Taking science journalism “upstream”

row of boatsToday I spoke at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel session curated by David Dobbs and also featuring Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism. This is the typed-up version of my talk, along with links and extra bits of context.

As the academic on the panel (not to mention the only one that isn’t, shhhh, in any way a journalist) I thought I’d focus on an idea: an invite to take things “upstream”.

That probably sounds dirtier than it should.

The term “upstream” is (a) a metaphor and (b) jargon. Both of which I apologise for. The concept has been incredibly influential in the engagement end of science communication work. Science communicators use it all the time, they even tell each other off when they’re “not upstream enough”. But has never really carried through to journalism.

In essence, it’s an argument for showing more of science in the making, not just waiting for publication of “ready-made” peer-reviewed papers.

Imagine science as a river.  Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting. Let’s not get too carried away with this metaphor though, or we’ll just end up with boring stories about scientists going rafting (it also relies on what is, arguably, an over-linear model of science, but that’s a whole other argument).

The term “upstream engagement” has various antecedents, but really stems from a (2004) report from think-tank Demos, See Through Science, by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis. They argued that science communication initiatives had become over-dominated by questions of risk, which they felt, was too late in the process. The March 2006 POST note (pdf) provides a good example of the difference between early and late (upstream and downstream) engagement, drawing on reactions to GMOs. It refers to a 1994 consensus conference funded by the BBSRC and held at the Science Museum anticipated issues surrounding genetic modification (GM) of plants and involved publics at an early stage. In comparison, they argue that the 2003 GM Nation project, although government-funded and promised to take up recommendations, it was “too little, too late” (POST, 2006: 2). GM Nation asked people to respond to what had been delivered to them, whereas the 1994 event had given people access and, simply, insight into what might be delivered.

Wilsdon and Willis were heavily influenced by Stephen Hilgartner’s (2000) book about US science policy, Science on Stage, and echoing this they have a lot of fun with theatrical metaphors:

The task of upstream engagement is to remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden. In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004: 24)

I should note, the idea has its critics, e.g. Dick Taverne’s letter to Nature or, somewhat more thoughtfully, William Cullerne Bown. Still, these are exceptions. Listening to some of David Willetts’ statements on public engagement, I suspect he is a fan of working upstream (or is at least has been briefed by someone who read that POSTnote).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that journalists haven’t really taken it up though. The idea of upstream engagement is to fix problems in the relationships between science and society. The government like this, clearly, so write POSTnotes and fund things like ScienceWise, but it’s not the business of journalism to deal with it. They just want to sell papers. They have their own rules to play with (c.f. Andy Williams’ reference to news values in the recent Times Higher piece on science writing).

But I think upstream science journalism offers something sell-able. It’s based on theatre after all. It swaps that cliché of “scientists have found” for “scientists are doing”. It focuses on “scientists find interesting”, “scientists wonder” or “scientists are excited by”. Actually, I’d hope it looses the sloppy generalisation of “scientists” and instead introduce researchers with rather less anonymity. That’s part of the point. It lets the audience look science right in the eye and see it in all its glory (beauty and wonder; warts and all).

I suspect people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it ista Evan).  Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry. But upstream science journalism can be done responsibly, and without tripping over patents or embargoes. Remember, the focus is more on the people, their ideas, worries and enthusiasms, not the results. Moreover, I  still want a place for “downstream” science reporting. The publication of a major paper is a news event worth covering. I’m not dismissing a creative, articulate, probing and context-bringing write-up of peer-reviewed research in the slightest. Done well, it can be a beautiful and important thing. There is also, I think, a lot to be said for what we might call “really, really far downstream” reporting: maybe we need more about what happens to science after publication. Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society (yes, that is a Latour reference and yes I have read Amsterdamska’s review).

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

I don’t think this call to move upstream offers something drastically new. I use it as a nice phrase to, I hope, encourage and focus attention in this area. I think it is already being done, and new media is making more feasible (and showing there is a market for). As Vincent Kiernan argued during last year’s WCSJ’s fight over embargoes, new media mitigates against what John Rennie called “Big paper of the week syndrome”, the reliance on cycles of “pseudo-news” about what happens to have been published in one of the larger journals (see also the embargowatch blog for fascinating tracking of these tensions).

