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From The Writer’s Desk: What’s up with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series, “From The Writer’s Desk,” I’ll describe what I do for a living as a writer and ideas I have for advancing my craft.

Today I began my brief tenure at ScholarCast at Scitable, Nature’s portal for science education. My first post was on how I managed to dig up a story from research appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which raises a long-standing quibble of mine — what’s up how it publicizes its papers?

To explain, science journalism typically focuses on major journals such as Nature, Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These journals each give journalists who have written at least three stories for major news outlets what is known as embargo access, a sneak peak at papers about a week before they are formally published. This lead time is supposed to give reporters time to ask scientists questions about their work, since science is seen as a trickier to cover than, say, a school board meeting. Publishing a story on embargoed research before its embargo date and time can suspend that writer’s embargo access for weeks to months, which is why people generally don’t violate embargo.

Reporters who have embargo access to these journals typically get an email from each of them every week. This email highlights about six to 12 items, giving paragraph-long press releases on them. Reporters are also given links to embargoed papers, contact information for researchers, and links to images, video and audio if appropriate.

The thing is, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publishes more than six to 12 articles a week — more like 70. That means plenty of articles do not get highlighted, ones that may very well be newsworthy.

As a freelancer, this is actually good for me. The journals typically have password-protected sites for reporters with embargo access. I go to the site PNAS has, look at the rest of the papers, and find newsworthy items other journalists overlook. This is pretty much how freelancers are supposed to make a living, and really, all journalists — finding news that others miss. This week I ended up writing one such story on bonobo stone tool use. I know Ed Yong‘s gotten scoops this way as well.

Although I really should try and keep this backdoor a secret, since I profit from it, there’s a certain nagging sense of civic duty that wants everybody to have a fair chance at reporting newsworthy research; that wants interesting and important research to reach a wider audience instead of languishing in obscurity. There’s really a very simple thing PNAS can do — in their email to journalists, simply provide the titles of all the articles they’re publishing that they’re not highlighting. This is what Nature and Science do, after all. It’s a simple, no-cost solution.

I’ve tried raising this with PNAS’ news staff, but they just don’t seem to understand. Shrug.

Addendum: The PNAS News Office contacted me and let me know that at the bottom of their weekly email, they include a link to a page on their site for reporters where all their embargoed papers are listed by subject. This is the very page I visit each week when I want to look at more than just their highlighted papers. Some papers are redundantly listed under multiple subjects, which can be a minor frustration to peruse, but it’s served me and others well enough when it comes to mining the page for stories. The PNAS News Office said it met last year with a panel of more than 10 staff writers from Science News, Science, The New York Times, NPR and others last year. “Among other questions, we asked whether they would prefer a list of 60-80 articles at the end of the Tipsheet, or a simple link to the list on EurekAlert. All of them said they would prefer a link,” the PNAS News Office told me.

I can understand this was the recommendation they received and acted upon, but I nevertheless think it’s a mistake. Not listing all the other articles might be slightly more pleasing to the eye for reporters, but reporters should really overcome minor inconveniences in their job to let their readers know of science that deserves wider recognition.

Note: this article has been corrected since the time of its initial posting to reflect the fact that PNAS publishes 60 to 80 papers a week, not 20 as I originally stated.

You can email me regarding From The Writer’s Desk at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rickilewis 10:33 pm 08/22/2012

    Nice post! I do the same thing, as well as finding stories in obscure journals. I do a similar thing at conferences — get the list of talks being promoted in the press room, then go to anything else. I have a new gig picking the stories from the abstracts for a meeting and writing the news releases, for a genetics organization. Interestingly, some of my choices for a recent conference, which I based on the science, were not used, and others suggested, because of politics – people who had to be promoted. On another note, I am continually amazed at 1. news that isn’t new and 2. news that is premature, like issuing a news release to announce a clinical trial about to begin.

    Link to this

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