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How to stop the media reporting science fiction as fact

Few of us have the time or expertise to sift through all of the scientific papers published every day to determine which research is important and relevant to our lives. In this sense, science journalists…

The general public relies on science journalists to report research accurately. estevenson/Flickr

Few of us have the time or expertise to sift through all of the scientific papers published every day to determine which research is important and relevant to our lives.

In this sense, science journalists play a valuable role – selecting and publicising research that’s of interest and importance to the wider community.

But with deliberate scientific fraud on the rise and with a number of media reports about less-than-sound science having been published recently, perhaps it’s time to introduce some guidelines for science reporting.

The Japanese stem cell debacle

One of the most pertinent examples of bad science reporting was a newspaper article, published earlier this month, about stem cell research.

The article, published in the English edition of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun on October 12, reported that induced pluripotent stem cells (often abbreviated iPS stem cells) had been used to successfully treat a person with terminal heart failure.

According to the front-page article, the patient was healthy eight months after being treated by Japanese researcher Hisashi Moriguchi at Harvard University. The newspaper declared this to be the “first clinical application of iPS cells”.

Sadly, the report began to unravel almost immediately.

A Harvard Medical School spokesman, when contacted by Nature, denied any such procedure had taken place, emphasising:

“No clinical trials related to Dr. Moriguchi’s work have been approved by institutional review boards at either Harvard University or MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital].”

A Harvard communications officer, when contacted by Science, said Moriguchi was a visiting fellow at MGH for two months in 1999, but that “he has not been associated with MGH or Harvard since that time.”

Cause to be cautious

In hindsight, there were certainly reasons to be suspicious of the newspaper report. Moriguchi claimed to have reprogrammed stem cells using just two specific chemicals (microRNA-145 inhibitor and TGF-β ligand, in case you’re wondering), but stem cell researcher Hiromitsu Nakauchi responded saying he had “never heard of success with that method”.

What’s more, he’d never even heard of Moriguchi until his study was published.

The article in which Moriguchi presented his “research” also included several counts of plagiarism, most notably several paragraphs lifted straight from a 2007 research paper by the joint winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine, stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka.

In short, the reported research is clearly bogus. Its prominent announcement on the front page of Yomiuri Shimbun is both a major embarrassment to the newspaper and the other news organs who blindly picked up the story.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a source of confusion to readers internationally.

“Due diligence” in science reporting

The Moriguchi case is but one example of bad science being reported in the media. So how can such lapses be prevented in future?

Ideally, all science, finance and medical journalists would be fully accredited, as is the case in many other professions. But this is clearly unrealistic. Instead, we propose a set of standards for “due diligence” in scientific journalism.

Namely, we propose a minimal set of procedures that science journalists should follow before publishing any report on scientific research:

  • Contact each of the institutions claimed by the lead researcher, at least, to verify the story.

    Virtually all reputable institutions have press representatives whose responsibility it is to be aware of recent work (or, if they are not, to contact the researcher to learn specifics).

  • Verify the work has been published by (not just submitted to) a reputable peer-reviewed journal or conference proceeding. In most cases this can be done by checking the journal’s or conference’s website.

    From time to time news outlets report, often informally, on research that has not yet been published, but such announcements should very clearly state that the work is yet to be peer-reviewed.

  • Contact a reputable researcher in the same field who was not a co-author of the study in question and include, in the report, the name of the researcher and some brief comments.

    This step is particularly important if the research in question purports to be a significant breakthrough in the field, or if it may be considered controversial.

  • After the article is written, send a draft to the researcher and to each other person mentioned centrally in the article, with a reasonable opportunity for them to assist with technical wording and fact-checking.

    This is often difficult to do given the constraints of deadlines, but it is an important way to prevent unintentionally confusing or misleading comments in the article.

    All journalists want to be the first to release a report of some major development, not only in science but in every other topic normally covered by the news media, from politics to football. Carefully following rules such as the ones we have proposed will require precious time and effort.

… but it really matters

The field of science is unique in that the public, by necessity, places a great deal of trust in its practitioners.

In addition, many of the day-to-day details of scientific research are too technical to be fully appreciated, even by members of the public that have significant scientific training.

Thus, both scientists and the public rely on accurate and informative journalism, summarising what is being done in these fields.

With the media’s important gate-keeper role comes an equally important responsibility to perform the “due diligence” required. Otherwise, the public’s confidence in the scientific world will be further eroded, and scientists themselves will be unable to fully understand what is being done outside their own specialities.

The Moriguchi fraud was easy enough to detect and substantiate that by October 19th – just seven days after the Yomiuri Shimbun article was published – the University of Tokyo had already fired Moriguchi (who, incidentally, still claims to be innocent!)

As David Cyranoski wrote in Nature on October 16:

“rarely has such a spectacular scientific claim been debunked so rapidly.”

It could have been prevented with little extra effort.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared at Math Drudge.

Join the conversation

25 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Plus you could always just use a time machine to go back and correct the story before it was published....

    I don't share your universal faith in university PR people. Inevitably they will just flick pass you straight to the 'researcher' whilst making a note in their KPIs that they have successfully dealt with another media enquiry.