My favourite example has to be this video of the ICHEP conference hosted on the Guardian. I’ve also noticed recently that Times health correspondent David Rose uses twitter not just to post links to finished pieces, but as news comes in. It’s also worth mentioning the interactive way Mark Henderson has used his twitter account in conjunction with the Times’ Eureka blog (especially during the election), as well as others who favour the “DVD extras” approach to blogging alongside traditional journalism. Further, the Guardian’s science storytracker gives insight into the evolution of a story, and it was interesting to see the the Guardian’s health team use their Datastore during the death rates investigation. In terms of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism, I think Gaia Vince’s blog is a nice example.

This death rates points us towards a possible pitfall: Ben Goldacre’s criticism of their stats, and more to the point, that such open data needs to come with “open methodology” too. As I said at the time, however, precisely because it is so complex, an approach which is iteratively discursive (rather than momentarily confrontational) is perhaps the most likely to succeed. There are also, in the business of journalism, matters of competition to be remembered: the worry of being scooped (perhaps beautifully demonstrated by this story). As with be careful of embargoes and patents (competition issues in science), I think it’s a matter of being careful, being clever and being imaginative. Maybe the tweeting of political journalists during the election is a nice example?

This sort of upstream work can be pretty niche. A nice example of that being exchange between Evan Harris and Jon Butterworth over “if” you wanted to know about supersymmetry. But that’s why it can work online, because you can find those niche markets (e.g. first comment on Jon’s post). We might similarly argue that it doesn’t provide news, but again the web might be of here, as people come to content at different times and through a range of routes: I think blogging has already started to blur boundaries between feature and news piece when it comes to science writing.

The niche point does, however, point us towards the best argument against upstream science journalism: that it’d would be boring. Maybe that scientists go rafting feature was a bit dull. But people write dull pieces based on research papers all the time. If a science journalist thinks scientists at work is boring, then I think they are in the wrong job. Similarly, if they think the ideas and knowledge of their readers is boring, I suspect they’re increasingly find they are in the wrong job.

I don’t think moving science journalism upstream will solve all its problems. Neither do I think the concept offers something drastically new: it’s already happening. Still, thinking about upstream as a one of the many possible new forms for science journalism might focus attention in a fruitful direction. Or maybe it’s a ridiculous mis-application of what is a slightly aging and rather self-indulgent idea in the first place. Tell me your thoughts.

EDIT (September 2010): You can see a video of the session.

EDIT (March 2011): I have been amazed by the way the online science writing community have taken to this – e.g. a mention in David Rowan’s speech on How to Save Science Journalism and, especially, the the newly launched PLoS blog Science Upstream.

73 thoughts on “Taking science journalism “upstream”

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  2. Evan Harris

    I must say that I agree with Dick Taverne in his letter to Nature http://bit.ly/by8k9T where he says…

    Your Editorial “Going public” (Nature 431, 883; 200410.1038/431883a ), like the think-tank Demos, supports the fashionable demand by a group of sociologists for more democratic science, including more ‘upstream’ engagement of the public and its involvement in setting research priorities. Demos goes further and supports a ‘needs test’ for licensing new products or services by companies. It also argues that we, the public, should know who owns and controls new technologies, and who benefits, before they are developed.

    If the Demos policy had been followed in the past, we would have neither electricity nor the laser, to name only two examples, because no practical uses were foreseen for either. As your Editorial admits, public-engagement exercises in the United States have led patient lobby groups to press the National Institutes of Health for less basic research and more drug development. Because of public demand, large sums are spent on developing drugs with Viagra-like properties rather than on medicines for people in developing countries, and a widespread public consultation exercise in Oregon has found strong opposition to spending limited public funds on AIDS or mental health.

    In practice, greater involvement of ‘the public’ in the ‘upstream’ development stage of science means involvement of special-interest groups. When the UK Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission was set up, the ‘public’ representatives were the chair of Greenpeace, the chair of the Soil Association, the executive director of GeneWatch and the programme adviser to the Green Alliance. No wonder the ‘GM Nation’ exercise in public consultation was a fiasco.

    Of course democratically elected governments must decide how public funds for science are allocated. Of course sensible consultation helps development of policy: the debate on stem-cell research in the United Kingdom was a good example. Of course more openness and transparency are to be encouraged where possible. But let us not display unthinking subservience to the principle of participation. In Britain, involvement by victims of rail accidents in deciding policy on railway safety has led to the investment of billions of pounds to save some five lives a year. Meanwhile, twice that number die on British roads every day. The fact is that science, like art, is not a democratic activity. You do not decide by referendum whether the Earth goes round the Sun.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Yeah, and I linked to that in the post Evan.

