Synapse Science Magazine is a popular science publication and blog written, designed and edited by Bristol University students.
Synapse was founded in 2011 by four enthusiastic science students and it remains a rapidly evolving project. Our magazine has 140 members that act as writers, editors and graphic designers. We are a relatively diverse bunch, spanning the full range of scientific disciplines and academic year groups.
In our first year we have produced two print publications and a third issue is in the pipeline. These magazines are free and distributed termly around the University. Our accompanying dynamic popular science blog has received thousands of views and benefits from daily updates, news and HD videos. The Synapse team has featured on Bristol community radio's 'Love and Science' show where we discussed our magazine, science outreach and various hot topics in popular science. Our achievements were also recognized by the University and we were nominated for best new society in 2012.
Science journalists are meant to be watchdogs for science – but who watches the watchdogs? Even some scientists, often considered the seekers of truth, sometimes plagiarise and make up things to advance their careers, as proven by the many cases caught and reported on by science journalists. In the current era, where there is a lot of churnalism, ever more international science coverage and reliance on freelancers, how do editors ensure that reporters they may have never met are telling the truth?
Journalists are often criticised for misrepresenting science findings and reporting on them inaccurately, but every now and again come blatant examples of reporters who cross the line between fact and fiction, and simply make stuff up.
A few weeks ago, I was writing up my PhD thesis and since then I have interned as press officer at a biology conference (my first 'real' press job). In between, I attended the UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ), and it was the perfect initiation for my transition from the lab-end to the news-end of science.
The day’s events have been tweeted, blogged, live-blogged, storified, and reviewed like crazy, so I cannot add much more to the many accounts of what happened at the event. Instead, I thought I’d mention one issue that I think, in retrospect, was missing from the day’s discussions: where scientists belong in the larger picture of science in the media.
As a fledgling science journalist, I attended the UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in the hope of getting practical advice on how to start out in this intimidating field. Scribbling notes furiously in all the sessions, making sure I had quoted everyone accurately, and keeping up with the relentless stream of tweets made it a hectic day. However, one particular theme made me pause for thought.
Speaking in the scientific misconduct session, Virginia Barbour’s advice to science journalists was to be “a critical friend … not just a critic”. In some ways, this echoed Jay Rosen’s calls in his keynote for a “vigorous press”, as well as endorsing Peter Aldhous’ investigative approach to science journalism. In Rosen’s words, “If you don’t have an independent press, you have nothing.” Connie St Louis also touched on this idea, saying that science journalists can no longer act as “mouthpieces” for scientists.
But it made me wonder if independence and criticism must always go hand-in-hand, and whether it is possible for those taking their first steps in the field to be ‘critical friends’.
In 2001 a group of 17 software developers from across the world convened at a ski resort in Utah, United States. They met to “talk, ski, relax […] and of course eat,” according to their records. But the results of their trip reached far further than their waistlines. According to Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, what they thrashed out was a model for solving the hardest problems that humans face today; what he called “wicked problems”.
A wicked problem is hard to define, Rosen told UKCSJ last month. It is difficult to say where it starts or stops. There are lots of different stakeholders involved, and each of them sees the issue slightly – or even wildly – differently. It is also interconnected with several other large problems: “In a word, it’s a mess.”
Science journalists have to cover problems like this all the time.
Published papers are the bread and butter of science stories in the press and broadcast media, and most of these papers contain verifiable results. But, occasionally, errors slip through the peer review process, whether it be a mislabelled figure or, more worryingly, fabricated results and scientific fraud.
In the case of simple errors, a notice of correction is enough to put right the mistake. When fraud has taken place, often the whole paper must be retracted.
Until last month the best estimate of the number of retracted papers was 80 a year – but a blog set up to track them and campaign for a more transparent and helpful way of retracting and notifying researchers, media and the public found some 200 over the past year alone.
This month marks the one year anniversary (3 August) of Retraction Watch, a blog set up "as a window into the scientific process". In the blog's opening post, its founders Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, and Adam Marcus, managing editor of Anesthesiology News, said they wanted it to act as an informal repository for retractions, to give journalists more tools to uncover fraud and misuse of funds. They also wanted to investigate how journals themselves deal with retractions.
Marcus and Oransky, both journalists, were aware that retractions are often a sign of a good story.
Editorial decisions of medical journals are "directly influenced" by revenue considerations based on pharmaceutical companies' reprints of their articles, according to the editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee. Earlier this month she called on the UK’s Commons Science and Technology Committee's peer-review inquiry to investigate the issue further.
Her comments come in the wake of other instances of the uneasy relationship between advertising sections and editorials in science writing across the board, from magazine journalism and the blogosphere to PR at scientific conferences.
An Australian-based medical journal has recently stopped carrying any paid advertisements from pharmaceutical companies, challenging other publications to join them. An editorial, published in the February edition of Emergency Medicine Australasia, raised issues surrounding the possible distortion of research findings and the influence this could have on doctors.