Readbacks and Researchers

Recently, there’s been a major debate in the online science journalism community about a common but little-discussed practice in the news business: readbacks. That’s what we call the article excerpts journalists sometimes send to sources ahead of publication, during the fact-checking process.

The current discussion began with some comments investigative journalist Trine Tsouderos made on This Week in Virology. Seth Mnookin has an excellent summary of where the debate went from there. The short version is that a whole lot of writers and scientists have now weighed in on how, when, and whether science journalists should allow their sources to see pre-publication drafts.

So far, the conversation has included a whole slew of thoughtful, provocative blog posts, online comments, and tweets, plus one astonishingly misinformed essay. I don’t have any new arguments to add at this point, but I want to weigh in for two reasons.

First, one of the main lines of argument in the smart part of the debate came from Al Dove, so I have a unique opportunity to muddy the discussion by having two A. Doves presenting somewhat contrary opinions. If we can somehow involve law, go-kart racing, and photography, we’ll have complete pandemonium. More seriously, as someone who’s been a scientist, a journalist, and a debate coach, I think I can crystallize the main arguments pretty well.

Many, if not most of the scientists who’ve weighed in on this favor having science journalists send them extensive readbacks, perhaps even whole drafts, so they can ensure that the final article is accurate. The psychologists from Cardiff take this position to naive extremes, but Al Dove seems to represent a more mainstream view. To wit: scientists should be able to check story drafts because science is complicated, and when journalists screw it up they do the public a major disservice.

While it’s true that the subject is often complicated, and that journalists sometimes screw it up, neither of those things is unique to science. Modern finance, Federal policymaking, and patent law are also very complicated, and journalists have unarguably screwed up when reporting about those things, too. That doesn’t convince me that Wall Street executives, government bureaucrats, and attorneys should be given the right to edit news stories about them.

A free press – which I take to mean one that reports independently of what its sources might want said – is in my view the second most important pillar of a modern democracy, right after free speech. If we can speak our minds and be informed by independent reporters, we can bootstrap all of the other rights we might reasonably want. Giving any group – even scientists – a special pass from that independent scrutiny is placing one foot on a slippery slope to a very bad place. Having scientists check news stories before publication wouldn’t be catastrophic by itself, but it would open the door to all manner of special pleading by other interest groups. Science is unique in many ways, but this can’t be one of them.

From the journalists, the prevailing view seems to be “we’ll write what we want, and do our own fact-checking as we see fit.” I certainly respect and follow that approach, but part of my fact-checking is providing readbacks when I think it’s appropriate. I have the luxury of working mostly for monthly publications and other clients with relatively long deadlines, so when I’m not sure of an explanation I’ve written, I usually have time to run it past a source. If my sources offer corrections, I take them into consideration, but never feel obligated to make precisely the changes they’ve suggested. It is, after all, my name in the byline.

And that brings us to what I think is the crux of the matter. Scientists are accustomed to treating a publication as final. Peer review takes place before the journal article goes to press, and multiple revision cycles are the norm. Once the paper is published, it becomes part of the permanent scientific record, so accuracy is crucial.

Accuracy is also important in journalism, but our version of peer review comes after publication, in the form of public discussions, letters, and subsequent stories by other journalists. Do you disagree with the way I explained your work? My name is on the story. Call me out.

Politicians do this reflexively, throwing “the media” under the bus every time a reporter says something they dislike. Businesses do it with press releases, sending up huge billows of responses to any coverage that doesn’t suit them. Scientists don’t need to go to those extremes, and frankly shouldn’t, but the modern media landscape certainly provides plenty of opportunities to talk back. If you do it often enough, you might even find yourself explaining your science directly to the public on a regular basis. Then we all win.