      I think Taverne misses the point. As Wilsdon says, Taverne is fighting a straw man. The key element of upstream engagement is to not to weigh down the scientist with public opinion, but enable scientists to reflect on the social and ethical dimensions of their work by breaking down false dichotomies of science/public and ‘bring out the public within the scientist’ (Wilsdon et al, 2005: 34-35. Emphasis as original).

      If you are interested in developing your own opinion, I suggest you take a bit of time to think about it, read the 2004 report, that March 2006 POST note and the one linked to above (and my post…?).

  3. Vivienne Raper

    When you mentioned boring posts about scientists and rafting during the session, I had a horrible sinking feeling. I have been blogging about scientists doing fieldwork and worried you were talking about this genre of science writing.

    I now realise you weren’t! And I wonder if upstreaming more would help get a broader range of research topics covered in the mainstream media. Someone pointed out, for example, that there aren’t many chemistry stories covered in the press. The interesting human aspects of scientific research can help make otherwise esoteric subjects (a lot of chemistry isn’t esoteric, but I hope you see my point) accessible to a wider audience.

  4. Evan Harris

    Thanks for this interesting post Alice – very detailed.

    You say “people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it is – ta Evan).

    My tweet [“..science must preserve process of prepare then publish”] was saying that it was poor practice of scientists to go public with work before PUBLICATION (let alone peer-review). This is because if it was a charlatan or over-claimer or someone merely seeking a short-cut to fame and/or funding, then
    a) it is difficult for fellow scientists to rebut
    b) for policy makers & politicians (who are already more sensitive to media stories than science publications) to withstand public pressure for a knee-jerk response.

    However good the journalism is, it is still more appropriate to take issue with the science as properly published than to start arguing with a journalist’s version of it which may be wrong (albeit perhaps after being led astray by the press office of the science institution).

    We should be urging science journalists (indeed all journalists who report science) to read (or check against) the paper not just the press release. Hard to do this when there is no paper.

    You then say “Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry.”

    1) But I am not criticising science journalists there am I? They will do what they will and good luck to them.

    2) And I would say that supporting the process of prepare, peer review, publish then publicise is being supportive of the integrity of the scientific method, rather than supportive of the publishing industry, but may be I have missed something.

    1. alicerosebell Post author


      Ok, fair points, certainly better than the Taverne ref…

      Firstly, on your point about not criticising science journalists – I didn’t think you were, sorry if you thought I was. Others have though in the past, and I think criticisms like this work as a form of “chill” (sorry, listening to David’s talk on libel at the moment…).

      On the issue of being supportive of the scientific method rather than the publishing industry – I think in this respect they have been conflated. That fight over embargoes at the WCSJ really is worth listening to!

      Maybe I wasn’t making myself clear re role of reporting of new science, if so I’m sorry (and I’m really sorry if you think I’ve misrepresented your views). I’m not talking about people reporting scientific claims – I’m talking about scientific ideas and work, which I want to happen more and in addition to the reporting of peer reviewed ideas.

      I think the point about reporting to policy is especially important, and I’m glad you raise it (equally, I think Ed made a good point about how upstream reporting is more problematic in health). Though I would also say there are other ways evidence does (and might) report to policy.

      James Randerson tweeted some ideas of what we might call upstream in environmental reporting. Worth thinking about these (including the problems in them, I’d add, I’m not sure where I stand on the whole climategate investigation thing, it’s a complex business which I haven’t made my mind up on).

      1. Ed Yong

        Yeah just to expand on the health thing (and btw, this is a small addendum on what is a very good post):

        I think there are some fields where upstream reporting should be avoided like the plague, and epidemiology springs violently to mind. Basically, if readers see that scientists are investigating X for a possible link to Y disease, then the natural assumption is to think that X causes Y. From a hypothetical correlation to causality in a single bound. I have seen people do this time and again. I have even seen people argue that the very fact a study is being funded implies that there’s probably a risk there; otherwise, why spend the money?

        1. alicerosebell Post author


          I share that worry, which is why I make the note about being done responsibly. Again though, I’d stress that upstream doesn’t have to be about the science – the X and it’s alleged dodgy relationship with Y – but the people doing this work (and that by arguing for upstream I’m not saying downstream shouldn’t be done too).

          As for people arguing that the very fact a study is being funded implies that there’s probably a risk there… that’s terrifying, and surely more reason why the processes of science should be communicated better, not hidden away?

          I’d also say that I trust you’ve seen a fair bit of what you worry about, but it is still anecdotal evidence. I wonder if it’s worth trusting the audience more than going, as Ruth says, “danger danger” (maybe I’m wrong to, I am just wondering).

