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February 10 2011

19:00

On an embargo-driven beat, science reporters aim to build for context

The events that science journalists publish about most frequently are themselves acts of publishing: the appearance of research papers in peer-reviewed journals. Most journals embargo papers before publication, granting reporters access to unpublished work in exchange for an agreement not to report until the embargo is lifted. Embargoes give reporters time to study new research and seek out commentary from authoritative voices; they also allow journals to exercise power over reporters and to guard their control over the flow of scientific information. Reporters who break embargoes risk losing access to information about new findings, emerging technologies, and exciting discoveries — along with the chance to process and vet those findings to determine whether excitement is warranted.

John Rennie, the former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, is hardly alone in his frustration with the fickle and ever-shifting embargo practices of scientific journals. In a January 26 column in the Guardian, Rennie argues that embargoes encourage superficial and premature reporting on new science. “Out of fear of being scooped,” he writes, news outlets rush their coverage, “publish[ing] stories on the same research papers at the moment the embargo ends. In that stampede of coverage, opportunities for distinctive reporting are few.” As a kind of thought experiment, Rennie suggests that science journalism could answer with self-imposed embargoes, in which news outlets would agree not to report on new journal papers until six months after publication.

As Rennie admits, that isn’t going to happen. Instead, he encourages journalists to experiment with new ways of enriching reporting between embargoes, shooting the gaps with coverage that offers nuance and a broadened perspective from which to judge the significance of new findings.

Consciously looking for context

Having seen John Rennie speak about the problems of embargo-driven journalism at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference last month, British science writer Ed Yong cast about for a way to add context to his coverage of stem cell research, a beat he covers frequently for Wired, Discover, and New Scientist, among other venues. As Paul Raeburn reports at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Yong crafted a timeline to document the field’s major stories from the last few years. Using a free web-based timeline creator he found at Dipity.com, Yong assembled articles from major journals and coverage from science news outlets into an annotated history of the discoveries that have shaped the field. Yong calls his timeline a tool for “looking at the stories that lead up to new discoveries, rather than focusing on every new paper in isolation.” Posted at Yong’s Discover-hosted blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, the timeline is a rich and engaging piece of analysis. It also serves Yong as a resource for further reporting, giving him a baseline from which to judge the significance of emerging science before it comes out from behind its embargoes.

Yong’s tool offers another example of the future-of-context ideas we write about often here at the Lab — like explainer pages and building background into stories, issues that apply across all beats and topics. Similarly, Yong turns a tried and true model of information visualization — the timeline — into a tool for putting any given story in stem cell research into its proper light. And rather neatly, he does it with time as the axis — for time, after all, is precisely what embargoes are all about. It’s just one example, but it’s a conscious attempt to break out of the imposed news cycle of embargo-driven reporting.

The Ingelfinger Rule

In fact, science journalists are squeezed at both ends of the journals’ publishing cycles. In addition to levying embargoes, many journals also observe the so-called Ingelfinger Rule, refusing to publish research that has been reported or commented on elsewhere. Named for former New England Journal of Medicine editor Franz Ingelfinger, the rule was formulated to keep untested health-science findings from making their way into public sphere before being submitted to the peer-review process — what some call “science by press conference.” But the rule more obviously helps journals protect their revenue sources — and it is for this reason that it has been widely adopted by most science publishers, even those who operate in fields with no public-health ramifications. (The cost of those journals — $27,465 for a year’s subscription to The Journal of Comparative Neurology! — has even the most resource-rich libraries up in arms.)

Ivan Oransky agrees that Yong’s tool is a simple and effective answer to the challenge presented by the journals’ squeeze tactics, calling it “terrific” and “scalable.” Oransky, who is executive editor of Reuters Health and an MD on the faculty at the NYU School of Medicine, runs the blog Embargo Watch, where he covers the uses and misuses of embargo practices in careful detail (and which John Rennie praised in his remarks at the ScienceOnline meeting). And he echoes Rennie’s call for finding ways to do science reporting outside the restrictions imposed by journals. “Journals serve a purpose,” Oransky told me in an email, “by applying the imperfect but valuable filter of peer review. We’d all like to get away from such heavy reliance on them.” With embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule, he argues, journals exercise a “chilling effect on communication between scientists — many publicly funded — and journalists,” frustrating reporters who try “to move science reporting upstream to cover science before it’s in one of the journals.”

