There does seem to have been a fair bit of debate going on around this point of late and it’s time for me to pitch in with all the force and folly of ignorance. Not that I am ignorant about the general mechanics of science journalism, and certainly not with research, but freely confess that I have not read or delved into the debate to any degree and am merely aware of it’s existence and have dipped a toe into the metaphorical waters by reading the odd Tweet or skimming a blog-post.
Obviously I’d strongly support the reading of a paper in general, hell it is what you are supposed to be reporting on after all and to be honest, I find it hard to even conceive why or how there could be much of a case for the ‘no’ side. However, there are two big things that I would hope would stack up massively on the ‘yes’ side. So significant are they in fact that (in perhaps my ignorance) I can’t see them easily being toppled at all.
First off is, yes, those bloody aquatic dinosaurs again. Yes it’s obviously nonsense to anyone who knows anything about palaeontology. However, while there are great science journalists out there with no science qualifications at all, and others who are well qualified in various branches of science (physics, medicine etc.) I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that this might, conceptually, have got past even a decent science reporter. If you know little to nothing about dinosaurs, and you get a nicely plausible sounding argument apparently backed by some reasonable sounding evidence, especially off the back of a conversation with the author, you might think it’s reasonable. Any read of the ‘paper’ behind that though would dispel this pretty much instantly. It’s not a paper, and there’s no research there. Don’t read the paper, don’t spot the fake, cover nonsense as science, everyone loses. You look like a chump, non-science gets promoted as science, scientists get annoyed.
Secondly, it’s science by press release. This is also probably pretty rare, but has pretty much happened at least once when it comes to dinosaurs (as documented by Darren Naish) and there’s a steady stream of creationists and ID people happily claiming paper X or Y supports their position even if they had nothing to do with it. In essence, say in your press release what you didn’t in the paper, or couldn’t get past peer review, or just is part of a wider agenda and so use the paper as a springboard for those ideas to appear in the press. You can’t get it in the paper, but you can present it to the media (and thence the public) as if it is, and hey presto, get support and credit for your ideas. This is, of course, rather more insidious, as it can be backed by a proper paper in a proper journal. Again though, a simple reading of a paper (even if you do not have an in depth understanding of the complexities, it should be obvious whether or not a key part of the press release was even discussed in there) would soon turn this up. Again, don’t read the paper, don’t spot the exaggeration / problem, cover something not said as science, everyone loses. You look like a chump, something that shouldn’t gets promoted as science, scientists get annoyed.
As I say, these to me seem such huge possible problems that can pretty much only be solved by actually reading the paper (however briefly and however limited your expertise in the subject) that I really can’t understand why it isn’t the first thing to do. Get the press release or hear about the story, read it, read the paper. How can much else come first? So please people, do read the papers, if only to save you the embarrassment of making a much bigger mistake.