  5. Evan Harris

    You say “If you are interested in developing your own opinion, I suggest you take a bit of time to think about it”

    I have thought about it but perhaps not as much as you or maybe I am just not as clever as you. Or may be we can disagree without calling each other (or Dick Taverne) under-thoughtful or under-informed. Btw Your link to Wilsden et al 2005 does not work.

    You say “The key element of upstream engagement is to not to weigh down the scientist with public opinion, but enable scientists to reflect on the social and ethical dimensions of their work by breaking down false dichotomies of science/public and ‘bring out the public
    within the scientist’”

    I just don’t think this is desirable, assuming of course it is not the emperor’s new clothes.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Link fixed.

      Sarcasm taken :)

      Ok, you don’t think it’s desirable. I do. I’m ok with disagreeing on this! I guess the difference of bringing the upstream idea from PEST (government funded and directed) and into journalism (more at hands of the market) is whether it’s what the audience want (not sure what I think about that by the way!).

  6. jonturney

    I think this is a small slice of a general problem: science is a process, not an event. News media are driven to try and present processes as events (which one can be “first” to report). So the plea to portray more of scientific process may make an impression on feature-writers, but is hard to respond to in a newsroom, I’d suggest.
    Interesting that Richard Holmes says at the end of The Age of Wonder that we need to understand science in the making… Perhaps books are still a useful way to tackle that?

  7. Kieron Flanagan

    Evan is missing the point and I always think it is sad that people like Evan and Taverne seem to believe that science is so fragile that it can’t survive any close examination or engagement. Evan says science is a method, central to which is peer review. But, despite Taverne’s disparaging use of the term ‘sociologists’ in his letter to Nature, many decades of empirical evidence has confirmed that there is no single, magical, scientific method. It’s a shame that people are unwilling to change their views when confronted with overwhelming (and peer-review validated) evidence.

    The other common view of science is as the stock of knowledge produced by the scientific method. Jon Turney is right to say science is a process, not a stock of information validated by the magic of peer review. It is probably the most successful process we have. Without understanding this human and social process, its strengths AND its weaknesses (and why is works so spectacularly well despite those weaknesses) then we can’t claim to ‘know’ science at all.

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  11. Khalil A.

    I think, as you’ve mentioned yourself in the post, that the upstream movement is indeed already happening. Blogs and micro-blogging like twitter are the obvious tools that propel upstream science journalism.

    Having said that, I think it should be pointed out that said tools are used mostly by the scientists themselves, right? I mean, they know about the science-in-the-making and they can properly blog/tweet about it. Science writers, I feel, are less connected to this science-in-the-making world and would always require the intermediary of scientists/researches who are actually hands-on inside the science movement.

    One of the things that has always attracted me the most about the science blogging universe is to get an insight of a scientists’ worlds. Where they work, what they do, how they do it, etc. Those scientists/researches who actually blog about these things are, correct me if I’m wrong, doing upstream science writing because they are telling us what’s actually happening. And that’s a good thing, because ultimately it increases transparency (at least in a rather superficial way) but also because it’s motivating to other people out there and gives them more confidence in how science does science.

  12. Ian Sample

    I think most science journalists/writers cover whatever they find interesting and what they believe their readers will find interesting. That’s the most important box to tick, and perhaps the only box to tick. It doesn’t matter whether it’s upstream, downstream or lying at the bottom of the stream.
    We wrote piles about the regulation of hybrid embryo research in the UK well ahead of the bill. We’re writing piles more about the potential state of the planet and its resources in 20, 50, 100+ years. We cover nanotechnology, which some groups want to make the next GM. We write about all kinds of highly speculative scenarios that academics think need debating because they might go pear-shaped in the future. All of these things are upstream, but are covered simply because they are interesting scientifically and often ethically, socially etc. There is undoubtedly a benefit in writing about stuff while there’s still time to debate it, and while people have a chance to intervene should they wish, but the most important thing is will. anybody. read. it.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      “will. anybody. read. it.”

      Yes, I think that is a key point. I also assume that you are a million times better at guessing this than me.

      I would also agree that sci journalists work up/ down/ middle/ under/ over any metaphorical stream I might imagine (I think this is a boring and overly-linear metaphor, I don’t want to get too stuck in it)

      It’s interesting you mention nano because that’s an area where a lot of the scientists and their press officers, etc have been heavily influenced by the idea of upstream engagement, so I suspect a lot of the sources you will have worked with in this area will be coming to you with a desire to act upstream.

