Saturday, February 04, 2012

Media relations at universities

Many people online have heard about and commented on this sad story.  An assistant prof in molecular biology at Case Western published a paper in the "journal" Life that purported to explain essentially all of creation in terms of "gyres", some hand-wavy vortex-like entities.  As the always provocative PZ Myers points out, the paper itself is basically word salad - it sounds disturbingly like the writings of someone having real mental health issues.  The fact that it got published shows what a sham some journals are.  I suspect that many of my academic peers have gotten email invitations to serve on the editorial boards of pay-to-publish journals.  Several members of the board at Life have apparently resigned over this mess.  However, this sad affair does raise some points worthy of consideration:
1) How did the media services office at CWRU actually end up putting out a big press release about this?  Do they simply have no judgment whatsoever about content?  I mean, could any professor ask them to put out a press release about anything, and it wouldn't be filtered at all before going out to the media?
2) Do aggregators like Eurekalert and Physorg serve as a positive influence overall?  Yes, they help get science news stories out to the wider media, but don't they have some responsibility to make sure that they aren't just a conduit for junk?  Surely they weren't originally intended just to be redistributors of unedited press releases.
3) What are the responsibilities of academic authors, department chairs, deans, etc. when it comes to press releases?  Lord knows, I would not want to have to get permission from a higher-up at my university to speak my mind or point out a cool new result.  However, it doesn't necessarily do anyone a lot of good if people put out press releases and have a media blitz for every little result, let alone the occasional whacko idea.  While universities generally like media mentions of their researchers, CWRU can't be happy about this situation.


Joerg Heber said...

Yes, this raises plenty of 'quality control' issues. Not only for those that publish such papers, but as you say also for the press office. I was aware about strange journals publishing almost anything that comes their way, but you got to wonder about the press office. What does it say about other press releases from this institution? I am sure that they learned lessons from this, because for journals and universities alike, reputation is crucial...

Don Monroe said...

Good questions, overall.

However, I think you misunderstand EurekAlert. My take is that they, along with Newswise and the more business-oriented PRNewswire, were in fact "originally intended just to be redistributors of unedited press releases." I believe they charge a fee to the releasers, and their audience is supposed to be journalists, who one hopes will do their homework before regurgitating. These services also distributed embargoed information to validated journalists. It is true that the general public can also see these releases (once any embargo has expired), but they are clearly labeled as releases.

Aggregators like Science Daily, however, take these same releases and wrap them in a journalistic veneer, often giving them undeserved credibility because they appear to be actual news stories. In many or most cases the aggregators do not add any value such as independent perspectives. I find this repackaging to be misleading and inappropriate, but the reader really has to take some responsibility, if they choose to get their news from such an unfiltered source.

Humbly Submitted said...

While I grudgingly accept the need for a media office at a research university, they have gotten out of control over the past few years. The only bar for a press release is that the researcher asks for one. The release will give an exaggerated view on impact (with a subtle "could" and "one day" here and there), and it will be farmed out by aggregators. There is no more credibility.

Doug Natelson said...

Joerg - I agree. You'd think universities (and companies and journals) would have a vested interest in avoiding situations like this, since it tends to reflect on other authors.

Don - I guess I don't see the value in being a press-release-distributor in the age of the internet. If I'm an institution with a press release to put out, doesn't it cost me essentially nothing to send it electronically to everyone? Sure, Ken Chang at the NY Times may not want me emailing him about my latest paper, but why should he or his employer a priori be more likely to respond to something from EurekAlert? (And they must be, or else EurekAlert would not have a business model.) Science Daily is pretty bad, and sometimes I wonder if New Scientist isn't almost at the same level (uncritically believing everything they're told).