Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Science Communications Services Useful but Not Enough

The two clearinghouses for science news – EurekAlert! in North America and AlphaGalileo in Europe – provide a useful service to the news establishment, science publishers and scientific research institutions. However, adding no additional context to the underlying journal articles they cover, they do little to enhance the quality of the news they report or address the real gap in the public’s understanding of science.

The AlphaGalileo Foundation operates the AlphaGalileo site and disseminates calendar events, press releases and background science from Europe’s more prestigious scientific institutions to thousands of popular print, radio and television channels. The website Eurekalert! is run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and provides similar services.

The process begins when researchers publish their work in peer-reviewed journals like Science, for example. Writers at the research institution or the publishing company will draft a press release and post it with AlphaGalileo or Eurekalert! Directed to the general public, or perhaps the minority of the public interested in science reporting, the posts define technical terms and are careful to explain in plain language the benefits or impact of the science. Through these services, traditional journalists, editors and producers in print media, radio or television monitor press releases and events from thousands of research institutions. Similarly, researchers and their publishers can reach thousands of journalists: an invaluable service.

AlphaGalileo has a library in addition to the press releases, news posts and events. These are background pieces that provide context for journalists so they do a better job interpreting science news and explaining it to their readers. Relative to the amount of news that flows through these sites and the scope of the research, there is not much supporting background here, however. Eurekalert! provides no such content.

Although these services are invaluable to researchers, publishers, science reporters and indirectly to the public, there is still a large gap to be filled. These posts do a good job explaining peer-reviewed articles in more accessible language and make the benefits of the science clear, but they do nothing to provide missing context that the public ultimately needs to have confidence in the underlying science. How do we know what we know? What kinds of experimental methods were used? What is the History and Philosophy behind these ideas? And what was the personal process of discovery that led the scientist to his or her discovery? These and other questions are left for the reader.

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