ANALYSIS & OPINION

Scholarly publishing: a journalist's perspective

Siân Harris spoke at last week’s ALPSP conference about the challenges for science and technology journalists of accessing scholarly content. See her slides here and read the transcript of her talk, including recommendations for publishers and researchers

There is much talk about access to scientific research articles. What seems less talked about is the way that many people – members of the public and researchers – find out about the latest research, especially outside their own specialism, via science and technology journalists.

It’s no secret that even the best written papers can be a dull read, with the exciting parts buried at the end of the article with little to signpost the non-expert reader which is the bit worth reading and why.

Expert journalists play an important role in decoding the science and helping others to understand what has happened and what the implications are to them.

Inevitably, people will be able to point out examples of exaggeration and misunderstanding – a classic example is the scare about MMR vaccinations a few years ago that led to a drop in childhood immunisations and rise in cases of the illnesses a few years ago. However, there are far more good examples I believe. I think the extensive coverage of the recent Higgs Boson research meant that most people will at least know that ‘something interesting has happened at CERN’ – and led to the slightly surreal Higgs particle made of umbrellas at the Paralympics opening ceremony.

For researchers as well, reading magazine and web articles is an easy way to keep up to date with trends in their subject area and exciting new developments. Time and again in writing for Research Information I come across the issue of information overload; if researchers tried to read everything that was published in their field and beyond they wouldn’t have time to do any research. Articles by specialist journalists provide a filter and a snapshot of the research landscape.

Given that science and technology journalism has a role as a bridge between published research and readers it seems to me that there are some ways that this flow of information could be improved.

Who we are

In considering how scholarly publishers and journalists can work together I think it is useful to consider who we are. Overwhelmingly the science and technology journalists that I know have very similar backgrounds to journal editors and other journal-related jobs – science or engineering degrees, PhDs and often post-doctoral experience too.

The same personality traits of desire for good grammar and scientific accuracy come into play in both roles. Where we differ is in timescales and commercial pressures. We often work to much shorter timescales and our publishing models are different.

Research Information is not really a scientific publication but one step removed from that. However I have written for many science and technology publications in a range of scientific fields for many years. In preparing this presentation I also crowd sourced views from a number of other journalists that I know in a range of fields, both employed by publishers and freelance.

How we work

The session [at the ALPSP conference where this talk was given] is entitled ‘News of the World’ so I’d like to take the opportunity to point out some ways that we don’t work.

For the record, I’ve never listened at doors for a big gold-green open access bust up, tapped the phones of people considering copyright exceptions, rummaged through the bins of any publishers or dressed up in disguise and bribed librarians to tell me which journals they intend to boycott.

Instead, we have more reputable sources of information. A common primary starting point for journalists is to look at press releases. Some early filtering – beyond what is done in the editorial and peer-review process – is done by public relations departments. Press releases can come from journal publishers or from universities or both. Most people I spoke to gave the press release sources Alpha Galileo and EurekAlert as their main sources, in addition to press feeds from a few selected journals such as Science and Nature. Such press releases will generally point back to the original paper and may include instructions about gaining access to the paper.

When I have the time, I find journal tables of contents useful  for finding out about new developments, although nobody has time to look at all of them. Discovery tools are also great to find contacts for an overview of research area.

Whether scientific papers are found through web searches or press releases or another way, they tend to be used in two main ways. The first is to write a news story about a new piece of research. This is based on one piece of research. The angle is that it’s new and we might interview the researchers to find out what they are working on now and their plans. The research reported in the paper is likely to have been carried out quite a while ago by the time the paper is published and often there are new and exciting developments to extend that research.

The other way is as a source of contacts for researchers working in a certain area to interview about that research area. This is found by searching keywords and  looking at other research cited, often from the start point of a few interesting and related press releases.

There isn’t time to cover everything in detail but there are, of course, other great sources of information. Conferences are a great place to insight into the latest hot topics. After all, that’s why I’m here!

