PopSciFilter November 18, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Standards for science news posts?

Thin breaking-news posts and single-link op-eds are routinely deleted here. I'd like to suggest that we apply similar standards to science news FPPs. Initial reports about scientific research in the popular media are frequently misleading and hyperbolic.

FPPs about a scientific paper should at least include a link the an abstract of the actual paper, and preferably the paper itself, if it's available. (Not too infrequently, authors of academic papers post copies on their website. It's not too difficult to Google the names of the authors to see if there's a pdf available.)

Often it's much better to wait a bit. If a recently published paper attracts a lot of interest in its field, science bloggers who've read the paper and do research in that area will usually start writing about it within a week or so.

I'm hoping that a policy of flagging and deleting thin science news posts, as currently applies to regular NewsFilter, will give better science news posts linking to more informed commentary a better chance of existing on MeFi.
posted by nangar to Etiquette/Policy at 11:59 AM (49 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

do you already flag thin science posts?
posted by nadawi at 12:02 PM on November 18, 2011


... a link to the abstract ...

(can't type, or see typos on preview, sorry)
posted by nangar at 12:03 PM on November 18, 2011


From an evolutionary psych standpoint it's perfectly natural that people want to be the first to post about any new discoveries, even if they don't get the story 100% right. In an isolated tribal community the ability to discover new sources of food or new ways to use tools provided a massive value in increasing the population of the tribe.

The person who made the announcement would certainly have a much easier time finding a mate in the short term and the refinements of the discovery would be worked out over time.

The bottom line is, we have to let people post science stories the way they want, science demands it.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:06 PM on November 18, 2011 [23 favorites]


I usually also link to the original paper when i make science related posts. I think that's sufficient really. If there's a problem with the work, someone will surely explain it in comments. If it gets posted to metafilter, it's probably all over the news anyway, and usually mefi comments will tell you why all the newspaper explanations of it were wrong in about 30 minutes.
posted by empath at 12:10 PM on November 18, 2011


Quit trying to suppress cold fusion!
posted by Burhanistan at 12:11 PM on November 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Based on my study of four of the 2276 posts tagged with "science", I have concluded that this happens about 50% of the time.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:12 PM on November 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


You're totally welcome to flag stuff that's kind of crap and even more welcome to use the contact form to tell us why something is crap - between all of us, the mod team has a whole bunch of random knowledge, but we're not going to be able to distinguish good from bad on every subject ever.

That said, the kinds of detailed, in-depth comments that begin "I happen to study [x] and here's the real story behind this" are super popular and arise surprisingly often in science threads here, and I am inclined to think are well worth the slightly dubious posts they spring from.

That said, thin is thin, and by all means use the usual channels to call stuff out as you see fit. I'd personally be more inclined to kill something framed as "X awesome thing was just discovered!" rather than "X new thing with potentially very interesting ramifications was explored in a recent paper" even if they're substantially the same content otherwise, but that may be just me.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 12:15 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


(That said, I have way too many verbal tics and should get a handle on that.)
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 12:16 PM on November 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


It could be argued that MetaFilter is helping to improve the quality of popular science precisely because people are posting these things only to get shot down by a knowledgable audience.

Besides, what do you suggest? An cross-disciplinary committee to moderate every post?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:18 PM on November 18, 2011


I think everything you've said is entirely right and that science posts would be much better if they had everything you included and waited enough time to collect insights from multiple credible sources in the field. But a lot of the fixes you suggest can be achieved through the comments -- I can't speak to any science threads where this has happened, but you could say the same thing about stories involving legal, and in the discussions, people will add links to particularly insightful blog responses or the documentation for the case if they aren't included in the original post.

So it really becomes a question of instituting a waiting period, like you suggested, not unlike the one suggested below or the one that has been suggested innumerable times re: obit posts.

In other words, I wish every post was born perfectly, but I know that's not likely, so I'm glad there's a village around to fix it, and I think that's good enough. I still think you should flag ones you find egregious, and even though I don't think it will change everybody's behavior (and that the mods shouldn't necessarily change theirs) bringing it to the attention of others so they think about it differently is a good thing, especially because you asked decently.

