint server entitled ‘Can scientists fill the science journalism void? Online public engagement with two science stories authored by scientists’. Two news sites invited scientists to write science articles for them, supported by a short workshop at the start of the programme and then by a group of editors during the ideation and editing process. The two researchers tracked and analysed the results, concluding:

Overall significant differences were not found in the public’s engagement with the different items. Although, on one website there was a significant difference on two out of four engagement types, the second website did not have any difference, e.g., people did not click, like or comment more on items written by organic reporters than on the stories written by scientists. This creates an optimistic starting point for filling the science news void [with] scientists as science reporters.

Setting aside questions about the analysis’s robustness: I don’t understand the point of this study (insofar as it concerns scientists being published in news websites, not blogs), as a matter of principle. When was the optimism in question ever in doubt? And if it was, how does this preprint paper allay it?

The study aims to establish whether articles written by scientists can be just as successful – in terms of drawing traffic or audience engagement – as articles penned by trained journalists working in newsrooms. There are numerous examples that this is the case, and there are numerous other examples that this is not. But by discussing the results of their survey in a scientific paper, the authors seem to want to elevate the possibility that articles authored by scientists can perform well to a well-bounded result – which seems questionable at best, even if it is strongly confined to the Israeli market.

To take a charitable view, the study effectively reaffirms one part of a wider reality.

I strongly doubt there’s a specific underlying principle that suggests a successful outcome, at least beyond the mundane truism that the outcome is a combination of many things. From what I’ve seen in India, for example, the performance of a ‘performant article’ depends on the identity of the platform, the quality of its editors, the publication’s business model and its success, the writer’s sensibilities, the magnitude and direction of the writer’s moral compass, the writer’s fluency in the language and medium of choice, the features of the audience being targeted, and the article’s headline, length, time of publication and packaging.

It’s true that a well-written article will often perform better than average and a poorly written written article will perform worse than average, in spire of all these intervening factors, but these aren’t the only two states in which an article can exist. In this regard, claiming scientists “stand a chance” says nothing about the different factors in play and even less about why some articles won’t do well.

It also minimises editorial contributions. The two authors write in their preprint, “News sites are a competitive environment where scientists’ stories compete for attention with other news stories on hard and soft topics written by professional writers. Do they stand a chance?” This question ignores the publisher’s confounding self-interest: to maximise a story’s impact roughly proportional to the amount of labour expended to produce it, such as with the use of a social media team. More broadly, if there are fewer science journalists, there are also going to be fewer science editors (an event that precipitated the former will most likely precipitate the latter as well), which means there will also be fewer science stories written by anyone in the media.

Another issue here is something I can’t stress enough: science writers, communicators and journalists don’t have a monopoly on writing about science or scientists. The best science journalism has certainly been produced by reporters who have been science journalists for a while, but this is no reason to write off the potential for good journalism – in general – to produce stories that include science, nor to exclude such stories from analyses of how the people get their science news.

A simple example is environmental journalism in India. Thanks to prevalent injustices, many important nuggets of environmental and ecological knowledge appear in articles written by reporters working the social justice and political economics beats. This has an important lesson for science reporters and editors everywhere: not being employed full-time is typically a bitter prospect but your skills don’t have to manifest in stories that appear on pages or sections set aside for science news alone.

It also indicates that replenishing the workforce (even with free labour) won’t stave off the decline of science journalism – such as it is – as much as tackling deeper, potentially extra-scientific, issues such as parochialism and anti-intellectualism, and as a second step convincing both editors and marketers about the need to publish science journalism including and beyond considerations of profit.

Last, the authors further write:

This study examined whether readers reacted differently to science news items written by scientists as compared to news items written by organic reporters published on the same online news media sites. Generally speaking, based on our findings, the answer is no: audiences interacted similarly with both. This finding justifies the time and effort invested by the scientists and the Davidson science communication team to write attractive science stories, and justifies the resources provided by the news sites. Apparently if websites publish it, audiences will consume it.

An editor could have told you this in a heartbeat. Excluding audiences that consume content from niche outlets, and especially including audiences that flock to ‘destination’ sites (i.e. sites that cover nearly everything), authorship rarely ever matters unless the author is prominent or the publication highlights it. But while the Israeli duo has reason to celebrate this user behaviour, as it does, others have seen red.

For example, in December 2018, the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal published a paper by an Oxford University physicist named Jamie Farnes advancing a fanciful solution to the dark matter and dark energy problems. The paper was eventually widely debunked by scientists and science journalists alike but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of people were taken by an article in The Conversation that seemed to support the paper’s conclusions. What many of them – including some scientists – didn’t realise was that The Conversation often features scientists writing articles about their own work, and didn’t know the problem article had been written by Farnes himself.

So even if the preprint study skipped articles written by scientists about their own work, the duos’s “build it and they will come” inference is not generalisable, especially if – for another example – someone else from Oxford University had written favourably about Farnes’s paper. I regularly field questions from young scientist-writers baffled as to why I won’t publish articles that quote ‘independent’ scientists commenting on a study they didn’t participate in but which was funded, in part or fully, by the independent scientists’ employer(s).

I was hoping to neatly tie my observations together in a conclusion but some other work has come up, so I hope you won’t mind the abrupt ending as well as that, in the absence of a concluding portion, you won’t fall prey to the recency effect.