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  14. hapsci

    Great post with interesting points. I do think that going ‘upstream’ would improve science journalism. I think the way in which science research is funded and run will not aid a push for science journalism to be more upstream. You mention embargoes and patents but new thoughts and ideas are also kept secret for grant applications. People in scientific research very rarely tell (in fact they only tell if they think there might be an opportunity for collaboration) anyone in any detail about their research plans, this is in fear of missing out on grants and papers due to someone beating them to it. So I think here will lie the barrier to improving scientific journalism by going upstream. 
    Personally I do not believe that anything is gained in the greater world of science by people being so secretive – but I do fully understand why at the moment they are. 

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  16. Kat Arney

    There’s an important point that tends to get sidestepped in these kind of discussions – Money.

    I agree with Ed and Martin’s assertion in the session that we’re in a “golden age” for science writing. But there is a growing trend towards devaluing the craft of writing (in all areas, not just science).

    People don’t expect to have to pay for good writing online any more, but writers still need to eat and pay the bills. How do we make this happen?

  17. Sophia Collins

    I think you’re making an excellent point Alice. And I think you’re meaning something slightly different to what some of the objectors are objecting to.
    As I mentioned on twitter, upstream reporting doesn’t have to mean unchecked and possibly wrong results being publicised. It means things like the press covering the switch on of the LHC, and before. Telling us about what was being built and why, what scientists were looking for, what theories had prompted it, what experiments they planned to do. What they hoped to find out and what it might mean.
    This is upstream coverage, and I do think it’s much more interesting, and makes the work of science much more part of all our worlds, than if we heard not a word about Cern until the day they find (or don’t) the Higgs Boson.
    As Keiron then pointed out, further upstream were things like the discussions on funding the building of the LHC, and why scientists wanted
    to do it. And I think those are legitimate subjects for public discussion and media coverage.
    Yes, Ian makes a good point, but I can’t help thinking that showing science as it goes along makes it more interesting, accessible and absorbing not less. People have the chance to wonder what will happen. A metaphor: Tell me that an imaginary person dies and I couldn’t give a stuff. But if a character in a book I’m reading, a film I’m watching dies I may be deeply moved.

  18. Mark Henderson

    Interesting post Alice — thanks. A couple of thoughts. First, I’d reiterate Ian’s point. The key issue is almost always whether you’re producing something that people are likely to find interesting. That, though, can mean all sorts of things. It can be the big finished paper, the result of lots of research. But I’d certainly argue that the processes of research, how it’s done, the stories along the way and the people doing the work can be interesting too. Indeed, one of the reasons we set up Eureka at The Times was to give us more of a forum for doing this sort of feature.

    I think quite a lot of science journalism actually fits into this “upstream” bracket. We’re writing all the time about preliminary ideas and results that “promise” this or “could lead to” that — full of plenty of caveats of course. Some critics, indeed, would argue that there’s too much of this!

    To think of a few pieces of my own recently, the story I did a couple of weeks ago on a collaboration between astronomers and breast cancer researchers (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/science/astronomy/article2686455.ece — paywall) would fit this mould. The whole point of the story is to illustrate that here’s an interesting interdisciplinary approach that might end up making a problem (interpreting pathology slides) more tractable. My Eureka feature on genetically targeted cancer treatments was also intended to tell the story of a work in progress (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/eureka/article7137890.ece — no paywall).

    Of course, the danger here is that (particularly in health) one risks providing misleading messages about what’s known and what’s not, and scare people about a threat that ultimately proves illusory, or raise false hopes. That said, though, many “finished paper” stories do the same thing — and it’s at least arguable that “upstream” stories (though using that jargon in an editorial meeting would quickly get you killed) can actually reflect the necessary caveats more appropriately if done properly. It’s easier to convey uncertainty when people aren’t yet claiming to have “found something”.

    The bigger weakness of science journalism at the moment is what you call the far-downstream stuff. It is very difficult to get this stuff in — except in those rare cases where a paper turns out to have been completely wrong or the product of fraud (think Hwang). Put simply, filling a paper with articles saying “that thing we reported the other week didn’t stand up” doesn’t light up editors’ eyes. The “idea no-one really knew about turns out to be false” story doesn’t generally cut it either. The stuff that doesn’t replicate tends just to be dropped.

    Once again, features of the type we can do in Eureka (and indeed blog posts) are often a better way to deal with this sort of thing. Ben Goldacre has been saying this for some time, and I think he’s right — I just wish there were more suitable platforms for such feature-writing that reach a non-specialist audience.