In science journalism’s crowded ecosystem, the double-barreled threat of embargo and the Ingelfinger Rule can have a deranging effect, pressuring serious news outlets to compete for scoops with online aggregators and casual bloggers. And as scientists themselves join the fray in blogs or through the social media, the veneer of decorum and collegiality imposed by embargoes is becoming increasingly illusory. On its own, an analytic tool like Ed Yong’s won’t break the deranging control that journals exercise over science coverage. But in striving to report on the practice of science as well as published results, Yong’s combination of web-based publishing tools and knowledgable reporting makes for a node on a promising timeline.

July 01 2010

07:54

Gimpyblog: A question of embargoes and science journalism

Embargoes on abstracts and publications from scientific conferences, in this case:

Journalists might not see the fuss here but scientific conferences are usually considered private events with great care taken over the ownership of data and the willingness of researchers to release it prior to publication.  Conference abstracts are often useful as they allow different groups of researchers to see if anyone in their field is following the same lines of enquiry as them so collaborations can be arranged, if these were to retreat behind security measures then it would make things a little bit more difficult for everybody.

Gimpyblog begins this debate of the purpose and sanctity of embargoes in journalism following accusations of embargo breaking against Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Leake – and posts defending his actions. You can read the back story here on Roy Greenslade’s blog, but it’s worth reading the comments on Gimpyblog’s post about the role of embargoes in science journalism and beyond.

Full post at this link…Similar Posts:



March 25 2010

10:21

Complaint to PCC raises further criticism of Sunday Times’ environment coverage

According to a report in the Guardian yesterday, Simon Lewis, an expert on tropical on forests at the University of Leeds, has filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) about an article in the Sunday Times.

The article published on 31 January, which alleged that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had made mistakes in a report on global warming, was “inaccurate, misleading and distorted”, according to Lewis, who says he contacted the newspaper before the story was published and has since written letters and tried to leave comments on the website.

Questions have been raised by several bloggers over the Sunday Times’ environmental coverage – particularly following reports that the title had been banned from receive pre-publication releases from some scientific journals for breaking embargoes.

The article at the heart of Lewis’ complaint and those that resulted in bans for the Sunday Times from PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) and JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) were written by Jonathan Leake, who recently responded on blog Embargo Watch, saying he was unconcerned about the bans:

As you can see, these press officers have claimed they have banned us from their embargo system but this is rather misleading because we have a policy of not signing up to these embargo systems. Since we are not part of them we can hardly be banned. The press officers in question do know our position and I would suggest their statements are knowingly misleading.

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March 05 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: Surveying the online news scene, web-first mags, and Facebook patents its feed

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The online news landscape defined: Much of the discussion about journalism this week revolved around two survey-based studies. I’ll give you an overview on both and the conversation that surrounded them.

The first was a behemoth of a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism. (Here’s Pew’s overview and the full report.) The report, called “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” is a treasure trove of fascinating statistics and thought-provoking nuggets on a variety of aspects of the world of online news. It breaks down into five basic parts: 1) The news environment in America; 2) How people use and feel about news; 3) news and the Internet; 4) Wireless news access; and 5) Personal, social and participatory news.

I’d suggest taking some time to browse a few of those sections to see what tidbits interest you, but to whet your appetite, the Lab’s Laura McGann has a few that jumped out at her — few people exclusively rely on the Internet for news, only half prefer “objective” news, and so on.

Several of the sections spurred their own discussions, led by the one focusing on the social nature of online news. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram has a good summary of the study’s social-news findings, and Micah Sifry of techPresident highlights the sociological angle of news participation. Tech startup guy Dave Pell calls us “Curation Nation” and notes that for all our sharing, we don’t do much of the things going on in our own backyards. And Steve Yelvington has a short but smart take, noting that the sociality of news online is actually a return to normalcy, and the broadcast age was the weird intermission: “The one-way flow that is characteristic of print and electronic broadcasting is at odds with our nature. The Internet ends that directional tyranny.”

The other section of the study to get significant attention was the one on mobile news. PBS’ Idea Lab has the summary, and Poynter’s Mobile Media blog notes that an FCC study found similar results not long ago. Finally, Jason Fry has some hints for news organizations based on the study (people love weather news, and curation and social media have some value), and Ed Cafasso has some implications for marketing and PR folks.

A web-first philosophy for magazine sites: The Columbia Journalism Review also released another comprehensive, if not quite so sprawling, study on magazines and the web. (Here’s the full report and the CJR feature based on it.) The feature is a great overview of the study’s findings on such subjects on magazines’ missions on the web, their decision-making, their business models, editing, and use of social media and blogs. It’s a long read, but quite engaging for an article on an academic survey.

One of the more surprising (and encouraging) findings of the study is that magazine execs have a truly web-centric view of their online operation. Instead of just using the Internet as an extension of their print product, many execs are seeing the web as a valuable arena in itself. As one respondent put it, “We migrated from a print publication supplemented with online articles to an online publication supplemented with print editions.” That’s a seriously seismic shift in philosophy.