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.

Hacking newsroom productivity

Developers should consider collaborative tools for journalists that also make remote-working more efficient and less prone to communication gaps.

Note: The name of this blog has changed from Gaplogs to edmx. This is why.

There are lots of parallels between software teams and newsrooms, their respective ideal workflows and desirable work environments. However, journalism is decidedly more human – considering that’s the species whose stories the profession is engaged in retelling – and journalistic offices wouldn’t entirely benefit from modelling themselves on tech rooms that strive to minimise ‘distractions’ and, more generally, human contact. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean everyone should be forced to work in an environment that the majority finds comfortable. I’m writing this now because I stumbled upon an ancient piece in GeekWire about how open floor plans are bad for developers because they “don’t want to overhear conversations”.

“Facebook’s campus in Silicon Valley is an 8-acre open room, and Facebook was very pleased with itself for building what it thought was this amazing place for developers,” [StackOverflow CEO Joel] Spolsky said in an interview with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop. “But developers don’t want to overhear conversations. That’s ideal for a trading floor, but developers need to concentrate, to go to a chatroom and ask questions and get the answers later. Facebook is paying 40-50 percent more than other places, which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”

 

Spolsky, who in 2011 created project-management software Trello, said the “Joel Test” that he created 16 years ago is still a valid way for developers to evaluate prospective employers. It’s a list of 12 yes-no questions, with one point given for every “yes” answer. “The truth is that most software organizations are running with a score of 2 or 3, and they need serious help, because companies like Microsoft run at 12 full-time,” Spolsky said when he created the test. He said that remains true today.

This is true of writers – whether you’re hammering out a 1,000-word copy on medical ethics or writing the next Dune – as well as copy-editors. Both writing and editing are benefited when you’re able to concentrate, and neither loses out when you’re unable to talk about what you’re doing when you’re in the middle of it.

But at the same time, newsrooms also need to encourage collaborations, such as between writers, editors, multimedia producers, social media managers, marketing, tech, etc.

This is why I think an ideal newsroom would be an open floor where those who want to work together can do so while the company allows those engaged in solo projects to work from home. Of course, this assumes everyone knows what they want to do, what they want to work on and that it plays down the admittedly incredible value of overhearing two people talk about something and realising you’ve got an idea about that. The inspiration for stories can come from everywhere, after all. It’s just that it might be time to start evaluating, and implementing, these things more systematically. For example, how often do we stumble upon story ideas? Is it a feature that editors deliberately try to work into newsrooms? Under what conditions does it manifest? And can better technology help?

This is because not everyone in a newsroom can work remotely – but every newsroom is likely to have someone who will benefit from being able to, whether temporarily or permanently. Moreover, ‘new media’ newsroom workflows have largely calcified, which means developers today have a greater incentive than before to build integrated/symbiotic newsroom tools with potentially industry-wide adoption. So at this juncture, they should consider collaborative tools for journalists that also make remote-working more efficient and less prone to communication gaps because, as technology promises to offer more solutions to better journalism, its choices will increasingly affect how journalists can or can’t work.

To be clear, the answers could lie in many spheres, could manifest in many forms – just that I’m particularly curious about whether technology has any of them. Because if it does, I can think of at least two major challenges.

Collaboration tools

For a developer, ‘communication pains’ can arise in at least three contexts (I don’t presume to know all of them): when brainstorming, when collaborating and when receiving feedback. For a journalist, there are two corresponding contexts: when brainstorming and when editing (collaborating to create an article seldom happens when the writers are working remotely). Here, the developer has the advantage because her ‘language’ affords shorter paths to truths. It has fewer syntactic rules, the syntax and semantics are strongly connected and the truths that need to be realised are very well-defined. For a journalist working with a natural language, things are more fluid and open to negotiation. The result is that it’s easier for developers to work remotely because building something good together requires a tool that is highly process-oriented and has perfect version control.

(Could one way out be something like the Hemingway app? It lets writers see what could be wrong with their writing by highlighting difficult sentences, the use of passive voice, adverbs, etc. Maybe. Such an app could definitely go a long way in improving bad writing and making it readable – which would be a boon for editors because they can then focus on making more creative kinds of improvements. But until the app is able to discern narrative techniques and styles, it won’t be able to run the last mile, which means you’ve still got an editor working mano y mano with whom is going to be better for everyone.)

Communication tools

None of Skype, Slack, Hangouts, etc. can cut it when it comes to realising perfect communication options for the remote-worker because the barrier they pose isn’t through a built-in function but concerns the user herself. She still has to want to open the app and dial/ping/buzz/whatever. On the other hand, it’s always been easier to just open your mouth and start talking. Moreover, chat-apps like Slack and Hangouts passively discourage users to reply immediately. In one-on-one communication, when someone talks to you, you’re expected to reply then and there if and when you can. This immediacy is very convenient and useful. However, when chatting with your friend, the app maintains an archive of past messages that your friend can return to later. It’s also quite tricky for you to force a response without coming off as pushy or annoying. //

Even if all of these are problems, the advantages of having a newsroom that is distributed yet not disconnected, more accommodating of different ways to be productive, more open to having its workflows hacked and more efficient at communicating feedback could be great. Then again, could technology have the perfect solutions?