  19. Pete Wilton

    The LHC will destroy the world, hybrid embryos will create manimals, nanotechnology will turn everything into grey goo…

    As Ian Sample points out upstream science journalism is out there but it usually only happens when anti-science lobby groups stoke up controversy about the dangers of an area of science. I’d suggest such stories are mostly covered *not* because they are scientifically interesting (although of course they can be) but only because they are socially and ethically interesting and involve govt policy – something much more likely to get the green light from editors with a political background/without much interest in science.

    Fair play to journos & writers who piggy-back real science stories on such debates.

  20. Richard Jones

    I can understand why the position that democratic oversight of science should come from elected politicians, rather than more direct public engagement, is attractive to politicians like Evan Harris. But I don’t think this is tenable, for a couple of reasons. The first is the question of trust. People often talk about a crisis of trust in science in the UK, but I simply don’t think the evidence for this exists. The RCP’s “trust in professions” survey is helpful here (see here for a historical summary) – this shows trust in scientists has been gently rising since the early 90’s, and as of last year stood at around 70%. Where there is a crisis of trust is with politicians, who were trusted to tell the truth by only 13% of respondents (Evan can at least take comfort in the 92% who trust doctors). You could make the case that any crisis of trust isn’t with science, but by the way science is used by politicians (and big business), as illustrated by any number of difficulties from Nutt back to GM food and BSE. The second reason is that this position simply doesn’t reflect the reality of how science is actually shaped. We actually have a long-standing convention that politicians are not directly involved in the steering of publicly funded science – the Haldane principle, which justifies the funding of science by free-standing agencies like the research councils rather than directly from a government department. This doesn’t mean that there is no political input into the process in practice, or that it is only the scientific community that has a voice – and nor should it, in my view. Advice to research councils comes not just from scientists, but also clinicians and representatives of industry. In fact, the only people who haven’t had a voice are members of the lay public, and I don’t think this is right.

    As for the question of moving science journalism upstream, it seems to me that the importance of peer-reviewed papers to science journalism isn’t because of their fundamental importance in the scientific process, but because their publication provides a kind of pseudo-happening which allows the slow and ragged progress of science to be packaged in the event driven format that journalism requires (and it also owes something, I’m sure, to the fantastic effectiveness of Nature’s press office). I accept Evan Harris’s point that insisting on results being peer-reviewed offers some protection against weak and tendentious results, and for the kind of paper telling us that eating fish oil gives you cancer it’s clear that you would want to know that the statistics were done right. But, in truth, most papers aren’t actually that compelling as far as their actual detailed content goes; it’s the background assumptions and visions that the scientists are working with that are most interesting. So you could argue that good science journalism will already operate in an “upstream” mode if it hangs a story about those visions on a relevant paper.

    The reporting of synthetic biology is a good example. When it comes to it, there really haven’t actually been a lot of peer reviewed papers about synthetic biology at all (if you look up the papers of some of the most prominent spokespeople, there isn’t really a lot there). And even when there is a result – like the Venter paper earlier this year – it isn’t the technical details that the coverage concentrated on, but extensive (and often rather controversial and ill-founded) speculation about what it all implied for the future. But it did at least illuminate those broad visions and wider assumptions that motivate scientists in that field.

  21. Gozde Zorlu

    Hi Alice

    I was at your talk yesterday. Thanks for posting this.

    The kind of reporting that I come across most often is based on the research findings published in the big journals (Science, Nature, BMJ, Lance, Cell Biology etc). But that isn’t to say that upstream can’t be found – there’s quite a bit of it – re Mark Henderson’s comment.

    But a lot of the coverage, it seems to me, reports the latest ‘significant’ or ‘interesting’ findings. I’m led to believe that this kind of reporting distorts the public understanding of science – not as the river you describe it as but scientists suddenly making magical discoveries which are then published in the prestigious peer reviewed journals. The nature of science, the inquiry, exploration and hard graft put into the science is lost. The weaknesses and strengths of science are often overlooked too. This is partly why the NHS Choices website exists – to correct articles written by journalists on health stories based on scientific research. These articles tend to exaggerate miracle cure findings or promote needless scaremongering due to the lack of understanding of how science works. I think there was a recommendation in the Science and Media report for a similar service for general science stories, not just health?

    Journalists Toby Murcott and Colin Macilwain have authored articles published in Nature highlighting their frustration with this kind of reporting.

    Macilwain highlights the public’s lack of understanding of how science works. He describes the reporting of science as being:

    “misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process, and as a result is beginning to adopt a weary cynicism that can only rebound on science in the long run.”