CJR also put up another brief post highlighting the finding that magazine websites on which the print editor makes most of the decisions tend to be less profitable. The New York Times’ report on the study centers on the far lower editing standards that magazines exercise online, and the editing-and-corrections guru Craig Silverman gives a few thoughts on the study’s editing and fact-checking findings.

Facebook patents the news feed: One significant story left over from last week: Facebook was granted a patent for its news feed. All Facebook broke the news, and included the key parts of Facebook’s description of what about the feed it’s patenting. As the tech blog ReadWriteWeb notes, this news could be huge — the news feed is a central concept within the social web and particularly Twitter, which is a news feed. But both blogs came to the tentative conclusion that the patent covers a stream of user activity updates within a social network, not status updates, leaving Twitter unaffected. (ReadWriteWeb’s summary is the best description of the situation.)

The patent still wasn’t popular. NYU news entrepreneur Cody Brown cautioned that patents like this could move innovation overseas, and New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson called the patent “lunacy,” making the case that software patents almost always reward derivative work. Facebook, Wilson says, dominates the world of social news feeds “because they out executed everyone else. But not because they invented the idea.” Meanwhile, The Big Money’s Caitlin McDevitt points out an interesting fact: When Facebook rolled out its news feed in 2006, it was ripped by its users. Now, the feed is a big part of the foundation of the social web.

What’s j-schools’ role in local news?Last week’s conversation about the newly announced local news partnership between The New York Times and New York University spilled over into a broader discussion about j-schools’ role in preserving local journalism. NYU professor Jay Rosen chatted with the Lab’s Seth Lewis about what the project might mean for other j-schools, and made an interesting connection between journalism education and pragmatism, arguing that “our knowledge develops not when we have the most magnificent theory or the best data but when we have a really, really good problem,” which is where j-schools should start.

An Inside Higher Ed article outlines several of the issues in play in j-school local news partnerships like this one, and Memphis j-prof Carrie Brown-Smith pushes back against the idea that j-schools are exploiting students by keeping enrollment high while the industry contracts. She argues that the skills picked up in a journalism education — thinking critically about information, checking its accuracy, communicating ideas clearly, and so on — are applicable to a wide variety of fields, as well as good old active citizenship itself. News business expert Alan Mutter comes from a similar perspective on the exploitation question, saying that hands-on experience through projects like NYU’s new one is the best thing j-schools can do for their students.

This week in iPad tidbits: Not a heck of a lot happened in the world of the iPad this week, but there’ll be enough regular developments and opinions that I should probably include a short update every week to keep you up to speed. This week, the Associated Press announced plans to create a paid service on the iPad, and the book publisher Penguin gave us a sneak peek at their iPad app and strategy.

Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson and tech writer James Kendrick both opined on whether the iPad will save magazines: Anderson said yes, and Kendrick said no. John Battelle, one of Wired’s founders, told us why he doesn’t like the iPad: “It’s an old school, locked in distribution channel that doesn’t want to play by the new rules of search+social.”

Reading roundup: I’ve got an abnormally large amount of miscellaneous journalism reading for you this week. Let’s start with two conversations to keep an eye on: First, in the last month or so, we’ve been seeing a lot of discussion on science journalism, sparked in part by a couple of major science conferences. This is a robust conversation that’s been ongoing, and it’s worth diving into for anyone at the intersection of those two issues. NYU professor Ivan Oransky made his own splash last week by launching a blog about embargoes in science journalism.

Second, the Lab’s resident nonprofit guru Jim Barnett published a set of criteria for determining whether a nonprofit journalism outfit is legitimate. Jay Rosen objected to the professionalism requirement and created his own list. Some great nuts-and-bolts-of-journalism talk here.

Also at the Lab, Martin Langeveld came out with the second part of his analysis on newspapers’ quarterly filings, with info on the Washington Post Co., Scripps, Belo, and Journal Communications. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum drills a bit deeper into the question of how much of online advertising comes from print “upsells.”

The Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a provocative post contending that the distinction between creation and aggregation of news content is a false one — all journalism is aggregation, he says. I don’t necessarily agree with the assertion, but it’s a valid challenge to the anti-aggregation mentality of many newspaper execs. And I can certainly get behind Niles’ larger point, that news organization can learn a lot from online news aggregation.

Finally, two great guides to Twitter: One, a comprehensive list of Twitter resources for journalists from former newspaper exec Steve Buttry, and two, some great tips on using Twitter effectively even if you have nothing to say, courtesy of The New York Times. Enjoy.

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