The biggest roadblock to getting good information about scientific breakthroughs

What's blocking your access to accurate scientific information? Often, it's the representatives of research institutions themselves. Today on Embargo Watch, science journalism watchdog Ivan Oransky reports on just one example of how universities try to prevent reporters from getting information about scientific studies - and we're not talking about studies of nukes or neurotoxins, or even unpublished work not yet fit for public consumption. Nope - this was an archaeological finding published this week, which science journalist and io9 pal Ed Yong was trying to write about. Oransky reports:

Ed Yong just wanted to look at the data.

This past weekend, he found an intriguing embargoed press release about mummy toes and prosthetics [covered on io9 here], and realized that the "study" to which the release referred was actually just a Perspective in The Lancet. When he emailed the press officer who'd written the release, he learned that the actual data weren't yet published, but that the Perspective was "peer reviewed using the data."

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with Yong, science blogger extraordinaire. He writes the extremely popular - and award-winning, for good reason - Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at Discover.

So it won't be a surprise to learn that Yong wanted more information. He understood that there wasn't a typical peer-reviewed study published yet, but he wanted to at least speak with the author, whose contact information didn't seem to be anywhere on the web. So he asked the press officer for those details.

That's where the ridiculousness started, as Yong relates on his Posterous. The PIO [public information officer], the University of Manchester's Aeron Haworth, responded: "I think you have all you need for a blog."

That seemed a bit unusual. Yong - who was too polite to name the PIO, which I just did - replied: "Interesting. Do you often tell journalists when you think they've had enough material for their reporting?"

And it just got uglier from there - go check out the rest of Oransky's post. Essentially, this public information officer believed it was his job to prevent reporters - especially bloggers, whose articles he derided as "shorter" than his own press releases - from talking to scientists at his university. This begs the question of why the guy actually sent out a press release in the first place. If he didn't want media scrutiny of the study, why alert the media?

This kerfuffle is also a lesson in how strange the whole system of science journalism is, as Oransky points out. Often, journalists are given access to scientific studies or papers a few days before they are published, but the information is placed under embargo - meaning the writers can't publish about the study until a certain date (usually the date of publication in a scientific journal). The idea is that this gives reporters longer to understand a study before writing it up, but in practice many reporters are stonewalled by PIOs or government agencies when they try to get more information. Or they are given only a short amount of time to absorb the study before the embargo lifts, which means that the resulting articles can hardly be the kind of skeptical analysis you want when it comes to science reporting.

As a result, the embargo system severely limits public access to rigorous scientific thought and analysis. Instead of thoughtful articles about the implications of new scientific achievements, you get warmed over press releases or canned comments from CIOs who seem to think they are Hollywood publicists protecting starlets rather than people who have been hired to help broadcast the importance of new scientific discoveries.

This CIO's position, hardly unusual, seems like a particularly untenable stance in an era when public funding for the sciences is being cut back. The more guys like this prevent good science journalists from doing their jobs, the more they guarantee public apathy about science - which will translate into political marginalisation and even less funding.

So what's the solution? Obviously, CIOs who help bridge the gap between media and the scientific community, not set up barricades. More journals like those published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which make their articles and data freely available, and have set up their own network of science blogs to facilitate better communication with the public. But most importantly, the whole idea of embargoing scientific information needs to be jettisoned. Either a story is open to reporters, or it isn't. We can't write good articles with access to only half the information we need to evaluate whether a scientific claim is well-founded or not.

And we can't expect the public to understand why science is important for our collective future if they only get to hear half the story.

Read more at Embargo Watch and on Ed Yong's Posterous

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