#SCIO12 Policy Report: Academia is Productive but Messy - Effects on (Mis)Communication

By Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. @MinorityPostdoc

Reflections on ScienceOnline2012 Late-night #DSNsuite Policy Meetings: Saturday, Jan 21, 2012

Press Release Confusion

On the last night of the ScienceOnline2012 conference, a group of journalists and scientists critiqued the final plenary “Check, check, 1, 2…The Sticky Wicket of the Scientist-Journalist Relationship” (1) especially regarding the lack of attention drawn to the role of academic press releases. Journalists @CQChoi and @MaggieKB1 reviewed the expectation of the quality control process involving academic press releases and the veracity of a scientist’s quotes and contributions, i.e. fact-checking for mainstream media (MSM). It was explained that for the mainstream journalist working on a tight deadline and with little science background, such press releases are accepted as dogma for producing news stories. Thus, why do scientists complain about misquotes and misinterpretations of their reported scholarship? Recently, @CQChoi wrote about this topic on his blog “Assignment: Impossible” (2) with a follow-up post (3) containing the Twitter discussion from other science writers and Public Information Officers (PIOs).

Some scientists gave an alarmingly different perspective. Testimonials by @KZelnio and another described how sometimes attributed “quotes” would be obtained from sources such as an off-the-record water cooler conversation or journal paper abstracts or non-first author statements. Most importantly, press releases including quotes are not necessarily confirmed or authorized by the work’s primary author. This testimony was met with stark silence while the journalists’ heads exploded. Apparently there was a misunderstanding over academic institutional standards of practice. The journalists explained that this was like telling sexually consenting adults that condom use led to AIDS. The scientists in the room found this response humorous. Scholars were generally aware of the futility of this academic arrangement and just shrugged it off. @KZelnio noted that some scientists were motivated to become citizen journalists and science bloggers to educate the public directly without filters.

Deep background research conducted by the author found that this topic was briefly touched upon in the ScienceOnline2010 session “Getting the Science Right: The importance of fact checking mainstream science publications - an underappreciated and essential art - and the role scientists can and should (but often don’t) play in it”. While most of the discussion focused on fact checking for science books and news articles, @DocFreeRide Tweet-reported that “Press releases theoretically connected w facts, but often v disconnected #scio10” (4). Another videotaped ScienceOnline session that same year was “How Does a Journalist Figure Out ‘Which Scientists to Trust’?” The discussion in the excerpt below highlights the confusion over the role of press releases in today’s media environment.

What’s the Reason?

What follows is an assesment on the stark contrast between academic productivity versus management. (DISCLAIMER: this is a U.S.-centric, research university perspective from that of a scientist. Your country, institution, or own experience may vary…). The tenure system bestows lifetime employment to creative, productive scholars. However, this selection process, in general, does not reward positive behaviors in the areas of teaching and service. Management and administrative duties fall under the latter category. This talent acquisition process combined with, at large universities, the balkanized organizational chart can lead to messy inefficiencies. In reference to the discussion at hand, the institutional units of Academic Affairs (housing scholars), Legal (ooo…lawyers!), and Communications (housing PIOs) do not necessarily communicate with one another over their different operational goals. Scientists need to produce scholarship deliverables such as articles to ensure research sponsorship mostly through grants. Legal needs to produce defensible contracts and litigation. And, Communications needs to produce outreach materials enhancing the institution’s reputation to support public (especially alumni) engagement ultimately for fundraising efforts (the responsibility of another unit, Advancement). Keep in mind that the non-Academic Affairs units are populated with administrative employees who do not have tenure. While each unit might be led by a very competent person, the entire institution is directed by the herd of cats known as the Academic Senate (tenured faculty). This body has the ultimate power to dismiss even an institution’s CEO, the President/Chancellor.

Since none of these units are responsible for overseeing the quality control of each other’s deliverables, messy problems can ensue such as that germane to the scientist-journalist conundrum. If a press release has factual errors, it does not impact the productivity of the scientist and so there is no institutional encouragement to engage. Note that this discussion was motivated by anecdotes so it is unknown how often errors occur. Ironically, there might be an incentive to sensationalize a press release to enhance an institution’s reputation. The multiplier effect of downstream MSM based upon a press release may outweigh the damage from a rare factual error (which can be corrected later anyway after the tide swell of initial media reporting has passed). By contrast let’s examine the relationship between the Academic Affairs and Legal units over their mutually produced products, namely contracts involving scholarship exemplified by non-disclosure agreements, material transfer agreements, and patents. These deliverables are rigorous because (much like scholarly products) they are cited and defended by their respective peer communities. Scientists have a great incentive to ensure the accuracy of these products since it directly affects their productivity and (potentially) has a bonus financial payoff. Hence, no factual errors. Q.E.D.

Of course there are exceptions to these generalizations, e.g. enlightened institutions that value public outreach, burned institutions that have had flagrant scandals, self-motivated scientists, and certain areas of scholarship. Disciplines that involve human health, for instance, would attract the interest of lawyers so scholars within medical schools probably have more involvement with their Communications department.