    And journalists providing story copy to an interviewee for approval is rarely going to happen. The parameters of what a news media organisation is after in terms of response time and readability just don't meet with what a scientific researcher is used to. Most outlets will have a policy expressly forbidding this sort of practice, even if an individual journalist wanted to put themselves through the cycle of pain.

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  2. Warwick Brown

    Retired

    Some good caution expressed here in pushing against a common trend, it seems to me, for the first step by many researchers: issue a press release prior to actual publication.

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  3. R_Chirgwin

    logged in via Twitter

    As a working journalist, I'm sorry, but the PR's wish-list has problems.

    1. "Contact all institutions"

    It's quite routine for three institutions to issue their own releases, about the same research, in which all of them lay claim to being somehow the lead institution. Yes, multiple announcements would verify that the universities are all happy to have their names set against the research, but frequently at the cost of sorting out their hierarchy.

    This has nothing to do with the science…

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    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to R_Chirgwin

      "- quibble over writing style.
      - complain about headlines"

      Yes, that was my experience. Every person of reasonable intelligence fancies themselves as a writer and scientists/engineers etc can never restrict themselves to just checking facts. It would be changing adjectives or pointlessly fiddling with synonyms, changing the lead, creating 90 word sentences to add in everyone who had once been vaguely in the lab at some point of the project....You get back a 500 word story with 1500 words of changes. And that maybe a month later.

      "The headline is too tabloid!"

      "Err, we are a tabloid."

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  4. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    In May, Mr Justin Norrie, an editor at The Conversation wrote an article, ' Post 1950’s warming in Australasian region unmatched in 1000 years". The article was based on the paper, " Evidence of unusual late 20th century warming from an Australasian temperature reconstruction spanning the last millennium" authored by Joëlle Gergis, Raphael Neukom, Steven Phipps, Ailie Gallant and David Karoly.

    The paper was submitted to the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate. The paper gained…

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    1. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Well put Gerard, but don't hold your breath.

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    2. Roger Jones

      Professorial Research Fellow at Victoria University

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Having been in touch with one of the co-authors in the last few days, I can inform readers that the paper was withdrawn because a couple of the co-authors couldn't meet the journal's deadline for revision. It is being resubmitted.

      The authors picked up errors in the statistical model before Steve McIntyre's online postings, notified the journal and were revising on that basis.

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    3. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Roger Jones

      The coincidence in the timing of the discovery of errors between the authors and Jean S at Climate Audit are truely remarkable.

      The following comment by McIntyre of note...(link below)

      "The inconsistency between replicated correlations and Gergis claims was first pointed out by Jean S here on June 5 at 4:42 pm blog time. As readers have noted in comments, it’s interesting that Karoly says that they had independently discovered this issue on June 5 – a claim that is distinctly shall-we-say Gavinesque (See the Feb 2009 posts on the Mystery Man.)"

      http://climateaudit.org/2012/06/08/gergis-et-al-put-on-hold/

      Also note the following post by McIntyre that indicates the faulty results, despite not being published, have found there way into AR5.

      http://climateaudit.org/2012/10/22/ipcc-check-kites-gergis/

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    4. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard Dean said : "Dr Karoly advised Mr Justin Norrie that the errors were being corrected and the paper would be submitted for publication in September of this year. "
      Any paper on climate change that is blatantly fraudulent deserves to fry.
      But any critical thinker realises the overwhelming wave of evidence means any paper you or your deniers highlight, is a cup compared to an ocean of data, spilling over with cognitive bias and questionable sources.
      This is serious article about seriously…

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    5. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Mr Jones,

      You told me to, "..do yourselves a favour, apply hard critical thought, check your source is impecable and we will engage in discussion."

      So I did what you told me and re-checked my sources on The Conversation article in question.

      'The lead author, Professor David Karoly, told The Conversation' .... "Now that we’ve identified this issue, we will be double- and triple-checking everything. So we won’t rush this. We expect it won’t be until the middle of July until all the data processing…

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    6. Roger Jones

      Professorial Research Fellow at Victoria University

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      IPCC drafts can cite submitted papers but if they are not accepted by a given deadline, cannot remain in the report. That is well before the final draft and publication.

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    7. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Steve McIntyre would be an obvious choice as a reviewer. i wonder if the journal will be brave enough to send it to someone with the appropriate skill set. McIntyre made the last look as incompetent as the authors.

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    8. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Paul Richards

      "Any paper on climate change that is blatantly fraudulent deserves to fry.
      But any critical thinker realises the overwhelming wave of evidence means any paper you or your deniers highlight, is a cup compared to an ocean of data, spilling over with cognitive bias and questionable sources."
      Paul your own bias showing here. Exactly the problem.
      Yes it is one paper but that still makes criticism of it valid in itself. And yet rather than concede that Karoly has initially produced a sub standard piece of work and move on, you felt the need to add your own commentary about the cup and the sea just to keep the momentum of the alarmist consensus going lest this one criticism undermine the whole cause. I find it curious that alarmists are so sensitive to any criticism of their work even when it is wrong. Very insecure, and only serves to raise more questions than it answers.

