Category Archives: research blogging

We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.

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The BBC Trust Report on Science

EDIT, July 2012: Slightly updated version for Open Democracy.

Last week the BBC Trust published their review of impartiality and accuracy in science coverage. This included research undertaken by my group at Imperial. My name’s on the front but I should stress that I only did a small part of the work. It was lead by my colleague Felicity Mellor.

This post isn’t in any way an extension of the report, or official comment in any way: it’s just some of my thoughts on a small part of it, a few days after publication. Please also note that I’m talking about our report (pdf) which is Appendix A of the full review. It’s also worth flagging up that it was a content analysis, and these can only tell you so much. A focus on content can lose the context of the making of the news, as well as its reception (something I think came out well in the recent debate between Ben Goldacre and James Randerson). However, studies like these can also flag up some fascinating points for further thought/ analysis, and challenge the sorts of assumptions we all make through our own everyday personal (and partial) consumption of the media. It all too easy to get annoyed by a bad example and generalise from that, a systematic content analysis can provide a more nuanced picture.

A lot of the news coverage of the review has focused on so-called ‘false balance’; the perceived problem of giving too much weight to fringe views in an (arguably misguided) attempt to avoid pushing one particular point of view. Just as a political piece might ‘balance’ itself with perspectives from left and right wings, a science story might, for example, include someone who is against vaccinations as well as someone who would advocate them. If you are interested in balance issue with respect to climate change, chapter three of Matt Nisbet’s Climate Shift report makes for interesting reading. I’d also add that Hargreaves and Lewis’ 2003 Towards a Better Map report on science news gives some historical context to the UK’s particular issues with respect to balance, in particular the way BSE led to framings of MMR (which one might argue, in turn, influences reporting of climate).

Our study was based on a slightly more diverse set of questions than simply balance though, as we tried to gain a detailed empirical grip on these slippery issues of impartially and accuracy. As a result, I think it threw up a rather more complex set of challenges too.

One of the key questions our work asked was who is given a voice in science news? What’s their expertise, where do they come from and – arguably most importantly – what are we told about this sort of context?

For a start, less than 10% of broadcast items in our sample included comment from those presented as having no specialist professional knowledge of relevance to the issue. Moreover, lay voices tended not to be run alongside expertise voices. So, that oft-made complaint that news reports rely on personal anecdote? Well, going by our sample, for the BBC this would not appear to be the case. It’s also worth noting that almost two thirds of the broadcast news sample – which included a lot of very short summary items – either relied on a single viewpoint or paraphrased alternative views. In items reporting on new research, this proportion rose to about 70%. So there was little room for alternative view here; to ‘balance’ or otherwise. I also thought it was significant that only about an eighth of broadcast news items about research, and almost two fifths of online news items about research, included comment from independent scientists (i.e. with no connection to the research being reported).

Whether you think any these various expert voices (when they were included) are the right ones is another matter though. You can’t just say scientists are the appropriate voices and that’s it. Simply being ‘a scientist’ doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on the topic at hand, and there are other areas of relevant expertise, especially when it comes to science policy issues. We had to think a lot about the rather large ‘other professional expertise’ category we considered alongside scientific, clinical, lay,  non-science academics and ‘unknown’. Other forms of professional expertise came from politicians, spokespeople for charities and representatives of industry. It’s important these experts are included in debate about science. For example, a scientist might be able to talk about their research, but know little about the policy surrounding it. Equally though, many scientists do have expertise of such areas as part of their research. It depends, which is rather the point about ‘a scientist’ being too blunt a description. We did notice a relative lack of direct comment from the UK government (less than 2% of items) as part of science stories, something I think is potencially worrying in terms of public debate over science policy.

Aside from questions over appropriateness of expertise being a rather slippery issue, there is very little information given about the expertise of a speaker. We found lot of reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. Personally I think we need to address this issue before we can even get on to matters of whether experts are the right ones or not. Although expertise may be implied through editing, and TV in particular can flag up institutional association and title, we rarely saw a contributor’s disciplinary background specified. Especially significant I thought, in broadcast reports about new research we found little explicit reference to whether or not a particular contributor was involved in the research being reported (online reports often refer to someone as ‘lead author’ or ‘co-author’). This lack of definition makes it hard for audiences to judge a contributor’s independence, whether they are speaking on a topic they have studied in depth or if they are simply working from anecdote.

