September 11, 2012

How journalists and press releases rewrite science


The Jonah Lehrer debacle needs no further comment here, but one interesting feature of Charles Seife‘s deconstruction and evisceration of Lehrer’s Wired blog on Slate was what he called “press-release plagiarism.”

Seife wrote,

“In the sample of posts I looked at, there were a number of places where it looked like Lehrer had taken text from a press release and placed it in his own blog after a light edit. For example, several paragraphs in “Are Emotions Prophetic,” paralleled a Feb. 24, 2012, press release from the Columbia Business School.

For me, the most ethically fraught example of this practice was in “Does Inequality Make Us Unhappy.” In that post, Lehrer wrote: “‘We economists have a widespread view that most people are basically self-interested and won’t try to help other people,’ Colin Camerer, a neuroeconomist at Caltech and co-author of the study, told me.” However, the quotation had come from a Caltech press release, not from an interview with Camerer.”

Although the act of press release plagiarism can have an unfortunate effect on the public’s understanding of scientific fact, the wider picture of how science and the media works is more complicated. This is discussed by Brendan Maher on Nature‘s blog.  Science writing is hard, and Maher doesn’t simply blame journalistic laziness for the poor state of things, but also the relationship between science journals and university PR, the results of which feed out to the popular press.

Maher is particularly concerned with the aftermath of the ENCODE project’s publication of its latest human genome results.  The press mostly reported that what had been called “junk” DNA was not in fact “junk,” because the ENCODE scientists had found the biochemical functions for 80% of the genome.  This figure failed to note that much of that “function” may not have any particular impact on human qualities.

When the ENCODE press release was imprecise about the meaning of “function,” and the science press misreported it, criticism began to mount.

“First up was a scientific critique that the authors had engaged in hyperbole. In the main ENCODE summary paper, published in Nature, the authors prominently claim that the ENCODE project has thus far assigned “biochemical functions for 80% of the genome”…But hold on, said a number of genome experts: most of that activity isn’t particularly specific or interesting and may not have an impact on what makes a human a human (or what makes one human different from another).”

Then the popular press got it wrong. According to John Timmer at Ars Technica,

Bloomberg‘s coverage, for example, suggests we’ve never discovered regulatory DNA: “Scientists previously thought that only genes, small pieces of DNA that make up about 1 percent of the genome, have a function.” The New York Times defined junk as “parts of the DNA that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins.” Beyond that sort of fundamental confusion, almost every report in the mainstream press mentioned the 80 percent functional figure, but none I saw spent time providing the key context about how functional had been defined.”

This kerfuffle was caused not only by journalists simply repeating, or misunderstanding, the press release, but also by the PR machine of universities. And such concerns are larger than misreporting.  Per Maher,

“This was in part designed by the project leaders and editors, who organized a simultaneous release of the publications to maximize their impact…And the delay that this coordination caused has led to another complaint. Casey Bergman, a genome biologist at the University of Manchester, UK, tried to tally the cost of this delay on the scientific community.

Each paper sat for an average of 3.7 months after being accepted before it was published. He estimates a maximum total of 112 months — nearly 10 years — during which the scientific community was deprived of insights from these papers. “To the extent that these papers are crucial for understanding the human genome, and the consequences this knowledge has for human health, this decade lost to humanity is clearly unacceptable,” writes Bergman.”

Lehrer cherry-picking from press releases is clearly just the beginning of the problems with science writing.


Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.