Personal communication is another great way to get good stories. Some of the people I spoke to in the run up to this talk told me about researchers sending them copies of their papers directly – although sometimes not realising that this is better done straight away rather than waiting a few months when their research has become ‘old news’.

Depending on how applied the field is, patent applications are also a great source, particularly as so much is available freely online. I found this a particularly useful source when I used to write about mobile telecoms networks.

And then there is corporate news. This is useful, particularly for more applied research that is more likely to be patented and kept secret until nearing product launch.

It would also be foolish for a publication not to keep an eye on what their competitors are publishing. I tend to include following blogs in the same category and I read them in a similar way. I believe that this is also a way that lots of science stories published in specialist titles end up in the mainstream press – and then turn up again and again in different newspapers.

Limitations

There are limitations with the information sources available to science journalists today. Press releases are a good starting point for quick stories and ideas. However, sometimes press releases can give an unusual or inflated angle. Those from journals tend to be fairly accurate on the topic of the paper although they do understandably promote the journal. I’ve found that there is likely to be more spin where a press release comes from a research institution or funder.

For example, I had a press release about a year ago for an event that I was writing about that stated that numbers of students studying a particular course had dropped by something like 42 per cent from 2002 to 2009. As the press release was dated 2011 I was intrigued by the date range chosen. Looking at the raw data published on student numbers it became clear why – the number had reached an all-time high in 2002 having been much lower in 2001, while the number for 2009 was quite a bit lower than the figure for 2010. The story was still interesting but not sensational in the way the release suggested.

Of course research papers themselves aren’t immune to this type of spin with the way data is presented. I read an abstract the other day that proudly boasted that since the 1970s some quantity had risen from 'not much more than a third' to 'nearly 40 per cent'. The growth may well be interesting but its scale is misrepresented by the choice of language used.

Press releases are also not comprehensive. They only include the research selected to be shared, which might mean some more relevant research is not included. Also, I’m noticing an increasing trend towards PR firms selecting certain press releases to send to certain journalists, which I find frustrating. In addition, not all journals send out press releases.

There is also sometimes a reluctance to share things with certain journalists. Some of this is related to access issues.

Access issues

One of the most common replies to my question: ‘What challenges do you face?’ was ‘access to journal articles’. Only two people didn’t flag this up as a problem: one because they only really write about corporate research and news; and the other because their publication is essentially the news face to a scholarly journal and therefore they have a close relationship with the journal team and similar access to the scholarly literature. Science communicators I spoke to reported similar problems with access.

I am luckier than most in this. Thanks to my role on Research Information I have good contacts with people in many big publishers and so could probably send a quick email and get access to an individual paper without huge problems. For a journalist simply trying to negotiate online forms etc this can be a more lengthy process. Also, it’s not ideal that every bit of access negotiation has to happen separately and then may or may not be successful in resulting in a useful article. What’s more, often you don’t know whether you need to access a paper until you have access.

This is a challenge for specialist journalists. I imagine it’s even more of a problem for the reporter of a daily newspaper who might simply find themselves on the science desk that day with a requirement to produce a certain number of stories.  

There is also a risk of bias towards free stuff. I have found in the past that it was easier to find out about the latest research published in open-access journals from other publishers than in the subscription titles published by the publisher I was working for. From talking to other people I hear that similar challenges of internal communication still apply. It seems that the step of a quick email or face-to-face chat between a journal editor and a journalist in the same company saying ‘we’re just about to publish a really interesting paper’ is often missing.

Similarly, publications owned by universities or funding bodies can also miss out on being told about ground-breaking research coming out of their own employer. Sometimes this is even strategic: a belief by the organisation’s PR department that their own colleagues are lower down the list of journalists they want to impress.

This failure of internal communications isn’t really surprising, of course. Communication and knowledge transfer between different departments, with different management teams and budgets is often poor. A simple conversation with a local tax office is enough to underline that point.

Interestingly, I think more than access to specific articles I’d value access to reliable discovery tools to find potentially-useful papers in the first place.