But I just think that because of my successful paper that studied diptera captive rates with sucrose versus ethanol fermented by acetic acid bacteria.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:18 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's definitely worth it to try and make a post a little more "here's the research and commentary available about scientific thing x" and less "here's a pop science blurb about x", yeah.

I usually delete particularly poor examples of this stuff with something resembling a vengeance, but the sort of low-to-middling presentations that aren't outright terrible but mostly rely on (consistently pretty unreliable) non-science-journal reportage of scientific issues do tend to be kind of headache-inducing in the way that the thread gets undercut from the word go by the poor presentation by the folks who were in theory doing journalism.

I'd always rather see a well-presented post about something than a poorly-presented one, and to some extent that can be an issue where a do-over of a poor post is the best way to go.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:19 PM on November 18, 2011


Standards for science news posts?

Think of flagging as a peer review system.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:33 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


No!

This would reduce an already science-impoverished site to true penury.
posted by jamjam at 12:47 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Only if it goes through a pear review process.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:49 PM on November 18, 2011


I hate catching science-news from CNN and MSNBC; I purposely try to filter it from my life (but occasionally read it because it was linked somewhere), but then I find myself at a party referring to an interesting study or theory I heard about, but can't properly attribute, only to find out it was from CNN and has now been properly studied and discredited.

So yeah, the less of that I end up seeing, the better it is for me.

Only if it goes through a pear review process.

A good post must be plump, old enough to have ripened and...uh...juicy, with a good amount of colour.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 12:51 PM on November 18, 2011


non-science-journal reportage of scientific issues do tend to be kind of headache-inducing in the way that the thread gets undercut from the word go by the poor presentation by the folks who were in theory doing journalism.

I know: I stopped reading the "science and technology" sections of newspapers and magazines a couple decades ago (except for the celebrity news, of course *eyeroll*). I'd rather links from the mainstream media get nipped in the bud. And then dissolved in sulfuric acid.

Problem is, of course, a lot of the really high quality and written-for-the-general audience pieces come from places like Nature and Science (or EOS or Physics Today) where a lot of it isn't publicly available. Not sure how to overcome this limitation with becoming a scofflaw.
posted by zomg at 12:53 PM on November 18, 2011


From an evolutionary psych standpoint

oh god i couldn't even read the rest of the comment through the scrim of vomit on my monitor.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:08 PM on November 18, 2011 [12 favorites]


Perhaps we would benefit from more developed guidelines for particular topics. Sure, many people would ignore them, but for those who really want to make a good post and aren't quite sure how, they could have a nice checklist of suggestions, that aren't binding but are consistently the sorts of things that people ask for in MetaTalk and that the mods sometimes delete posts for. I'd start it like this:

Science:
  • In addition to popular news stories, try to link to the original paper on the topic. You can often find for free this linked from the authors' web sites, even if a journal has a paywall.
  • Popular science and academic science publications usually have more accurate descriptions than the mainstream press, so please use them when possible.
  • If there is other commentary on specialist science blogs, that's a good thing to link for this kind of article. If it doesn't exist yet, it might be good to wait a couple of days for it to arrive.
News:
  • Opinion pieces and breaking news articles rarely make good posts in and of themselves.
  • If this is an update to an ongoing event that already has an open thread, please consider posting there instead.
Obituary:
  • Please don't rush to be the first person to post an obituary. The post is better when it includes links to interesting pages that often don't appear until a couple of days after someone has died.
If I had my druthers, I'd probably add something discouraging people from posting things where the only source is The Daily Mail or New Scientist, but maybe that is too pointed for a community guideline.
posted by grouse at 1:16 PM on November 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


You can often find for free this linked from the authors' web sites, even if a journal has a paywall.

