What's up with science journalism these days?
From the World Conference of Science Journalists, a summary of my presentation about Elsevier and embargoes — and observations on other debated topics
By Tom Reller Posted on 16 July 2013
It was a real pleasure to join a group of more than 800 journalists, press officers and other science industry colleagues at the 2013 World Conference of Science Journalists (@WCSJ2013) in Helsinki, Finland, at the end of June. This is a biannual event that Elsevier has supported through attendance, travel grants and booth space for nearly a decade, and it's great to see it grow in both size and influence. Our press officer, Sacha Boucherie, and I attended this year to gain a clearer sense of the publishers' role in ensuring that science is reported to the public as often and accurately as possible.
I was also there to join a panel titled, "What's up with science press officers and embargoes?" Embargoes are the primary process by which authors, publishers and media work together to ensure that the detailed aspects of a particular journal article are covered correctly. In my talk, I shared insights about Elsevier's involvement with embargoes that reporters might find helpful in understanding some of the complexities in the system.
1. Elsevier doesn't have one embargo policy. In a sense, we have over 2,500 of them. Our 2,500+ journals and their press interactions vary widely depending upon the field, the journal's particular resources, whether it's owned by Elsevier or a society, and of course whether the journal content is of interest to the media or public (the vast majority is not).[note color="#f1f9fc" align="alignright" width=400 margin=10]A news embargo is a request by a source that the information or news provided to the journalist or publication not be published until a certain date or certain conditions have been met. The understanding is that if the embargo is broken by reporting before then, the source could choose to restrict access to further information by that journalist or publication, giving them a long-term disadvantage.
Source: Wikipedia [/note]
There is also a real difference in how the media can engage with the top-tier journals that are of interest – such as Nature, Cell, The Lancet, JAMA and NEJM. At Elsevier, for example, The Lancet and Cell Press staff run their own press offices entirely apart from our corporate press office — though we do talk, collaborate and address issues together frequently. Many of our society journals manage press out of the society, some of which we work with and others we don't.
Another difference is whether the journal embargos a press release at all, how long the embargo is, and how well it is monitored and enforced. Understanding these unique characteristics can make it easier for both institutional press officers and media to work with the journal.
2. Journals focus on authors and readers, not reporters. Editors and publishers are focused primarily on recruiting, promoting and retaining authors, and the press is secondary. Getting good press helps with their objective, but the target audience is the author, not the reporter. And generally speaking, most authors aren't interested first in press, they are interested in speed-to-publication.What that means is that as publishers, we're focused on meeting author's demands by publishing content as quickly as we can. In some journals, this may even mean publishing accepted manuscripts, which have been peer reviewed but not edited, corrected and typeset. Such articles are clearly marked, but this practice can confuse reporters on how and when to cite an early version of an article.Balancing the author's need for speed and how it both helps and hinders the media's ability to report on science as quickly as possible is a challenge that we are trying to address and one I'm particularly interested in hearing back on.
3. We focus on media access. Lastly, I noted that in our press office, we actually don't spend much time on embargoes; those are managed by the authors, journals, societies and institutions. What we focus on is access. Elsevier has provided free access to ScienceDirect for many years, but we've been marketing that access more aggressively. We're widely credited for being fast – my team and I send out passwords as soon as we get the request, as quickly as five minutes. And our media codes provide access to all of ScienceDirect, not just portions.
Interestingly, in the past few years, we've noticed the trend of fewer full-time, credentialed journalists, with the corresponding rise of the science freelancer or blogger. Our approach with non-affiliated science writers is to provide a PDF of a specific article. (There is a link to a great session on the rise of the science blogger here that starts at minute 31.)
Bloggers and freelancers can get a password, however, through agreements Elsevier has with various journalist associations in which the member benefit is full access to ScienceDirect. We have this agreement in place with the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), Science Writers in Italy (SWIM) and the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), and more agreements are forthcoming based on contacts from the conference.
I also mentioned that our newsroom has increased efforts to make available for free any article that's linked to in the media, so the general public doesn't hit the "paywall" those times when the reporter thinks the actual published article is helpful (often it's not). Some journals are opening every article press released for a period of time, regardless of whether it's covered by the media. And we've made free some of the more controversial studies that have been published in the past year based on intense public interest. These are all done manually, so the process isn't scalable yet, but the approach is to open up as much research as we can when a news story points to it.
