Frame takes on the New York Times

Diana Frame [EMPH ’09] decided to ask the New York Times Deputy Science Editor, Barbara Strauch, a little something about editorial decisions.. see below…

Q. Thank you for taking the time to answer reader’s inquiries regarding health and science coverage. I have a question on editorial decisions to publish clinical research findings based on articles in scientific journals. Specifically, how and why are articles deemed newsworthy, and is there any consideration of whether readers are able to obtain additional information beyond what is presented in the news report?

One case in point (of numerous examples I could have selected) is a recent New York Times piece on ovarian cancer screening (“Screening can detect early ovarian cancer,” March 11, 2009).

Because the topic is of considerable interest to me and the news item left important data unstated, I immediately looked up the original research article on which the story was based. I was disappointed to find that the article was available only by subscription or pay-per-view ($31.50 for the single article). In fact, although I am a student at Columbia University and have access to one of the world’s best health science libraries, I was not even able to access the article through Columbia’s online journal subscriptions because of the article’s “Online First” status. This is a sad state of affairs, particularly for scientific research which has often been funded by public entities.

My question for you is, would The New York Times consider refusing to carry news stories that promote scientific findings unless the source article is freely available? Although the article referenced above was performed in the United Kingdom, all research financed by the National Institutes of Health is now required to be made available upon publication. The news media can be an important part of enforcing and building on this policy. Alternatively, news articles could at least include a link to the publisher’s Web site and note the fact that a subscription or payment is required to access the full research report. I feel that only when we begin rewarding open access journals and repositories (such as the Public Library of Science and PubMed Central) is there hope that the best scientific evidence will be available to all citizens.

— Diana Frame, Brooklyn

A. Believe me, we share your frustration. We, too, sometimes have a hard time getting access to original research articles because most journals are privately owned. If I could wave a magic wand, all research would be free and open access. Unfortunately, we are not there yet and we have to live with the world as it is.

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2 Responses to Frame takes on the New York Times

  1. Diana Frame says:

    Thanks Andy for commenting. Personally I agree with you that peer review is an extremely valuable process and needs to be supported (financially and/or otherwise). I do believe that other models may work better than the current medical publishing model in providing timely and accessible information.

    In the NY Times piece, there was an interesting comment after mine from Jonathan Katz, a physicist at Washington University. (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/business/media/22askthetimes.html?pagewanted=7&_r=1&hp) The arxiv.org model seems like a good one for making results available quicker, if journals would be amenable to “scooping” the results of the data. I would take it a step further and say that peer review itself could and should transition to a more open model that takes advantage of technology. Real-time peer review could happen within a community of commenters, much like this blog we are writing on.

    Other possibilities are author or institutional support for peer review, such as in the Public Library of Science journals, and clinical trial registry databases being extended to include study results as soon as they are available. The latter concept has the added advantage of linking planned analyses to what was actually done, providing a build-in check of scientific rigor.

    In short, I think we can do better, without throwing out the mandate for peer review.

  2. Andy Swift says:

    I believe there are three broad economic models: the profit model, the tax model and the tithe model. Science, politics and religion all three depend on all three economic models. Many journals are run for profit so editors often do not publish articles unless they think the article will draw readers to the journal.

    Sometimes this is called publication bias. The Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis (JOSH) was founded to address a scientific publishing bias against such articles. More information is available at:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistical_hypothesis_testing

    I used to share Diana’s frustration about the unavailability of science journals (and data). I’d hesitate to recommend radical changes to the system. The current mix seems to work. In some cases scientists self-publish. Many authors post copies of publications on their own university or personal websites.

    The system may not be entirely broken. Particularly, the peer review process supported by journals is extremely valuable to improve methods and reduce mistake. Editors have prevented me from publishing things, that did in fact need better editing and rewriting. So, if journals require subscriptions to function. I think it is better to keep the quality higher than to rush the move towards open access format.

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