I know information wants to be free, etc. and I don't want to rehash that argument, but this is probably a bad idea, on the whole. Journals behind paywalls have pretty clear guidelines on researchers posting pre-prints for sharing with the academic community — specifically to colleagues — and Metafilter is not an academic community, even if some of us are in academia.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:30 PM on November 18, 2011


I'm not sure that's an accurate description of the rules under which authors post preprints on their personal websites, and I definitely don't think that we should refrain from linking to something based on what journals might or might not prefer. If the author has placed something on the open web, it's fair game, and anything else is between them and the publisher.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:36 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure that's an accurate description

I guess I should say, at the very least it's an oversimplification. There's a very broad range of agreements between journals and authors, and I don't think it's our responsibility to parse out what those might be. (It is mind-boggling, yet somehow unsurprising, that a publisher might in effect say "OK, you can post this openly, but only the right people are allowed to go and look at it.")
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:40 PM on November 18, 2011


Journals behind paywalls have pretty clear guidelines on researchers posting pre-prints for sharing with the academic community

Every journal I've published in has expressly stated that posting the article online to either a personal website or to a preprint server is ok. There is no clause saying "you can do this, but you must not tell the public" or anything like that.

Metafilter users are not a revenue stream for journals. University libraries are. Unless university libraries start deciding "hey, everyone can just get their journal articles from metafilter", there's no need to hide the fact that preprints are freely available for almost every article. If the author has violated their contractual agreements with the journal by posting the article online, that's their problem, and not something that FPP authors should spend time worrying about.

The best solution is to link to the articles that are posted to arxiv.org. Posting articles to arxiv is almost a de facto requirement in many fields, especially physical sciences.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:40 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Personally, I would really hate it if we started requiring source criteria of ANY kind for any discipline-based MetaFilter post. This isn't academia. Where it's relevant, people tend to be pretty quick to find and post this sort of source. There is already a reasonable amount of concern and intimidation about posting to MeFi; establishing a list of checkboxes to cover before you can post your topical content would discourage even more posters. I understand the frustration when a sophisticated topic is handled poorly, but that's kind of a frustration even when the topic appears in the popular press, let alone when it's discussed on a blog. I believe the best response is really to handle any shortcomings of the presentation in the discussion itself. No more hurdles to jump, please. People won't observe them anyway, and it'll just further intimidate those who might otherwise make great posts.
posted by Miko at 1:43 PM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


They aren't requirements, they're suggestions. Furthermore, I think one of the reasons posting here can be intimidating for the uninitiated is that understanding why some posts pass muster and others don't can seem totally opaque. This is an effort to make those qualities more transparent.
posted by grouse at 1:49 PM on November 18, 2011


I don't object to a page of suggestions, but people will not all rush to use them, and there will still be these posts that disappoint, and then there will still be these MeTas. I certainly don't think it's a bad idea to suggest - we can always use more resources and the Wiki is made for this type of thing - just thinking about the real-life way most people behave, and representing the idea that our expectations can really only get so high for a voluntary, casual, discussion-based site.
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on November 18, 2011


The bottom line is, we have to let people post science stories the way they want, science demands it.

I'm sorry, but horseshit. SCIENCE! demands that the cool thing you discovered go through a peer review process. A scientist who discovers something cool growing in a petri dish might be all "OMG you guys LOOK!" to his or her fellow lab monkeys, but their cool thing will not be announced to one and all until it's been vetted and confirmed.

The idea that evolution and SCIENCE! somehow demand that participants on a website are incapable of putting some thought into their posts is silly.

That said: of course people should put some thought and effort into their posts, especially the science-related ones. A link to a CNN story about the science thing should be one link of several, with the others being more in-depth if at all possible. And if it isn't possible - say, because the paper itself is only available if you pay, or email the author yourself, then it probably shouldn't be a post yet.
posted by rtha at 2:03 PM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Given that I'm just a girl at heart (do ignore that first class in Engineering, it was my boyfriend what helped me) and I've a lot of grocery shopping to do for the supper I'm planning to make, one link is about all that I could possibly manage. Besides, the keyboard tweaks my fingernails so painfully it just makes me want to squeal in pain.
posted by infini at 2:14 PM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The idea that evolution and SCIENCE! somehow demand that participants on a website are incapable of putting some thought into their posts is silly.

I think your sarcasm meter is broken. (At least I hope so.)
posted by OmieWise at 2:50 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Totally broken, yes. I've sent it in for recalibration. (And then I had some lunch - it was not hamburger, though it should have been - which seemed to help immeasurably.)
posted by rtha at 3:04 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like the pop science threads.