(I do appreciate how hard it is to give this sort of context, but it’s still a problem).

One of the things I was personally excited to find out in the study was the institutional location of the voices of science. We found that they were twice as likely to be affiliated to universities as any other type of organisations. There are perhaps also questions to be raised about the geographical distribution of these. Cue headlines suggesting Welsh science is ‘frozen out’ by the BBC, but the dominance of researchers based in the South East of England might be a due to a range of other factors (e.g. concentration of ‘Russell Group’ universities there).

When it came to coverage of recently published research, it was also interesting to ask which publications they came from. Nature, the Lancet and the British Medical Journal accounted for nearly all journal citations in the broadcast news. As with the location of research institutions, this is perhaps understandable considering their status, but also lacks diversity. On the reliance of particular journals, Charlie Petit was quick to note how little the American journal, Science is mentioned compared to the British equivalent, Nature. We thought this was interesting too, and wondered if this was a UK bias issue, but seeing as we found more coverage from Science when it came to online and non-news samples, it could be simply be that Science‘s embargo times don’t fit so easily with the BBC’s broadcast news schedule.

If you combine the arguable lack of diversity of news sources with our concerns over the reliance on press releases it is tempting to think back to Andy Williams’ point, based on his Mapping the Field study, about the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the almost ready-made content the highly professional press teams at these elite publications and research institutions push out. It’s hard to tell the reasons for this sort of coverage from our content analysis though. These sorts of questions, I believe, require studies which consider the processes of news-making as well as the content (and while I’m talking about Cardiff research, I should flag up the great iterative and mixed methods approach taken by Chimba and Kitzinger in their Bimbo or Boffin work; inspiring bit of research strategy there).

Anyway, I hope that’s pulled a bit more out of the study, but it’s only scratching the surface. There is, obviously, a lot more in the report itself – do read it for yourself if you’re interested in science journalism. If I get time later in the week, I’ll do a follow up post on what we had to say about the BBC’s blogs (edited to add 29/7 done!). There’s also a great interview with Dr Mellor on the Imperial College site which runs through some of the key findings. Edited to add 27/7: and a sharp editorial in Research Fortnight about it too. Edited to add 18/8: and here I am on the college podcast.

(or, you can try the BBC report of the review, which is rather brief, but does include a picture of Brian Cox blowing bubbles)

Thatcher, Scientist

Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, don’t you know?

It’s one of those little facts that pops up in UK science policy discourse every now and again. Just this week, in a debate the Royal Institution on the structure of scientific careers, Evan Harris joked ‘how do we keep more women like Margaret Thatcher in science?’ (i.e. and out of politics…).

We don’t necessarily expect women to be scientists, or politicians. Neither do we expect politicians to be scientists. That Thatcher was all of these things occasionally pops up as a little titbit of trivia. It seems to fit a nice little sideline when discussing Tory science policy, or as a thread to the various stories surrounding the odd glamour of Thatcher’s public image. Newton invented the catflap. Einstein wore odd socks. And that ‘Margaret-Thatcher Milk-Snatcher’? Well, she was one of the boffins behind how to put extra air in Mr Whippy ice-cream! There was a wink to it in the a recent BBC drama about about her early political career. I wonder if it’ll make the movie?

For all it’s mentioned, the idea of Thatcher as a scientist is never really explored though. Until now, as historian of science and technology, Jon Agar has bothered to do a bit of digging on this, published this week in Notes and Records of the Royal Society.

The paper has two halves. Firstly, Agar talks about Thatcher’s pre-political career as a scientist. He then goes on to talk about her time in politics, in particular the ways in which her first-hand knowledge of the mundane, material, practical life of the working researcher framed decisions she made in the early 1970s, whilst Secretary of State for Education (minister holding science brief at the time).

Thatcher was a scientist for about a decade, at least if you include training as time spent as a scientist (which I guess you can). She studied science at school and then, in 1942, moved on to a chemistry degree in Oxford, working with Dorothy Hodgkin, and Janet Vaughan. Apparently she was a ‘good’ chemistry student, competent but more enthused by politics, and happy to admit that she probably should have studied law. After graduation, she worked for four years as an industrial chemist (at British Xylonite Plastics and  Lyons). He stresses that she was, as an industrial food chemist, in many ways a more ‘typical’ twentieth-century scientific figure than iconic characters like Albert Einstein. This overlapped with the start of her political career, and a photo of a lab-coated Miss Margaret Roberts (before her marriage), surrounded by bottles in a lab and pouring something into a conical flask, was used in a publicity campaign for the 1951 election.