Faulty press releases could also occur in other scholarship-producing institutions such as in the private sector since all institutions want to market their growing reputation. However, a company is not run by academic types with life-long job protection. So, there may be more accountability and turnover in the administration.

Improving the System

Policy recommendations to make scholars accountable should be clear given the example of the Academic Affairs and Legal units’s relationship on mutual deliverables. To reduce potential factual errors resulting from erroneous press releases, academia needs to incentivize scholars to work together with PIOs to produce rigorous, defensible products. This is not as daunting a task as the naysayers might insist. Progressive institutions are pushing the traditional definitions of scholarship. For example, Texas A&M University accepts patents as part of the dossier for tenure decisions (5). The journal PLoS Biology requires an “Author Summary” with a non-technical description of published work for a lay audience. In fact, their author instructions recommend that authors consult with PIOs in developing the summary (6).

Thus, I make 3 policy suggestions to encourage formal Scholar-PIO collaborations to produce fact-checked press releases:

  1. Provide a financial incentive to scholars if the media use press releases. Patents are a model.
  2. Include a full-length press release as an online Supplementary Material to be included with published manuscripts. This builds on the PLoS Author Summary model.
  3. Allow press releases to be included in tenure dossiers as part of educational or service activities.

I underscore that the professionalism of PIOs is not being criticized. Instead, these recommendations are for motivating scholars to work with Communication offices so that PIOs can accomplish their work of educating the public. PIOs should not be the only ones whose jobs are at stake when fact-checking a press release.

The ScienceOnline Community: Fun and Productive

In closing, the unique ScienceOnline conference was critical to this productive discussion and resulting policy recommendations. The live scholar-journalist networking yields insights that would not happen in other environments since these communities rarely interact en masse. The discussion did not come about during an official “panel” or “workshop”. No, things were much more spontaneous and casual as I try to comically recount below.

After a productive day of #SCIO12 sessions, the ad hoc #DSNsuite Policy Committee and invited guests surrendered to the siren song of the DoubleTree Hotel recreational area. Pre-policy meeting activities included libations, repartee, and admiration of the mobile Dogstar art exhibit. Once the hour was ripe, committee members and guest speakers retreated to the 7th floor Deap Sea News suite while observing the potluck tradition for necessary catering items. After co-organizers @KZelnio, @SFriedScientist, and @MiriamGoldste brought the meeting to order, the no-Tweeting and embargo guidelines were reviewed in deference to the above official, redacted report. Dolphin hugging threats were in effect for miscreants.

Minutes from the previous night’s meeting were approved albeit tentatively owing to our clouded memories. Highlights included kudos to the Talent Show performances of @KZelnio & @Revkin and the new rap group Table_1/57 (led by @KMBTweets) performing their original composition “Bust A Move- SCIO12 Edition”. Much loud discussion ensued but parliamentarian @DocFreeRide tempered the enthusiastic atmosphere with the pleasant garden spray of shushing. The journalist-scholar discussion above was part of the many conversations occurring in the room. Some felt, though, that this particular topic merited a write-up and action. Around 3 a.m., Hospitality committee chair @PsiWavefunction ensured that everyone left with a @BoraZ-like hug. Committe members were in agreement that next year we will need larger meeting space with appropriate sponsorship. I’m looking forward to #SCIO13!


1. scienceonline2012.sched.org/event/4c31cf69111b99ec24d00dae3bff626d

2. blogs.scientificamerican.com/assignment-impossible/2012/01/24/from-the-writers-desk-the-dangers-of-press-releases/

3. blogs.scientificamerican.com/assignment-impossible/2012/01/24/from-the-writers-desk-the-dangers-of-press-releases-followup/

4. scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2010/01/scio10_aftermath_my_tweets_fro_1.php

5. www.chron.com/default/article/Tenure-at-A-M-likely-to-go-to-profitable-profs-1869665.php

6. http://www.plosbiology.org/static/guidelines.action

Related Reading

#scio12 Session: Do press officers/public information officers need journalists any more?
(Apparently the topic of PIO/scientist relationships came up during the session; but I can not find an archive of the discussion.)

Book: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

CMBR blog: The Mangled Web of Scientific Misinformation by Colin Schultz

The Biology Files blog: The science public information officer: it’s complicated by Emily Willingham

The Enlightened PIO blog by David Harris:

Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. is the Founder and Editor of both MinorityPostdoc.org and DiverseScholar.org. I thank Kevin Zelnio and Miriam Goldstein for helpful comments on this article. This editorial criticizes inefficiencies of the academic management system and not the PIO profession or individuals. Opinions expressed above are solely of the author and not of his institutional affiliation, sponsor funding agency, or mother.

Video credit: scienceinthetriangle
The citation for this article is:
A.I. Roca (2012) #SCIO12 Policy Report: Academia is Productive but Messy - Effects on (Mis)Communication.
DiverseScholar 3:1

Editor’s note: DiverseScholar is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at . This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Creative Commons License

Last updated 26-Jan-2012,
Published 24-Jan-2012