Even in today’s world of ubiquitous communication tools, it’s rare for research scientists to communicate their work directly to the public. Newspapers and other media outlets are our unofficial science translators, sifting through studies and jargon to present readable summaries of selected science news to the public.
There are two problems with this disconnected approach. The first is that the media often tends to inflate the relevance of science stories in order to make these stories more interesting to their readers and viewers. For example, the discovery of new viral mechanisms might be presented in the context of being a future cure for HIV. These exaggerations can lead to misunderstanding by the public, and also false expectations.
A second problem is that press releases are often used to quickly claim ownership over findings, especially in highly competitive fields. If this publishing decision transpires too quickly—without enough time to carefully scrutinize, review and edit findings and conclusions—the result can be increased errors in both the research and in press reports of this research. Is this happening? The retraction rate for journal articles has been increasing over the past 30 years. The exact reasons for this increase are unknown but have centered on two possibilities: that pressures to publish have led to more scientific misconduct, and that flawed manuscripts are being identified more successfully today than in years past. Is it possible—although this hasn’t been researched yet—that increased retractions might also be due to researchers rushing to gain publicity? That is, the pressure to publish may be producing more bad papers, but it might also be producing more bad communications decisions—a need to produce (or contrive) media-worthy stories, and to publish these stories quickly in order to reap the benefits of press in terms of tenure evaluations, grants, intellectual property, and so on.
Heading down the publishing path prematurely can lead to even more problems. When the media reports a new study that challenges a previous one, authors of the original study are pressured to issue a quick and potentially misbegotten reply to avoid looking like they have been stumped. In these situations, scientific discussion is reduced to a series of comebacks tossed around to persuade a science hungry public. If this “debate” is further complicated by exaggerating the scope of the research, the original message of both studies may be lost in translation. Instead of boosting science’s reputation, these mishaps may actually create the perception of declining scientific integrity.
Both of these phenomena—the media’s intermediary role and the research scientist’s poor publishing practices— illustrate the press’s powerful ability to mediate and even direct scientific discussion. This is not to say that the press has been a negative player in science communication. Quite to the contrary— it is a very powerful and necessary partner in helping spread the gospel of science. But using the press effectively without compromising integrity requires more care. Improving the media exposure of science is important, but we also need to make sure that when we follow this course we aren’t making short-term gains at the expense of long-term damage to science.
Tony Shan is a Junior studying Biology at Duke University, concentrating in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomechanics. Since his freshman year, Tony has been doing research with prominent faculty at Duke and he is currently studying antitumor efficacy of immunotherapy in the Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program. Tony also writes for the Health & Science Section of The Chronicle, Duke’s student run newspaper and enjoys writing to bridge the gap between research and the public. In his free time, Tony volunteers at the Duke Cancer Center and plays guitar.