That story about the airy icecream? Not true. Or at least Agar can’t find any evidence for it. It sounds like she mainly did theoretical work on soap making, and possibly some cake-filling quality testing (Agar, 2011: 4-5).

(Boring historians with their evidence, spoiling everyone’s fun. I’m pretty sure Newton didn’t invent the catflap either by the way, and the thing about Florence Nightingale and piecharts seems pretty dodgy. I have no idea about Einstein’s socks. Personally, I like to think he knitted his own, and don’t want to burst the illusion by actually checking).

However, Agar’s pulled out a narrative that’s a bit more intellectually nourishing than trivia about ice cream. And no, I don’t mean the cake-filling testing, though obviously I’m super-curious about that. He takes a story from reasonably early-on in Thatcher’s political career: science policy reforms proposed in 1971 by Lord Rothschild (himself, a biologist by training, and later research director at Royal Dutch-Shell) which stressed market forces, articulating the government as ‘customers’ and research communities as ‘contractors’. Thatcher, the minister with the science brief, was initially against these reforms, but changed her mind, a shift which Agar suggests may be part of the story of her move towards what later became known as ‘Thatcherism’.

The changes were not liked by the scientific establishment. The Royal Society argued they should be consulted, not just as a relevant professional association but because, as scientists, they should have autonomy from political direction. Framing Thatcher’s view on this in terms of her developing political philosophy, Agar argues that for her, science represented the best of the public economy: research councils were, along with grammar schools and Oxbridge, places where the public economy worked. Moreover, she saw it as a source for wealth, which for her, justified public spending. But this same justification made it a test case for her emerging views on economic liberalism: ‘If markets could work for science policy, they could work anywhere’ (Agar, 2011: 12). Moreover, because Thatcher had worked as a scientist, she understood it at a very mundane level; its nuts, bolts, labcoats, conical flasks and theories of soap production. As such, she was impervious to lobbying that of science as a special case, with special features, incapable of being understood by outsiders. As Agar concludes: ‘Thatcher, who lived both worlds [science and politics], saw no separation, in principle and in practice.’ (Agar, 2011: 13).

Poking at the idea that simply getting scientists and those with ‘an understanding of science’ (whatever that is) in parliament will necessarily serve the scientific establishment is, I’d argue, a much more interesting outcome of researching Thatcher the scientist than QI-style discussions of any involvement she may or may not have had in the production of cheap icecream. It also helps dispel the idea that politically engaged science in the UK is necessarily left-leaning (even if groups like Save British Science or individuals like JD Bernal might make it seem so). Scientists come in a range of guises. Thatcher had hers and it coloured her view. In many ways it’s a rather typical one even, if it doesn’t fit everyone’s preferred image of the scientist.

You can read Agar’s paper for yourself, there’s no paywall (edit: at least for this week). Moreover, it’s a very readable bit of scholarly writing, with a fair amount of dry humour and the odd moment of dramatic characterisation. There’s also an accompanying video podcast where Agar introduces the paper (because even publications in Notes and Records of the Royal Society have trailers these days).

Does my brain look big in this?

According to an oft-cited paper by Marcel LaFollette, a 1926 magazine once introduced an eminent medical researcher as a woman whose mahogany furniture “gleams”. From the same study, but a 1950 magazine, a senior figure in the Atomic Energy Commission was praised for sewing her own clothes. Later, via Dorothy Nelkin, Maria Mayer (Nobel physics prize, 1963) was described as “a tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother… her children were perfectly darling” and Barbara McClintock (Nobel prize in medicine, 1983) introduced as “well known for baking with black walnuts”.

In today’s more enlightened times, we see women scientists in an entirely different light. No longer do we look past the prizes, publications and other achievements to a gleaming kitchen table. No, we look at the woman herself and er, um… well, maybe we linger too long on certain other features of her femininity which similarly obscure her professionalism. I am referring, of course, to the emergence of scientific ‘totty‘ (or hottie, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).

