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My lab:
Listening to this week's Nature podcast I became aware of something I haven't read anywhere else so far. Since this issue of Nature (and the podcast) has "science journalism" as the theme and Maxine Clarke asked us to contribute some discussion, I thought I could write down what I was pondering about whilst listening to the podcast.
It was a comment from The Guardian's James Randerson, IIRC, which got me thinking, He was talking about the history of science journalism and how it was all gung-ho in the early days and now has matured more into a watch-dog of sorts. Well, I haven't seen all that many investigative reports that uncover fraud or expose a paper as hype. Now that may be because of my reading habits or because there is very little fraud or because it's only the hype that sells or some other reason. However, it may also be because the journalists have no chance of actually investigating anything. With yearly subscription rates for scholarly journals ranging between US$1200-3000 and about 24,000 journals, journalists face the same problem as scientists: they can never afford to subscribe to all the relevant journals in order to do a thorough investigation of whatever topic they're investigating. Some journalists tell me they don't have access to any journals and have to go by the press-releases! No way any journalist can be a watchdog without information. So what can the journalists of today do who want to investigate? They have to call the scientists up. Either the scientists who did the study in question, or colleagues, to get other opinions. All of this is, of course, the far worse option than to read the literature and form your own opinion.
I agree with James Randerson that science journalists didn't used to be watchdogs. I tend to believe in the vast majority of cases, they didn't have to. Given the current pitiful state of affairs in science, I regret to say, journalists may have to assume the watchdog role. For one, we have way too many scientists for the few positions and thus tremendous competition not for fame, but to put food on the table. This situation is aggravated by a publishing system in which it is more important where you publish than what you publish. That one publication in a high-profile journal can decide if a scientist will get tenure at a university or has to flip burgers. Given that fraud rarely is detected in a way that has any serious consequences for the fraudster, once he has achieved tenure, we have a system that provides all the incentives for fraud, even for people who would otherwise never dream of committing anything like that. It is very conceivable that the rate of scientific misconduct is in the middle of scyrocketing right now.
As deplorable as it might seem, if we don't change the way we hire our scientists and remove the incentives for scientific misconduct, we will soon be needing a science police. Journalists are well-trained in science and are in a unique position to fill the role of a science police. In order to police scientists, to be the watch-dog James Randerson talked about, journalists need access to all the literature. However, I don't see journalists demanding that access, yet.This is the more timely as science bloggers are also moving somewhat into this direction. Many science bloggers work at scientific institutions and have access to a lot of journals. In fact, I recently blogged about a paper in Nature myself, where a crucial citation and crucial control experiments were missing. Science journalists will not be able to compete without open access to the scientific literature.
Posted on Friday 26 June 2009 - 13:20:14 comment: 0

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