Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Scientists under pressure for a good story

Journalists might be about a popular as estate agents and politicians but most of us understand how difficult it is to do the job properly these days when content is just words and pictures to go between the ads.

The other day I saw a story saying that depression can cause Alzheimer's Disease. Now I've been engaged in a lifelong battle with depression and have a memory like the proverbial wire-meshed kitchen utensil so you can imagine I leapt on this like Silvio Berlusconi on a showgirl. But closer examination showed that this was actually a trial for a drug to treat Alzheimer's and that the patients in question were all over 55 and had a mild cognitive impairment to begin with. It's easy to oversimplify in the search for something newsworthy, especially as today's multi-platform, multi-tasking journalists are expected to produce more stories in less time.

No wonder the over-worked hack is a target for the hoaxer. There's a hoax health study that's been doing the rounds since at least 2000 suggesting that looking a women's naked breasts is good for a man's health. It still appears in the media from time to time. But it's not just tabloids and desperate for anything websites and bloggers who can be hoaxed. There was much laughter this week as the editor of the Open Information Science Journal was forced to step down after his title published a hoax paper full of computer-generated goobledegook from an organisation styling themselves CRAP (Centre for Research in Applied Phrenology).

But it doesn't stop there and this is the worrying part for those of us who rely on science for our 'evidence'. Check out the survey showing that as many as third of scientists admit to fiddling their data. In the desire for headline-making, funder-pleasing, career-enhancing research, scientists appear to be under similar pressures to media editors. Are research scientists the new estate agents?

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