How science journalism is broken and how can we all fix it
Here’s a problem worth pondering: imagine you publish a Medium post one night (after hundreds of laborious edits) to wake up the next morning and find at least 3 publishers, including Medium itself, running it as a story of theirs, with very minimal [cr]edits to your original, heavily edited text, if any.
Some publishers, however, may try to make your title more clickbait at any cost of truth and effort.
But that sounds great, you may think — it’s publicity and validation!
While it may indeed be, it’s actually what Churnalism is.
There’s a high chance that you have - unknowingly - encountered this special kind of plagiarism if you read articles on websites like ScienceDaily, EurekAlert!, Phys.org, Medical Xpress, etc.
As you may have realized, the term is a wordplay on Journalism. That is, Journalism done (and gone) badly, something that these websites do.
This old practice of Churnalism has become worse today; the 3 websites who copied you in the morning will not only publish your piece as one of their stories, but also make money with it, mainly by running ads and sponsored content while you (hopefully don’t) sit and watch.
Entire ‘businesses’ and payrolls are built on top of this shady rock. Thus, many people may not be in favor of what’s discussed here.
This has been a particular problem in Science communication/journalism for some time now — We’re not the first to talk about it; many have warned about its dangers. Some have even recently highlighted the disappointing misinformation involved in such practice.
Sometimes it may not be misinformation per se, rather an unintended slip-up by the original publisher or journalist, who if ever decides to correct it, will have to manage doing so in all the replicas that went out in the wild.
Most importantly, we haven’t had yet a platform for interactive and critical discourse between original research authors, journalists, policy-makers and the public. All we have now, for the most part, is a flood of blindly copied content on recent scientific discoveries.
Worse still, if the research paper has some embargo, the related press release will be automatically published once the embargo is lifted, often before official institutional websites publish it, limiting traffic and readership - for quite some time - to external websites only. Here’s a recent example:
This is only a single and recent instance. We couldn’t stay silent about the many out there and have frequently reached out to the original researchers or publishers about the issue;
How do we potentially fix all of this?
We’re already trying to do it for biology/health with Health News.
It would be magnificent to see similar efforts in other fields.
Beside the model of Phys.org, EurekAlert! et al. being broken, it is more than 20 rusty years old!
All research institutes and universities run good-to-great websites today, which they can (and already do) use to publish press releases about all their research on their own. This allows for maintaining a single source of truth that is easy for them to manage and edit pro re nata.
But how do they do PR and spread the word then?
With such simple model, they have the control to enforce copyrights as well as some sort of short embargo where few journalists get early access to press releases in order to prepare original stories for the established publishers they work with. An opportunity that is usually diminished with churnalism.
Even more, those universities and institutes can run relevant promotions or ads on their websites and reap whatever financial benefits themselves, since they will be getting the largest chunk of traffic, which they deserve.
Once that short embargo is over, link to the original press release can be posted to high quality forums like Health News, Hacker News or some subreddit, where it won’t only get exposure but also provide a chance for critical discussion on the research topic, in which even the original researchers/scientists can engage (AMA-style).
We now have the support and guidance of a handful of scientists, journalists and universities who loved Health News.
If you also loved it - or did not - please feel free to send any ideas over to one[at]nukleosome.com . We may have overlooked something and we’re curious to know what you think.