Public information officers (PIOs) write news releases and blog posts, which they pitch to reporters in hopes of convincing the reporters to write stories about, well, whatever it is the PIOs wrote about. As a PIO who covers a lot of scientific research, I do this too. I’ve been asked several times recently how I decide which research findings to promote, and which ones I (respectfully) decline to write about. That’s what this post is about.
First off, when it comes to research, I write almost exclusively about findings that are published in peer-reviewed journals. This does not guarantee that the findings will stand the test of time (there’s a reason that Retraction Watch exists). But peer review does tell me that a panel of people who are presumably experts in the relevant field feels that the research passes muster. This is particularly important to me because: A) I cover a wide variety of fields; and B) I am not a scientist.
There are, of course, exceptions to my peer review rule. For example, I’ve written about efforts to design or re-purpose technology to address specific real-world problems. It’s not necessarily advancing a scientific field of inquiry, but it’s a good story. And, ultimately, a good story is what I’m looking for.
Researchers feel that any paper they publish has merit, or else they wouldn’t publish it. Therefore, when working with researchers, I make it clear that the decisions I make about which papers to promote are not judgments on the scientific or academic value of the work. Instead, I make my decisions based on whether the work lends itself to a good news story.
Almost all journal articles are about new research findings. Literature reviews are an exception. I appreciate their value – pulling the findings of dozens of scattered research articles together into one place is enormously helpful in giving the research community an overview of the “state of the science” for a given topic. However, such reviews rarely contain any new information. And if it is not new, it is probably not news.
Spotting a Story
Because my beat at NC State University covers many hundreds of researchers, it is virtually impossible for me to touch base with all of them on any kind of regular basis. As a result, I ask them to give me a heads up about forthcoming research as soon as a paper has been accepted, if it is a paper they think I’ll be interested in.
When I first tell researchers this, they usually say: “Do you really want to know about everything? Every paper?” Of course not. But I rely on their judgment, because they are the experts in their fields. I also give them four guidelines for determining whether to contact me about a paper.
Guideline 1: Is the finding a big deal in your field? If the paper is going to make other people in your field sit up and take notice, please let me know. I don’t care how technical it is. If it’s a physics paper that will set the physics world abuzz, I want to know about it.
Guideline 2: Does the finding have practical applications? Maybe the research isn’t going to “shake the pillars of heaven,” as Jack Burton says. It could still be extremely interesting. Particularly if it will somehow save people time or money, make a process more energy-efficient, tackle a medical problem, or have some other obviously practical use. If the finding fits into any of these categories, please let me know.
Guideline 3: Is the finding really freaking cool? If you’re working on a Martian tumbleweed rover, steering cockroaches by remote control, or doing anything else that will get people’s attention, please let me know. For example, if you’re telling a neighbor or friend (who doesn’t work in your field) about your research, and they say “Wow! Cool!”, then odds are good that I will also say, “Wow! Cool!”
Guideline 4: When in doubt, let me know. If you can’t decide whether the research fits into one (or more) of these categories, please let me know. I’d rather hear about 10 papers, and dismiss nine of them, than miss out on something really cool.
So, that’s how I sift through forthcoming journal articles. I’m guessing that other PIOs use different techniques. I’d be curious to hear them. Reporters: is this information useful or interesting to you? Is there anything else about this process that you’re curious about?