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On journalists copy-checking with scientist sources

Should science journalists solicit scientist sources to fact-check article content prior to publication?

Or do scientists have no more right to do so than, say, politicians previewing the latest criticism of their policies.

"Just try fact-checking with me, pal." The legendary Helen Thomas. Credit: helenthomas.org

I have to admit that I had not quite anticipated the magnitude of interest in these questions when I first wrote about the topic in late September at my Take As Directed blog on the PLoS Blogs network.

The backstory: I had been watching an episode of Vincent Racaniello’s excellent netcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV), from the the International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in mid-September. The first 35 minutes saw Vincent and Rich Condit turn the tables to interview Chicago Tribune science and medical reporter, Trine Tsouderos. Trine is perhaps best-known of late for her coverage of the faulty link between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome as well as the suspension of Dr. Mark Geier, a physician using a chemical castration drug to treat people with autism.

Trine mentioned in the interview that she often runs passages of complex science from her articles past the scientists she had interviewed for the piece. She doesn’t do so for approval or in any way to affect the tone of her writing but rather to be sure that she has interpreted the scientific findings accurate (my words, not hers).

The post was tweeted over 100 times and accumulated 110 comments from some of the top names in science journalism. A follow-up post asking for scientist’s to comment on their experiences brought further widespread interest.

By and large, most journalists agreed that very cautious pre-publication consultation with scientist sources was acceptable and often necessary, but with the ground rules well-articulated in advance. Others held that fact-checking is best done by interviewing a third-party not involved in the study being reported, a practice I see often, particularly for embargoes articles that give the writer enough advance time to conduct the interviews. A vocal minority held that a journalist should never ever run any content past a scientist interview subject.

The Guardian discussions
Shortly thereafter, the science desk at the Guardian hosted an op-ed by chief online editor for Nature, Ananyo Bhattacharya, who strongly supported this minority viewpoint. Aptly entitled, Scientists should not be allowed to copy-check stories about their work, Ananyo suggests that the story suffers particularly in the case of highly controversial topics. Guardian writer and blogger Martin Robbins pointed out in the comments that scientists can often be as ego- and spin-driven as political figures.

Yesterday, the Guardian hosted a counterpoint view from Drs. Petroc Sumner, Frederic Boy, and Chris Chambers from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. The professors held that science reporting is different: the extensive and anonymous peer-review process of scientific reports is not duplicated in any other realm. For example, with political reporting, the writer is serving the same role as peer-review does for science.

Update: Shortly after I put up this post Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus book and PLoS blogposted a most excellent synopsis of this discussion in the context of his current work teaching in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. Therein, he describes the psychologists’ op-ed as “a jaw-dropping mixture of ignorance and arrogance,” with reliance on the scientific-peer review system as, “the single worst argument in this whole debate.” My next paragraph sounds a bit weak in comparison.

Both articles have their merits and drawbacks. Some of the disagreement seems to arise from the definition of copy-checking or fact-checking. I think that all agree that any input from a scientist that alters the tone or conclusions of an article are unacceptable. Nor should scientists expect that a reporter is obligated to change anything in the article based on their review (as illustrated in the ground rules used by infectious disease journalist and Superbug author, Maryn McKenna).

If you’re not already tired from reading this recap, check out the articles and comments at the Guardian:

Just a final wry observation: the journalist Bhattacharya was kind enough to link to my original post and cite me by name in the second paragraph as “pharmacologist David Kroll.”

However, my scientist colleagues were only able to manage a hyperlink.

This post is also appearing today at my PLoS blog, Take As Directed, where this discussion first began.

Update #2 (12 October, 10:50 pm) – I don’t know how I missed this yesterday (oh yeah, work and family) but Emily Willingham at The Biology Files has an exquisite, orderly, and biting critique of Sumner et al.

Even less excusable is that I missed Alastair Dove writing at Deep Sea News way back on September 29 about Ananyo Battacharya’s article. Another great comment thread as well as Alastair’s twitter discussion (as @para_sight) with Ananyo.

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