Futurity was officially launched on September 15th.
As an online research magazine, Futurity highlights the latest discoveries from leading universities in the United States and Canada.We're talking about press releases. Most of the information comes from press releases written by the "leading" universities. Does anyone see a problem with that?
Who is Futurity?
Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Rochester lead a consortium of participating universities (see list below) that manages and funds the project. All partners are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.
Futurity aggregates the very best research news. The content is produced by the partner universities, and submitted to Futurity’s editor, Jenny Leonard, (firstname.lastname@example.org) for consideration. The site, which is hosted at the University of Rochester, covers news in the environment, health, science, society, and other areas.
Carl Zimmer does. He rightly points out that universities and reasearch hospitals have a vested interest in promoting the work done at their institutions [Apocalypse Via Press Release].
What Futurity does do, however, is allow universities and research institutions to go straight to the reader. Originally, press information officers at these places wrote press releases, which, as the name implies, were things intended to get the attention of the press in the hopes that they’d cover something you’re doing. Futurity calls what it publishes “news,” but it’s still being written by employees of the organizations that are the subject of that news.This makes a lot of sense. I really like the fact that Carl is speaking out against the excesses of bad journalism and the gross misunderstandings of science education. He's exactly right about university press releases. They are entirely one-sided—don't look for balance from a PR department.
I have great respect for some public information officers; the stuff they write is, in some cases, wonderfully clear and informative. There’s good information to be had on Futurity. But I always treat press releases as a starting point. I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, “Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be.” Such things just don’t exist.
Not only that, most press releases are horrible. I think it's fair to say that many of the worst examples of science journalism come from university press offices. That's not to say that they're all bad. I've seen some pretty good examples from my own university and from some others, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
How soon we forget. Remember The Darwinius Affair?
You can't blame science journalists for getting their science wrong if they get it straight from the horse's mouth, right? Wrong! Read Carl Zimmer and learn how real science journalist should behave. They should investigate a story to see if the hype is justified.
Investigative science journalism is the subject of yesterday's posting by Bora Zivkovic over on A Blog Around the Clock. He points out that most science journalists do not investigate in spite of the fact that this is often what they claim to be doing. This is what distinguishes the average science journalist from the good ones, like Carl Zimmer.
That much we know. Where Bora and I part company is when it comes to press releases. Here's what Bora says ...
While we have all screamed every now and then at some blatantly bad press releases (especially the titles imposed by the editors), there has been generally a steady, gradual improvement in their quality over the years. One of the possible explanations for this is that scientists that fall out of the pipeline as there are now so many PhDs and so few academic jobs, have started replacing English majors and j-school majors in these positions. More and more institutions now have science-trained press officers who actually understand what they are writing about. Thus, there is less hype yet more and better explanation of the results of scientific investigation. Of course, they tend to be excellent writers as well, a talent that comes with love and practice and does not necessitate a degree in English or Communications.That's not been my experience. Just look at the main page on the Futurity website for examples of bad science journalism. As I write this, the top story is ....
Wonder drug may treat cancer, addictionThat's sounds just like the kind of story that could come from the PR office of a political party or the head office of a major pharmaceutical company.
UC IRVINE—A drug in development to treat cancer could have the added benefit of helping prevent relapse in people trying to overcome cocaine addiction.
In mice conditioned to cocaine, drug-seeking activity was inhibited faster and to a greater extent with sodium butyrate than without it, neuroscientists at the University of California-Irvine say.
"Our results are exciting because sodium butyrate taps into fundamental molecular mechanisms, providing a novel approach to understanding and treating drug addiction," says the study’s lead author Marcelo Wood, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior....