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Science and the pitfalls on the way to a news story

Martin Stabe has taken me to task for a comment I made on a post by Mindy McAdams on her Teaching Online Journalism blog. He rightly asks me to elaborate on my worry about draft versions of academic papers, especially in the light of rubbish which has been reported on MMR and similar things based on non-peer-reviewed science.

I am glad Martin pointed out that the multiple versions of the paper on the life of online news resulted from the system of open review called arXiv and pronounced archive. There is also a New York Times article in 2001 which explains the approach to scientific publishing on the web very clearly.

Since that was written arXiv, based at Cornell University, has has introduced an endorsement system to ensure content is relevant to current research.

The open publishing of scientific material in this way has huge advantages. It enables scientists to publish more easily and to get a range of input which is not available from the traditional and slow system of peer reviewed journals (which themselves are sometimes far from perfect).

As with Wikipedea and open-source software, the bringing to bear more minds on a subject generally produces a better result.

My concern about confusion and possible inaccuracy results from finding three differently dated versions (with only slight changes) freely available on the web. The danger for a journalist is that a news story could be based on an version before a substantial revision.

A good journalist should, of course, talk to the authors before writing a report, but that does not always happen. Until recently we have been able to take publication in a peer reviewed journal as a stamp of serious and reliable science.

I certainly was not suggesting that journalists should not write stories until something was published in one of these journals. The job of a good reporter is to get to the story early. The trouble with science reporting is that too often journalists see a “good story” and go to print without questioning the credibility of the science.

So the peer reviewed stamp has been a useful short-cut to establishing credibility. Now we have to teach young journalists about arXiv as well.

Martin says he is considering writing a feature on open source science for journalists. Please do, and let’s have it in time to circulate to student journalists next semester.

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