[caption id="attachment_25856" align="alignnone" width="800"]Tom Reller gives a presentation as part of a panel called "What's up with science press officers and embargoes?" To his left are David Dickson, Founding director and former editor, SciDev.Net; Ruth Francis, Head of Communications, BioMed Central, for Springer UK; Zoe Dunford, Communications and Brand Manager for the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK; and Alok Jha, science reporter for The Guardian.[/caption]
Other thoughts and observations at WCSJ
On the pros and cons of embargoes
Alok Jha (@alokjha), science reporter at The Guardian, decried the media's reliance on the embargo, while acknowledging that the system does help reporters do their job. There's been an interesting debate in recent years on the negative aspects of the amount of control the embargo assigns to the publisher and author, and if that's in the best interest of the public. Churnalism — the practice of writing news stories based on just a press release — is also a real concern with science media these days. But is the press release a means for control, or just a means of providing information?[note color="#f1f9fc" align="alignright" width=400 margin=10]An entertaining and insightful discussion on the pros and cons of the embargo in science took place at the 2009 WCSJ conference, highlighted by the impassioned critique of my colleague Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet.[/note]
Speaking of where control can go too far, there was a lot of debate about the Séralini embargo, where reporters had to promise not to verify the results of the research with third parties before writing their article, in order to get access to the embargoed study. This study is clearly controversial, and the authors, in my opinion, are not showing a great deal of confidence in their findings when they ask reporters not to verify them before going to print.However, does the blame here lie with Seralini for setting the embargo terms or with the reporters for agreeing to them? The European Union of Science Journalists said in a statement that it is both:
Such non-disclosure agreements go against the rationale for embargoes, and transform them from a useful tool to help science journalists to better inform the public into a tool for manipulating the media, and must then be condemned as unacceptable and unethical for journalists and for scientists.
Some reporters have asked if Elsevier will allow controlled embargoes of this type, to which I explained that we never have, nor intend to, extend our reach into how authors manage their own embargoes. Our interference is not something an author or his/her institution would welcome, and I also don't think it's justified because of this one instance. I agree with a lot of reporters who said that if they don't like the terms of an embargo, they shouldn't agree to them.
I also said in my talk that there are too many embargoes in general. No question many are necessary, particularly in medicine and other complex topics that require providing reporters with time to investigate. But many others aren't necessary. They also seem to be causing more problems than they solve, sometimes leading to anger and confusion. Online content management systems – both for publishers and media – often lead to accidental embargo breaks, which are unfair for everyone. And when embargo breaks are deliberate, the publishers have little time or influence to enforce or sanction the reporter anyway.
The issue gets further confused as journalists are reporting on stories based on sources apart from the press release. Are those embargo breaks, or not? I think these and other factors are continually reducing the media's reliance on the embargo, and the system will weaken over time.
Are journalists reporters or cheerleaders?
I was struck throughout the week by how critical science journalists are of themselves today, but this likely has much to do with the overall constraint on resources and the declining number of specialized science journalists. The lack of resources leads those writers who are working full-time to focus primarily, if not entirely, on promoting science and not investigating it.
So not surprisingly, I heard many comments suggesting science reporters have to stop acting like cheerleaders and report more critically. Alok Jha said that no other set of industry journalists cover their sector less critically than in science, and I tend to agree. This topic was discussed in more detail back at the 2nd UK conference of science journalists in July 2012, and subsequently summarized in The Guardian.
Speaking to the resource issue, in a closing presentation on watchdog science journalism, Ivan Oransky, (@ivanoransky), founder of Retraction Watch, noted that while it's a wonderful time for science journalism, it's not such a great time to be a science journalist. As publishers, we have a real interest in maintaining the public's trust in science, and as such we support the role of journalists to both promote and question science in order for the public to maintain that trust. To that end we hope it becomes a great time to be a science journalist again.[divider]My thanks go out to the panel organizers, Zoe Dunford, Communications and Brand Manager for the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK (who wrote a review of our panel), and Ruth Francis, Head of Communications, BioMed Central, for Springer UK.[divider]
As VP and Head of Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier, Tom Reller (@TomReller) leads a global team of media, social and web communicators for the world's largest provider of scientific, technical and medical (STM) information products and services. Together, they work to build on Elsevier's reputation by promoting the company's numerous contributions to the health and science communities, many of which are brought to life in our new online community and information resource: Elsevier Connect.
Reller directs strategy, execution and problem-solving for external corporate communications, including media relations, issues management and policy communications, and acts as a central communications counsel and resource for Elsevier senior management. Additionally, he develops and nurtures external corporate/institutional relationships that broaden Elsevier's influence and generate good will, including partnerships developed through the Elsevier Foundation.[note color="#f1f9fc" align="alignnone" width=800 margin=10]
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