Not because of the links, mind you, but because of that inevitable comment by some scientist in the field who sighs a big sigh and then explains at great length exactly how the news report is all bullshit and what's really going on.

It's educational!
posted by Sys Rq at 4:00 PM on November 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


I was going to post something unbearably snarky about the systemic tendency of scientists to overstate the importance of their findings, and the futility of trying to fix it, but actually I like this pony. If a post is about a scientific paper, the FPP should include a link to the paper, even if it's behind a paywall.
posted by roofus at 4:08 PM on November 18, 2011


*nods* Math is hard.

...Because I'm a biologist, not a girl. What's that funny S in front of your equation?
posted by maryr at 4:56 PM on November 18, 2011


this site works pretty well largely because lots of people post and lots of people comment. higher barriers to entry would kill this place, or at least change it into something it's not. "something interesting on the web" is what this place is about, not the advancement of scientific knowledge.
posted by facetious at 5:04 PM on November 18, 2011


SCIENCE! demands that the cool thing you discovered go through a peer review process.

Great idea!

While we're at it, I think that anyone who wants to do an FPP should have to do a thesis defense first.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:36 PM on November 18, 2011


While we're at it, I think that anyone who wants to do an FPP should have to do a thesis defense first.

But will I have to wrestle a snake?
posted by en forme de poire at 7:38 PM on November 18, 2011


I think that anyone who wants to do an FPP should have to do a thesis defense first.

Done.
posted by grouse at 7:58 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Studies have shown people that since people have been making these posts, there have been multiple wars, and global warming is getting worse.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:11 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


All science posts should be subject to the Jenny McCarthy test. If she's against it, then it's good science.

Same metric applies to the Texas Board of Edumication.
posted by arcticseal at 10:31 PM on November 18, 2011


Oh excellent, I saw all those prehistoric origins of mankind in the museum started by the Leakeys
posted by infini at 11:00 PM on November 18, 2011


What's that funny S in front of your equation?

It's for extra Science.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:56 AM on November 19, 2011


I usually delete particularly poor examples of this stuff with something resembling a vengeance

I am cheering for you. For real.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:20 AM on November 19, 2011


I think a link to the original paper should be highly desirable. Its lack should not perhaps be immediate reason for deletion, but the post should otherwise have to be pretty strong to compensate, either in the original post link, or by secondary links in the post.

I'd further strongly encourage the use of DOIs---think of these as permalinks for papers---but that's perhaps too high a bar. The DOI for almost every article can now be found on the journal page. It's usually a simple matter of finding the link and copying it.

I'd actually discourage the use of liking to papers on authors' websites. I know I'm not strictly allowed to post new papers from the journals I publish in. I sometimes put up conference papers or posters though, which may be well worth including. I'd actually prefer just a link to the primary author's group page, if such exists.
posted by bonehead at 7:15 AM on November 19, 2011


The best solution is to link to the articles that are posted to arxiv.org. Posting articles to arxiv is almost a de facto requirement in many fields, especially physical sciences.

That's too broad. arxiv is still largely physics only, with minor spillover in math and physical/theoretical chem. You won't find the majority of chemistry, math or any of the earth sciences there, for example.
posted by bonehead at 7:19 AM on November 19, 2011


I like these types of posts.

1. Usually an expert show up to drop some serious knowledge because the crap posts don't have it.

2. It kind of immediately requires anyone engaging in good faith to bring the tools of skeptical inquiry and scientific rigor to bear in determining the meat of the FPP, essentially reinforcing the basis of science WHILE destroying bad science.

I like it.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:01 AM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


In other words, we are trolling the scientists.
posted by ryanrs at 9:49 AM on November 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


In other words, we are trolling the scientists.

FOR THE GOOD OF ALL
posted by Sys Rq at 11:35 AM on November 20, 2011


(That said, I have way too many verbal tics and should get a handle on that.)
posted by restless_nomad


Weren't we just talking about that?
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:18 PM on November 20, 2011


Well, not quite "just"...
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:21 PM on November 20, 2011


The person who made the announcement would certainly have a much easier time finding a mate in the short term...

Citation?
posted by General Tonic at 9:13 AM on November 22, 2011


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