    Macilwain then explains how the leaking of emails from the University of East Anglia has eroded public confidence in science as a result and he calls for the: “public airing of the strengths, weak- nesses and missteps that characterize scientific progress.”

    Dr Jim (@mentalindigest), a scientist and blogger, agrees with Macilwain: He says on his blog:

    “I would like to hear about the context, limitations and realistic direction of the [scientific] work being discussed. In short, a fuller, more rounded investigative piece, with input (and synthesis) from someone besides the original PR office.”

    Murcott’s suggestion is that journalists should have access to the notes/comments made by the referees reviewing the research as well as the final version of the paper published in the journal. This would enable journalists to report on science in a richer, far more compelling way – revealing the story behind the research findings.

    I spoke to James Randerson last autumn and he told me that he disagrees with Murcott’s priesthood analogy that many journalists report science straight from the journal press releases without placing the research in context. He told me that good reporters are highly selective of the research they report:

    “In some cases journalists do critique scientific work. They may not be able to go head to head with a researcher on the details of their field (although some specialists can and do so – Fred Pearce on climate change change comes to mind) but they can get others to pull a paper apart for them but asking for external comments on it.
    Journalists do a lot of intelligent sorting before the news story comes out. They discount tens of potential studies each day because they are suspicious of the findings, they use sub-standard methodology etc.”

    Alom Shaha, a science communicator and physics teacher, told me that it would be a really good thing if the public had a better understanding of how science works – he believes schools and journalism can play an important role in this.
    He explained one of the positive changes made to the national curriculum for science in 2006 was the introduction of “how science works”. I wonder how this is coming along and if it has/will lead to any positive developments?

    Just some thoughts. I had written a post on something similar – lifted pieces in this comment from that.

  22. Ruth Seeley

    Part of taking science upstream could work so very well – and is already working well, I think – in tandem with and facilititated by social media, where the idea (at least on Twitter and micro-blogging sites) is to provide incremental bits of information rather than a media release or press conference once a year. Have to agree with Ed Yong though – there are subject areas where danger! danger! would be my first reaction, especially when we’re talking about incremental process status updates, or when things are still at a very preliminary investigative stage – could well cause more problems than they solve.

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  24. Stephen Curry

    An interesting thread and post, Alice. I agree with much of what has been said above. Though focused on the work of journalists, I am interested in the contributions that scientists themselves can add to all this upstream activity.

    Part of my motivation to get started in science blogging was to try to lift the veil on the scientific life — not just to report on work in progress (though I am still wary of doing this in any detail for fear of queering the pitch for my papers and grant applications), but to give an account of the process. I don’t feel the need to go this in every post but occasionally I try to log an impression. In this I was much inspired by Jenny Rohn’s accounts of lab life at Nature Network.

    I’d like to see more scientists doing this sort of thing. Done well, it gives the public direct access (though there are perhaps better platforms for this than the scientifically-oriented Nature Network). But I guess also identifies useful points of contact for journalists looking for background.

  25. Joerg Heber

    Fantastic food for thought, Alice. In your post as well as in the comments there are plenty of interesting arguments made. So just a few additional remarks related to my position as a journal editor.

    One of my duties is precisely to go to universities and talks to researchers about what they are up to, what is happening in their area, and what people are working on. To find the news before the paper gets submitted (all of this confidential I am afraid). To journalists, researchers are afraid to talk too much about what they are doing right now for two reasons: journals (like my own) would not publish results that have been covered in the press as a result of the scientists directly talking to journalists (if a journalist comes across the story by other means, that’s fine!). But that aside, a serious issue is of course competition and patent issues. So even I don’t get to see all the exciting new results until submitted. Still, I think a lot of great stuff could be uncovered. An easy source would be conferences, where scientists report at least to some degree new results (although increasingly less because of the competition issue). Talking to other scientists at the conference about a certain talk then would provide a pretty good context.

    Finally, I like to add that many reporting of scientific results is too one-dimensional, focussing only on a specific result, and perhaps explaining where this research could lead to downstream. What I miss sometimes is a bit broader reporting of the context. What are alternative approaches beyond the topic of a particular paper, what is the bigger picture, not downstream if you like, but what is the landscape around you…

  26. Sophia Collins

    “To journalists, researchers are afraid to talk too much about what they are doing right now for two reasons: journals (like my own) would not publish results that have been covered in the press as a result of the scientists directly talking to journalists”

    This bothers me. In one I’m a scientist event, a scientist had been asked by kids what his results were and what he’d found out, and wanted to put up a graph to illustrate the latest ones, but decided he couldn’t for fear of prejudicing his paper being published. This is because of journals strict rules on exclusivity and first publication.