Geography

Geography is another challenge. Now it’s probably reasonable at this point to confess a potential bias: I’m British, I live in the UK and my mother tongue is English. To be honest, this puts me in a good position for finding out about what’s going on in Europe and in English-speaking countries but some places pose bigger challenges due to geography, time zones, language and culture. When I asked some other journalists about this, the responses were very similar and I feel confident to make some generalisations:

One of the easiest places to find research stories from is the USA. It has a high research output, use of the internet is very commonplace, publicising research seems to be an important and routine step for research institutions and researchers are by and large easy to get hold of and happy to talk. One comment about US universities was: ‘They have marketing people all over the place and they make sure the message gets out. Their press releases are always detailed and informative’.

Universities in Europe do not seem quite as good at routinely sending out press releases for interesting research published or making researchers available for comment. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of this, and the involvement of the EU in publicising Europe-wide projects helps.

The UK comes above the rest of Europe in my list for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s the obvious issue of language. Secondly, for people like me, there is simply the issue of being here. More than once I’ve found out about some interesting research simply by being in a pub with friends and getting talking to the researcher.

Germany is also a great source of information about new research. As one of my contacts said, ‘Germany has a long tradition of engineering excellence and therefore just seems to produce an amazing amount of high-quality research.’

Interestingly, not all English-speaking countries are easy to source stories from. Australia and Africa, which includes many English-speaking countries, were singled out as being more difficult sources.

And here are the regions that are harder to find information from: Asia; Africa; South America;  the Middle East; and Australia. Looking at this list, I feel frustrated to notice that, really, this is most of the world and includes some very significant regions in terms of research output.

The reasons are diverse. Some countries have relatively small numbers of researchers. Time zones also play a role. Trying to speak to a researcher in Australia for somebody in the UK is a logistical challenge and interviews by email take several days simply because of the time difference.

In other cases, language and culture present bigger barriers. There’s no denying that anyone keeping an eye on global research needs to pay attention to what’s going on in China and Japan. However, it can be very hard to find the initial research – through language, fewer international press releases and articles published in national journals. In addition, whereas a phone interview with a researcher in the USA might go on for half an hour to an hour and result straight away in lots of great quotes and insight for an article, an interview with a researcher in East Asia is likely to be via email and require several iterations before much information is exchanged – thanks I believe to a combination of language issues and cultural differences.

One contact particularly noted Arabic-speaking nations as hard to source stories from. He said: ‘I can find the research easily enough once I know what I'm looking for, but blogs, news etc most often tends to be in the native language, so it never seems so “present”.’ 

Communication skills

There can also be wider issues with researcher communication. These issues are, of course, not applicable to all researchers but there are definitely situations where it is a challenge. I’ve also experienced people who are very nervous about being interviewed by me, even when I was in my 20s and fairly new to science and technology journalism and the interviewee was CTO of a multinational company.

Media embargoes

Another issue with media access to scholarly papers is media embargoes. I have mixed feelings on this – and were differing opinions amongst the journalists I spoke to about this too. One person commented that they are useful because they give time to research and write a story properly. I used to agree on this. However, my views have changed somewhat over the past decade and now I’m in more agreement with the last perspective. Trying to remember what I’m supposed to make live and when is another piece of information overload – and there is the risk of forgetting.

Information overload

Information overload is a big issue for journalists too.  When I asked the question: ‘How do you manage your sources of information ?’ one reply succinctly illustrated the problem  with the response: ‘I don't....’.

Trying to keep track of sources and have time to do interviews and write stories is a challenge. I don’t have a solution – other than cloning myself – but it does seem to be an increasing challenge.

However, I argue that we need to manage it ourselves – one of the frustrating things that I find is where companies instead of having a mailing list for all press releases deputise a PR firm to filter and select relevant releases for particular journalists. While I appreciate the intention, there is the risk of missing something important because the PR firm does not have the full picture of what else I’m working on or following.

One of the questions that I think it still unanswered is whether social media can help or hinder the process of dealing with information overload.

Social media

I find LinkedIn quite useful for keeping track of contacts, especially as people change jobs. However, I already find myself overwhelmed by the amount of content that comes from the five or six LinkedIn groups that I follow.

