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Does Advancing Product Advance Science?

March 15, 2007

I’ve said I’m not writing, but I’m still reading. There’s a rumpus about accreditation for bloggers at Eurekalert! In an ideal world I’d want to re-write this to include references to later posts like More About the EurekAlert! Smackdown. It’s not going to happen for quite a while though, so I thought to post what I have while it’s still timely rather than wait till I can finish it.

Stop sign
Stop, one way. Photo (cc) David Dennis.

Coming back to the Eurekalert and bloggers story. The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is not allowing bloggers to register for access to embargoed articles. The only way in is to be a reporter in the media. The view among bloggers is unsurprisingly that blogging is important enough to warrent media credentials etc. Therefore how can the AAAS, owners of Eurekalert take this position? I’ll try and give an example with a story from Eurekalert which I’ve not commented on, which really you think I would.

Peruvian citadel is site of earliest ancient solar observatory in the Americas looks like the perfect story for me. I have an interest in South America and an interest in ancient astronomy. This is a particularly interesting story because there are some oddities in it like two observation points, and it appears that these oddities are based on sound archaeological evidence. So why aren’t I writing about this? Well there are a few holes in my knowledge for this period. Chankillo is much earlier than the Inca Period and it’s well away from the better known Peruvian civilisations, so I need to read about it. I can’t read the paper online as my university doesn’t have an online subscription to Science, so it’ll have to wait until I’m next in Leicester. If I had had access to the press release whilst under embargo then I may have emailed one of the authors to ask a couple of questions and asked for a copy of the paper. This is where the problems start.

As a researcher with an interest in ancient astronomy I’m the market for this Science article. I have to be one of the most likely people to pay $10 to access this for 24 hours, or pay $139 for a subscription. Providing aid to give away free copies of material is bad for product sales. Not in this case. I’ve simply not paid for it and not commented on it, but presumably at the margins it’s bad.

The next factor is that the sort of blogger who signs up to embargoed releases is also probably the sort of blogger who is going to be more analytical in reading the press release. A press release might not just be edited and regurgitated, there’s a chance that it’s going to be examined seriously. I imagine a lot of the time the result will be positive, but not always. Is this better than the story going in to papers uncritiqued? The embargo doesn’t mean that the critique won’t happen, but it will usually happen after the release has ceased to be a news story. So refusing early access to bloggers may be a tool to control controversy.

The final factor is that the relationship between Eurekalert and the mainstream media isn’t passive. The AAAS are trying to place Science as a major journal of record in competition with Nature. They need to sell stories to the major media organisations, and one bonus they can give them is exclusivity. Excluding bloggers is a visible signal that this is premium information, it’s certainly not available to all and sundry and thus more valuable. Bloggers in return can be expected to report on it anyway because they are generally more interest than audience driven.

The cost is that I haven’t posted a story which I’d expect 500-1000 page views on. On the scale that the AAAS is working at that’s not a big loss and you’ve probably read it elsewhere anyway.

Simplistically you could argue that bloggers and the AAAS are approaching the same position from two opposite directions. From the bloggers’ point of view the AAAS should be working to help disseminate scientific findings, and that by doing this their prestige will grow. The AAAS in contrast seem to be taking the position that they need to protect their prestige and that by doing this they will be in a better position to advance science. Hence the restricted access. By advancing the economic value of their product they advance science.

If bloggers are going to change attitudes they need to show that they can add value to AAAS media strategy. The simplest solution is a boycott. They could withdraw commentary on stories from Eurekalert until the AAAS make efforts to reach out to them. This won’t work. One is that there wouldn’t be the solidarity among bloggers for this to work as a scheme. The other is that even if there were solidarity initially, sooner or later one blogger would read something so interesting that, in this particular case, the boycott would be broken – which would be followed by another and so on.

I don’t think the AAAS are Bad Guys. In fact they seem to be open to dialogue. I think they don’t believe the media environment has changed as much as some bloggers do. Given that bloggers are immersed in their medium then the AAAS may be right (and after writing this I see Hsien Hsien Lei tackles this in a podcast). So long as they have the number one outlet then any change is a risk. The best solution probably isn’t adversarial, but perhaps to reach out to the less well publicised but nonetheless interesting research elsewhere. It’s not currently in the AAAS’s best interests to change the status quo. They’re on top of the heap. However, it could be in the best interests of press officers of other journals to challenge this.

If I were handling PR for the Journal of Obscure Studies, then cultivating bloggers might be useful. The blog entries would need to respect the embargo, but the links back to the Journal of Obscure Studies could be helpful. It would also demonstrate to the media that people (i.e. potential readers for advertisers) were excited about obscure things and there was a buzz about this research. Time for bloggers to be talking to the PR people of their own learned societies perhaps?

I’m not expecting to write another press release for a year, but as a note for when it does happen I think I’ll make a point of seeing if half a dozen bloggers would be interested in carrying the story and commenting on it. If they are and they agree to respect the embargo, then they’d be listed in press release as part of the worldwide buzz on the topic. Feel free to take this idea if you’re doing something sooner.

Hsien Hsien Lei is keeping track of the discussion on her site if you’d like to read other views.

  1. March 18, 2007 5:30 pm

    This post probably explains why the AAAS takes the line that it does. It is not science reporting or even science writing.

    Not sure what it is, actually. Lots of words, but no clear story. In my days as a news editor in the distant past I would have required a major rewrite, mostly to cut it by three quarters.

    Forget about embargoes. They are for idle journalists, who are happy to eat what they are fed, and their zoo keepers who want to control the spectacle.

    The best journalists avoid embargoed stories. They find their own.


  1. Genetics and Health » More About the EurekAlert! Smackdown

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