Press release? We don’t need no stinking press release?

I hate press releases – especially around scientific papers. They rarely explain the work clearly, almost always overstate its significance, and are often grossly dishonest.┬áBut scientists and their press offices, working in close collaboration with journals, continue churning them, hoping to earn popular press coverage of their latest findings. They go through this unseemly process because they believe that reporters will only cover papers if they get advance notice of publications, and are spoonfed highlights.

After the grotesque NASA press releases around their 2010 arsenic paper in Science, I vowed to do whatever I can to end this practice. So I was very happy when my brother decided not to press release a very cool paper he had coming out in PLoS One (and double props for publishing it there). He chose, instead, to write a long, detailed blog post after the paper was published explaining not only the paper, but the story behind it. This violated all of the assumptions of the embargoed press release mindset – he provided no advanced notice, and the blog post was anything but a flashy, dumbed down account of how the paper would change the world.

And, of course, he was punished mercilessly for his apostasy…. NOT!

His blog post and paper were immediately picked up by a host of prominent and thoughtful science bloggers (e.g. Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers), who appreciated (I am speculating) not being talked down to. But more impressively, the story got tons of play in the popular press who supposedly had not time to read long posts and wouldn’t report on “yesterday’s news”. Today there was a really good article about the paper in The Economist.

So “Way to go Jonathan!” – I hope this is the beginning of the end of the scientific press release.

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  1. Posted March 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    OK, well, thanks. But one thing is not accurate there. I did send a copy of the paper to Zimmer in advance. And I told him originally we were going to write a press release. But then I changed my mind and we changed the model to not doing the press release and I just wrote up the blog post. So Zimmer did have the paper in advance. And then the day before the paper came out I sent the PDF to a few others with a comment that I was writing up some detail for my blog. So a few people did get a heads up … mostly because I had not yet written up the blog post and had not yet figured out WTF we were going to do. Note there was no spoonfeeding of highlights. Zimmer wrote his post directly from the PDF and then most others used the PDF and my post.

  2. Mars
    Posted March 25, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I understand some of the benefits of this strategy, and drawbacks of the old model, but…

    With the press release model, the press release is by an ongoing organization with a reputation to protect, at least in theory. With the new model, you’re asking journalists to have the good sense to be able to distinguish good, groundbreaking research from … any claims whatever that an author decides to put up on a blog about his/her research.