    And yet, showing those kids those early results (with caveats and discussion of what they might mean) would have been exciting, immediate and memorable for those students. They’d hopefully have felt welcomed in, and more personally involved in science. They’d also, very importantly, have got valuable insight into the process of science, and how scientists think and work.

    Now it seems to me that here the interests of science (in terms of connecting with teenagers here, or with the public in other cases) are coming off second to the business models and inflexibility of the journal publishing system. Is that the correct set of priorities?

  27. Joerg Heber

    Hi Sophia

    yes, you are of course, right, this is unfortunate that the scientists didn’t want to show results to the kid. As far as I am concerned, this would have been absolutely no problem. Don’t forget that many scientists show new and exciting results at conferences before they get published. In the next sentence of my comment (the one you did not include when quoting me), I said this would only be a problem if talking to journalists directly. Let’s not forget that from my point of view even publication on arxiv is no problem (i.e. if a journalist finds a cool paper on arxiv and reports on it, thats ok too, we just want to avoid intentional press contacts)

    For example, if you hold a press conference about some exciting results prior to submitting. Why would a scientific journal that intends to report on new breakthroughs consider a paper in a case when this has been already reported all over. And this is not limited to Science and Nature et al. Take for example the fuzz and confidentiality agreements related to the publication of the Ida fossil in PLOS1…

    The other issue are of course patent issues. But really, in a case where a scientist wants to show some kids (and not the world press) some exciting new research results, I don’t see nothing wrong with that! Tell that to the next scientist that uses this argument. But don’t blame them, there are a lot of misconceptions about this, and every time I give a talk to scientists I try to clarify this issue.

    1. Sophia Collins

      Hi Joerg,

      Yes, I take your point that publishers may actually be less draconian than this. It may have simply been that the scientist’s *perception* of the situation was the problem, not the publishers’ conditions. However, bear in mind that ‘showing the results to the kids’ meant publishing it on our website – which anyone in the world can access. Could that definitely not present problems for publishing in some journals?


      1. Joerg Heber

        Hi Sophia

        oh, I see. Yes, then it depends very much on the journal (and perhaps the editors). One could argue this is nothing other than a “conference website”. Personally, in my work I would not be bothered by such publication unless perhaps it is the proverbial cure for cancer…

        [apologies Alice for hijacking the comments section!]


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  29. scijourntraining

    Seems like I’m a bit late to the party, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your talk. I think the idea of upstream science journalism fits in well with some of the stuff in the BIS science and the media report about encouraging investigative journalism about science, and I’m keen that my role is partly about equipping people to write this kind of story, and not just about accuracy. Any thoughts on this much appreciated.

    Minor points on POST, since I’m on secondment from there – I think the link to the POSTnote should go to http://www.parliament.uk/documents/post/postpn260.pdf rather than the earlier report you link to. And it’s Parliament that writes POSTnotes, not the government – I’d love to think Willetts is being fed a diet of POSTnotes but I rather doubt it!

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      ta for the POST note clarification and link correction – that was the doc I wanted to link to, have changed.

      My only thoughts re your role is that I think science needs to learn about journalism as much as the other way around (again, equipping people for meaningful critique and collaboration as much as telling them off about accuracy). Hence point about sci journ taking itself upstream. Maybe things that blur boundaries b/n sci and journ are also good (as Stephen Curry implies), though I’d also say investigative work served by journalistic independence – there are advantages in keeping roles, knowledges and identities separate too (get outside perspective, freedom to criticise, etc).

      Also, the postnote thing was a joke (and, if I’m honest, a way of getting a ref to the postnote in – I’m a fan) Also, I did say that he might have been briefed by someone who had READ it, not that ministers are fed them (and, to clarify confusion of joke, I’m sure that in real life they’ve read a lot more than the postnote…). Sor-ry.

      1. scijourntraining

        Totally agree with that, and the stuff about sci journ going upstream reminded me of comments I’ve seen recently from scientists saying they have a higher opinion of journalists now because of pre-story twitter interactions. I’ve been wondering whether data journalism might be a good arena for scientist/journalist collaboration – seems like getting a good story out of a dataset has some useful similarities to doing a scientific experiment.

        (On the POST stuff, I was kind of joking too – we often wonder if anyone reads the damn things and it was nice to hear one referred to so positively)

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  44. Mckinley Auringer

    You could certainly see your expertise in the work you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart. “Everyone has his day and some days last longer than others.” by Sir Winston Leonard Spenser Churchill.

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