To give you a flavour of what I mean, the following are descriptions of women scientists, from profiles of them written in the British press in early 21st Century:

shoes of teetering altitude […and a] miniskirt of dizzying brevity [she] may be Britain’s leading authority on the brain, but it is her physique that turns heads

We must mention the makeover […] accessorised, a sparkling intellect doesn’t get you in on to the pages of Vogue

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist […] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Lab coats, safety googles – and killer heels […] getting teenagers all steamed up over science

The above quotes (and historical examples) were all snaffled from a recent paper by media scholars at the University of Cardiff, Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger. Part of a larger project considering the representation of women scientists in UK media, this paper notes the attention given to women scientists’ appearance compared to men, as well as the slightly different places women are used to talk about science. This is a topic discussed by many science bloggers last July, following a thoughtful post by Sheril Kirshenbaum, but it’s interesting to see systematic research on the topic too.

Chimba and Kitzinger’s research was rooted in an analysis of 51 interviews with scientists, 8 of which were with women, pulled from a sample of 12 UK national papers between January and Jun 2006. They also explored profiles of Susan Greenfield and Kathy Sykes in more breadth. In addition to this content analysis, they collected data from 86 female scientists about what they liked and disliked about media representations as well as their own experiences of working with the the media (questionnaire, follow up interviews and six focus groups).  Finally, they explored emerging findings with more scientists, as well as journalists and communication professionals (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 611-2). I personally wasn’t entirely sure of a focus on profiles as representing representation of women in science across media, especially considering the stress on Greenfield and Sykes. However, I can also see why they took that approach and the other side of the research helps them broaden their scope very neatly. Moreover, I think if you remember the context from which these profile analysis came, they are still worth thinking about.

One clear difference emerged from studying the 51 profiles: the attention given to the appearance of women scientists. Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of the profiles of men. Such references might seem fairly innocuous, especially when located within a generally positive article, but Chimba and Kitzinger stress the ways in which references to a man’s appearance carry a different tone. For example, while women might be described as having a ‘mane of blonde hair’, the focus for men is more likely to be on a beard, with rather different connotations: ‘His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 612-3). It’s not just journalists doing this: hunting out a line about ‘the Nigella of science’, they found it was sold to an editor by a television company’s PR agency (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 617).

References to hair and heels, etc might be welcomed as a way of showing off a generally unseen glamorous side to science. Chimba and Kitzinger also note the way in which a headline such as ‘Blonde hair, short skirt, big brain’ could be a mater of a journalist playfully deconstructing the various stereotypes  on offer; challenging images of boffin and bimbo at once (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 613). At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget the ways a focus on female scientists’ appearance can have very negative consequences. It may draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

For me, the most important finding was the way in which Chimba and Kitzinger draw attention to  the difference in places women are used in science coverage. For example, one publicity officer for a major science organization explained that if they were dealing with a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they would go with a white middle-class male, where as BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman (see Boyce & Kitzinger, 2008, pdf). Another of their research subjects reports that she had trouble moving from kids television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 620). Men may signal an aura of gravitas in science, whilst women are used when the science is being made ‘accessible’ or ‘sexy’; a possible divide between real scientists and scientifically flavoured ‘eye-candy’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616).

The paper also stresses that women aren’t just the objects of media representation, they are active creators and negotiator of their own image, even if they do not always have control over this conditions of this (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616). They noted an ambivalence in some of the interviews, and sense that they were in processes of negotiation. For example, one spoke of it as a matter of ‘walking a tightrope’; how much do they use it for their advantage, ‘or is that getting in bed with the devil?’. Further, such a representation would a woman more than just professionally. One mentioned being personally flattered as well as personally and professional offended. Another said she gave up because of the personal pressure on image (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 619).

Men on television get letched over too, of course, and this can make them feel uncomfortable too. Whether it has the same impact on their career is debatable though. It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but Chimba and Kitzinger suggest, it is especially risky for women, especially as sexuality gets folded into this. Playing with the term ‘media whore’, they quote Laura Barton in saying ‘even in the intellectual world there are slags [a derogatory term for  promiscuous women] and there are studs [an admiring term for promiscuous men]’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

Personally, I don’t mind the odd bit of glamourous science media, but it shouldn’t become a dominant theme. Scientists should not feel as if they have to play up a glamorous image in order to do any public work. Neither should we sort our media scientists into serious debate with men of gravitas on one side, and a bit of girlie chat/ tickle your fancy on the other. If nothing else, it’s limiting; for audiences as well as scientists. I think we should be aiming for a diversity of voices in our science media (and I don’t mean diversity simply in terms of gender).

  • Chimba, M., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: An analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662508098580

What do you think?