It's a Micro World after all is a blog dedicated to discussing pretty much whatever I feel like. When I delve into scientific matters it will primarily be discussing microbiology (agricultural, bioenergy, and environmental focus). Otherwise, I'll probably ramble on about sports and life.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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NOTE: To avoid TL;DR responses, I'm going to break this story into two parts.
I think the experience I am about to relate is far enough passed that I can speak with a little more objectivity than I could have even a couple of weeks ago. I should note that, in the end, things did work out for the better ... for the most part.
The story starts about a year ago when a manuscript of mine was accepted for publication. It appears that the reviewers recommended the manuscript for "Featured Paper of the Issue" which meant that in addition to getting the manuscript published (the major goal), I'd get some press out of it as well. Totally win-win!
I was told that as the article approached the publication date I would be contacted by a member of the journal staff about what I would need to do in regards to the press release. I figured that eventually I would receive a call from a staff science writer who, having read the paper, would ask me some questions to flesh out the final details and proof what they had written.
So I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. Ten days before the issue was to be released I was sent an email that contained a long list of items to consider for writing a press release. I was asked to get back to them within the next couple of weeks. So, I set down and started to write what I thought would be the press release. Of course, it wasn't enough for me to write the thing and send it out. I had several collaborators who I felt should get a glimpse of the document, and our institution also likes to have their own public relations staff take a look at it as well. That of course meant that my two week deadline was squashed into one, giving everyone else ample time to review it and get back to me. Our PR staff was perplexed that we had to write the press release ourselves, but they did say that this came with the added benefit of not having to rely on someone else's interpretation and we could set the agenda/get the story straight right from the get go. That seemed reasonable. The collaborators also had no problem with it, so with only a few minor tweaks from the PR staff, the press release was sent off to the journal.
And then I waited, and waited, and waited. The issue was released, and still no press release. I figured I would have had someone/anyone tell me that they had received the document and it would be published on "X date". But nothing. About three weeks passed, and I had not heard a thing. I actually wound up forgetting about it.
Then, one Monday morning I got into work and noticed that my email inbox had exploded. And it wasn't spam. It was emails from lots of other science writers asking me for interviews about "the very interesting research" mentioned in my press release. At this point I am a bit perplexed, because while I was personally excited about this work, and the reviewers obviously thought it contributed to the field, I did not expect this sort of response from the larger scientific community. So I went to take a look at the journal website to see what all the hub-bub was about.
It problem became self evident almost immediately. I had assumed that the document I had written for the journal would be used verbatim. Problem is, it wasn't. As a matter of fact, very little of it was used. I then also noticed another big issue. We had studied a particular system. This system can tie into a much larger picture, some of which can be highly politicized, but in the grand scheme of things only tangentially. In our manuscript we completely avoided the other larger picture because we didn't do any direct studies regarding it, were not interested in doing any direct studies regarding it, and were not required to do any direct studies regarding it. Yet, the very title of the press release said, in essence, that we did those direct studies. That, of course, was what filled my inbox. People wanted to talk to me about our studies and how it tied into this larger picture. The problem is, we had no idea because we never performed any experiments to make that connection ... anything we would have said on the topic would have been conjecture which statistically could have been just as likely to be wrong as it would have been right. In such highly charged issues, we felt it was safer to remain silent on the issue but now we had dozens of people requesting interviews. This was "Not Good".
Deeper reading into the press release revealed that the actual work done in the study, and which we talked about in the press release, was barely mentioned at all. And the writing? It looked like it was written by a fifth grader. It was horrible, and embarrassing. This could have easily been avoided by asking us to proof read it, but that never happened. Worse yet? The press release was submitted Sunday morning, and several dozen news aggregation sites had picked it up and distributed it across the web (to date over 100 news aggregation sites, blogs, other media have copied the press release verbatim). That meant that an incorrect story was now circulating the WWW with my name attached to it. This was also "Not Good".
So my first order of business was to contact my collaborators. They were not happy. My second order of business was to talk to the chairman. They were also not happy, particularly due to the political blowback we could receive from this mess. My third order of business was to talk to our PR department. They were stunned, but helped me craft a letter to send off to the journals science staff pointing out the mess that they had made to the press release and requesting they make a number of changes. By the end of the day that letter was sent off, and by the next morning they had responded, apologizing for the SNAFU and making the requested changes.
At this point the press release now talked about the research that had actually been done. However a problem persisted (and does to this day), that being that all the news aggregation sites still had the old/original press release up on the web ... (stay tuned for Part 2).
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There's a great example of this out today: Biologists discover a new class of insect repellent
The press releases' lede is all about how this group discovered a compound thats THOUSANDS of times more effective than DEET, except the paper doesn't have any experiments that use DEET for comparison. The effectiveness figure quoted is based on preliminary experiments that aren't included in the actual paper. It's still a good story, but it's sad they thought they had to overstate the findings in the press release to get it more attention.
That is ca-razy man. No matter how hard you try to get it right, its that last person who touches it before publication is the one who can put any slant or modification on a press release. And unfortunately, cause hell for you.