Saturday, January 26, 2008

Press release or original articles?

BPR3 was set up as a means of separating blog posts on peer reviewed research from comments on things like press releases. One of their guidelines is
The post author should have read and understood the entire work cited.
Writing at the BPR3 blog, Dave Munger wrote:
Is it ethical for a blogger to simply comment on a press release on new research? Or should a blogger always read the original peer-reviewed journal article?... [N]ot every blog post is equal -- that some bloggers aren't acting as experts who have something important to say about the research; they're just alerting their readers to the press release. ...[W]hen a blogger is acting as an authority who has critical comments to make about the research itself, then the blogger does have a responsibility to carefully read the original work.
Jonathan M. Gitlin of Nobel Intent made a similar point
Obviously, from where I am, the number one ethical concern is that what we write is accurate and doesn't misrepresent the facts. ...[T]oo often, coverage of science news involves people taking press releases and rewriting them, with the PR spin intact. ...Sure, it takes longer to read than a press release, and sometimes involves spending an hour or two in PubMed going back through the preceding literature to get up to speed, but it also means that it's possible to see things in the research that might not have been highlighted by other coverage but are just as interesting.

What role should press releases play in the life of a science blogger? It’s difficult to answer that question without addressing the question: “what is a science blogger?” Is it simply someone who blogs about science? Obviously one blog post about science does not make someone a science blogger. Being a scientist who blogs isn’t enough either. And a science blogger isn’t simply a scientist (or someone with or working on an advanced degree in science). Without trying to define a science blogger just yet, it’s obvious that any science blogger (like any human being, I suppose) has some range of expertise. Science bloggers are likely to find themselves outsider of their area of expertise at some point in time. When you find yourself on the margins of your knowledge, it seems smart not to pretend you are an expert. If you don’t feel qualified to assess the original source material, then by all means use a press release or a news story (although it doesn’t hurt to scan the abstract). Just make it clear to you readers that you are commenting on the press release.

It’s a little different when you have some sort of “expert knowledge” (or are willing to bring yourself up to speed on the topic). In that case, if you have the time, you should really look at the original paper (provided that you can get access to it). Obviously you won’t always have the time to do that. But if you have the time, you should really go to the original paper and try to provide your readers with something better than the press release. Because, after all, one of the best things a science blogger can do is to try to present science to the public, to be an interpreter for people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading the scientific literature.

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