For the past few months I’ve been engaging more actively on Twitter as myself (in addition to tweeting as Research Information). I can’t say it’s made the information overload situation any better but it does give me more of a picture of what people are concerned about – and I’ve already commissioned four articles following on from discussions and leads on Twitter.

As a tool for journalists I think it has huge limitations though. It is hard to organise and the level of comment seems hugely outweighed by the numbers of retweets or simply links to other things. I also struggle with the asymmetry of it. Being a big user of Facebook (entirely socially) I find that I still have not got used to the fact that the people whose tweets I read are not the same people who read mine – and, even for a journalist used to trying to say things in as few words as possible, the character count is too low.

Talking to a few other science and technology journalists though I feel like I’m a comparatively early adopter with my 150 odd tweets so far. All of the replies I had to my question ‘How important is social media in finding stories and sources?’ were some variant of ‘don’t really use it but probably should’ or ‘tweets come from original sources I already follow’. It seems that social media is used socially but not seen a good source for research news.

Recommendations

With so many challenges and, presumably, an interest from publishers and researchers in getting their research covered more widely, what can they do to help the process?

Firstly there are some recommendations for publishers:

  • Distribute more press releases. As one contact said: ‘There should be systems in place so that whenever a researcher has a paper published, even if it’s in a tiny, niche journal and the advance is incremental, they should issue a press release. They cannot expect journalists to stumble across the research by themselves.’
    Another comment was: ‘Some academic journal publishers send out a monthly email press releasing a few top stories in their journals - this is very useful. Other publishers press release a few journal papers via EurekAlert (as do the research institutions themselves), which is helpful, but more likely to get lost in the noise.’
  • Send releases to everybody who has expressed an interest in receiving them.
  • Make it clear who journalists should contact.
  • Include relevant URLs.
  • Ensure that headlines are in the subject of emails. I get a surprising number of emails with the subject ‘Press release’ and the text in the email reading ‘Please find attached our latest press release’. This is about as uninformative as you can get.
  • Easier access to scholarly papers and good discovery tools would make an enormous difference, especially if they could be combined.
  • Another issue that I find is that the search facilities on publisher websites is often limited to the scholarly content. This is a limitation for me on Research Information as I often search for corporate information.
  • The final suggestion is to provide high-resolution images where possible, downloadable from a website without barriers. It’s amazing how important a good photo is.

There are suggestions for universities and researchers too:

  • The first is to provide training in communication. As one journalist explained: ‘What is the point of doing amazing work if you cannot communicate it to people (even your peers)? This training should not be voluntary – it is those researchers who think “oh, I am brilliant at communicating, I don’t need training” that need the training most of all. It should be part of an undergraduate degree and then again at post-graduate level and most of all at group-leader level.’
  • It is also important not to be frightened of journalists. We shouldn’t be the enemy. Our aims are not to try to catch people out but to communicate about the research and help others not involved in the field to understand what is going on and how it might apply to them.
  • Interviewees should feel free to ask if you can check facts or quotes but be prepared for the fact that journalists may – and are very much allowed to - say 'no' or only give you a small window of time to do so – journalist deadlines are very short. 
  • Also, researchers or universities should publicise when they are talking at major conferences as this signifies their work has more mass appeal.

Conclusions

In summary, journals and journalists need to work together. There is also a need for better communication and understanding and to break down red tape for press access. My vision would be to have some sort of authenticated discovery and access tool especially for accredited journalists. Perhaps this is something that an existing discovery service could be involved in or a new company. Such moves should help scholarly research developments to be reported more accurately and more often.

This session generated plenty of questions and private discussions at the ALPSP conference and revealed to me a willingness for scholarly publishers to work more closely with science and technology journalists and perhaps also a lack of awareness amongst writers of what could already be available to them, although perhaps not always in an easy form to use. I am interested to hear your thoughts at sian.harris@europascience.com or on Twitter at @researchinfo or @sianharris8

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