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    9. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken Swanson said ; " I find it curious that alarmists are so sensitive to any criticism of their work even when it is wrong."

      Wrong, ok that is understandable you feel that is the case.

      Well thank you for the Segway back into my premise, I have qualified the only methodology acceptable and that mirrors what you accuse 'those' of was covered. Setting out methodology required for "Hard Critical Thinking" , not a personal methodology but a universally taught one.
      Paul said in the same comment…

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  5. Rajan Venkataraman

    Citizen

    Dear Jon and David

    I can just hear the journalists sighing in exhaustion. "You mean we have to cross-check our facts now! You mean we have to dig below the surface and not simply regurgitate what the first person tells us! Fuggedaboutit. Better instead to stick to two-page photo spreads of the Prime Minister falling over."

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Rajan Venkataraman

      Rajan Venkataraman said ; "I can just hear the journalists sighing in exhaustion. "You mean we have to cross-check our facts now! " No the sigh is, the standards of journalism are being assaulted by plagiarism, not checking or verifying sources or looking for value systems of those involved in the 'story' paper and its subtext. Every single journalist is taught hard critical thinking is the bread and butter of credibility.
      The reason the "The Conversation" is thriving, is because of credibility and the fact newspaper journalism has become cut and paste opinionism. Losing journalistic integrity, the current generation as become lazy with this, because of time and money constraints of a dying industry.
      Even recently a paper was opportunistically targeted by a 'mining magnate' looking for these very qualities, in order to press her 'opinion'. Join the dots old son ...........

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  6. Dustin Welbourne

    PhD Candidate in Biogeography + Science Communicator at UNSW Australia

    This article “How to stop the media reporting science fiction as fact” needs a follow up article: “How to stop academics writing the patently obvious and including their 5 point plan to change the media landscape”.
    It seems to me this article adds nothing to the ‘conversation’ even though I agree with a number of the points being raised. A first year undergrad student of science communication, or media studies, or basket weaving knows science news reporting can lack rigour, no Nobel Prize for…

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  7. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor at Wound CRC

    I think the case study presented shows the system actually works quite well, a poorly researched story was discredited quite quickly. A bigger issue is that many in the community do not understand the scientific process and see scientific findings as facts or truths rather than models that best fit the current data. Some scientists also present their findings as the only "truth" and when questioned, shout louder. This reinforces the perception that scientific fact is a truth. The article might have…

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  8. Ken Swanson

    Geologist

    Reporters who report science which ultimately turns out to be factually wrong in either its findings or in the predictions emanating from it are in a no win situation. If they teat scientists as experts they are doomed. If they question the science they are unqualified deniers.
    Today Italian scientists and a government official were convicted over the death of people who acted on their advice about the severity of an earthquake.
    Scientists who do not qualify their findings, produce slack research which is waved through by compliant "reviewers" (their mates) and who allow public commentary to continue which misrepresents their work should also be held to account in this way.
    Scientists who get into the political/ advocacy space should take both the hits as well as the plaudits (extra grant money).

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken Swanson said; " ..... If they question the science they are unqualified deniers"
      If they qualified the sources that supplied challenging information about 'consensus' science they would save themselves 99% of the trouble.
      Not everyone has the value system that is acceptable to the general centre of gravity.
      Qualifying by proving a 'premise' to themselves that profit is 'not' the prime motive of all stakeholders and sources affiliated with profit models benefiting financially. Setting aside cognitive bias and doing hard critical thinking on the whole issue, asking why they say what they do first, before even verifying lines of argument or science data.
      Starting writing from an unbiased perspective, having seen both sides of the issue at hand, just taking the data on face value is asking for trouble when everyone has the resources to check using the internet on a iPhone or PC is just stupid.

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    2. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Paul Richards

      "Not everyone has the value system that is acceptable to the general centre of gravity"
      I agree with you there Paul. Most people's professional value systems are heavily driven by self interest/ career preservation. Understandably so.
      "If they qualified the sources that supplied challenging information about 'consensus' science they would save themselves 99% of the trouble"
      In climate science how would a "non associated source" like Steven McIntyre be seen. He has an enviable record in serious data analysis and if only as a counterpoint to the "consensus" science community who are all so interdependent on each other to ensure their remains..consensus. He was instrumental in Mann and more recently Karoly being held to account. I know he is not liked by them, but he does pose good questions and he keeps them honest.

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    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken Swanson said : " Most people's professional value systems are heavily driven by self interest/ career preservation. Understandably so." Sadly this issue of 'value systems' is crucial in this debate, and given little airing.
      Pro or anti, for or against the questions remains, why? What is their motive? What are the values espoused?
      It is of little use to a christian for example, if you come out with evolution and prove his faith wrong if his value system is tied to the issue. Same applies…

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  9. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    How do we stop the media reporting science fact as fiction?

    When scientists have vested many years of study and their reputation is on the line by some inconvenient empirical data they invariably congeal like sour milk and go into a defensive laager.
    "Science advances one funeral at a time."
    http://lenr-canr.org/

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