(Some of) the News That's Fit to (Post)

What is the role of the daily news operation of a magazine such as The Scientist? It's an important question that bears considering periodically. If we start with the magazine's motto, "The News Journal for the Life Scientist," we have somewhat of a guide as to what the editors think: The daily news service is dedicated to informing life scientists of the news of the day in policy and research, which leaves the print magazine you're reading now to reflect on larger trends.But some of the readers

Sep 27, 2004
Richard Gallagher

What is the role of the daily news operation of a magazine such as The Scientist? It's an important question that bears considering periodically. If we start with the magazine's motto, "The News Journal for the Life Scientist," we have somewhat of a guide as to what the editors think: The daily news service is dedicated to informing life scientists of the news of the day in policy and research, which leaves the print magazine you're reading now to reflect on larger trends.

But some of the readers of our online daily news, available at http://www.the-scientist.com, seem to believe that our role is that of a booster that prints only the good news. That's what we're led to believe by some recent reactions to our stories.

Twice recently, our intrepid Scientist Daily News reporters were told by researchers not involved in the studies we were reporting on that there were serious errors or problems with the findings and conclusions. But don't quote us, they said; it wouldn't seem proper to trash our colleagues in that fish wrap you write for. No, we'll handle this ourselves, thanks.

The resulting stories still included some questioning of results, but the stories were substantially weaker than they might have been.

And another reader, whose letter we posted,1 roundly criticized us for reporting that W. French Anderson, known as the father of gene therapy, had been arrested for alleged child molestation. The reader wrote that he was "disappointed in [our] failure to keep the private life of a scientist separate from science in [our] reporting," that we had violated Anderson's civil liberties, and that he would stop reading our magazine until we apologized publicly to Anderson.

What these reactions seem to have in common is a sense that The Scientist has a responsibility not to report news that might be seen as critical to science. Nonsense. That's not the role of a magazine that bills itself as "The News Journal for the Life Scientist," which at least two readers seem to understand.2

Here's why, in a nutshell: If the weather reporter provides information only on days that are warm, sunny, and clear, would the reports be helpful to you? And would you believe anything you heard? Likewise, if we report only good news, no one in his or her right mind will trust us. They'll assume we have an agenda.

Sorry, folks, but when a leading scientist in a hot field is arrested, it's news. And, the reporting of his arrest doesn't assume Anderson's guilt. Far from it; the story was indeed balanced.3 It's fair to say that Anderson will have things other than research on his mind for some time, and that affects science.

Scientists should be enthusiastic about helping clarify the importance, or lack of importance, of published research. We'll be brash here and suggest that it would be hypocritical not to do so. A disconnect exists between scientists who seek the unvarnished reality of nature in their work but avoid the same level of candor in dealing with the organization of science. We don't mean scientists should snipe at others' research for nonscientific reasons, or engage in ad hominem attacks, and we wouldn't publish those anyway, trust us. But letting an uncritical story run about a study with lots of problems isn't going to help anyone.

We're the news journal for the life scientist. Help us tell the whole story. Science will be better for it.

Richard Gallagher, Editor rgallagher@the-scientist.com

Ivan Oransky, Web Editorial Director ioransky@the-scientist.com