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Sep
03

Another interview makes the cutting room floor

Since I was a teenager I have been very interested in the communication of science to the public. The UK used to have an essay competition sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and religiously I would enter it. I never wanted to be a journalist, I always wanted to be a scientist, I came from a not very promising background, not bad academically but I could dream. I was never a great writer but I had a passion for science, I devoured the written word, like a cat laps up milk (ok so does that illustrate the fact). 1988 I went away to Nottingham Trent Polytechnic to study HND applied biology (science). Yes that really was how I started becoming a scientist. The same year I had entered a competition to design an exhibit for a brand new science museum in Manchester. I did not win but I managed to get an award  and the opportunity to meet some heroes (Heinz Wolff and Roger Highfield) whom I watched or read vociferously. They were at that time my science communication idols. The next 20 odd years I take a rather unique scientific pathway, I do science, I write, I talk, I lecture…I communicate it. I try.

Apologies for the background context but I think it’s important. Over my career I have occasionally been interviewed..sometimes I got a quote in an article, more often than not I have been given the role of contrarian. Rapidly cutting to the chase..two weeks ago I was interviewed with a colleague for an article in a rather well known chemistry magazine on a topic I work on (tuberculosis research). I had co-authored a recent paper and hoped to highlight that. An hour later I was pretty hopeful we would get a mention. I even suggested to the interviewer that they interview a collaborator to get a different perspective from academia ( I should also add we are all youngish scientists in our early 40s) .

None of us heard back from the journalist before the article published today. None of us had a mention. So 3 scientists wasted an hour each of our time. The same thing happened a few months ago when I was interviewed for another article in a different journal by another journalist. I know most people would just want to be interviewed. I want more. My time is valuable.

I totally understand if I am a boring interviewee with nothing to say. So say so upfront. Do not lead me on for 60 minutes. I am not afraid of being told my opinion is not desired. Yes  I wanted to be interviewed because its been drummed into me over 20 years that the public understanding of science is pathetic and we scientists have to do a better job communicating to the masses etc.. Now if you filter the scientists through journalists does that make us better communicators? I think in the pre blog days that was the only way to go but some scientists are cracking communicators and have huge audiences. Not me. My work has a couple of journals and magazines that would likely cover something I might do. The potential for my work to reach a broader audience by contributing to an interview is the “bait”. We scientists are lured hook, line and sinker every time. Bigger audience, equals more citations, more citations equals success, funding and respect. I should go further and say that we try to highlight the work because our collaborators and co-authors also benefit from the exposure.

Today in the space of a tweet I decided enough is enough.

“Tired of ..giving journalists an hour of my time for them ultimately to not include my ideas. I now refuse 2 be interviewed. Read my papers.”

Whether this will be a bad decision is hard to tell. I know I was scheduled to be interviewed by the same magazine on an unrelated topic. I will now send my apologies. The tweet was retweeted and have had lots of feedback and suggestions in 11hrs. David Kroll suggested I blog what would have gone in the interview..and I started to draft this earlier today so that may be the next blog. Many of the respondents were journalists. I am not saying journalists are bad I am just tired of the run around. You have a job to do and so do I. I am not a big name scientist. I am young, I am not a traditional academic (adjunct), I am doing things differently to the really big names in the field. I am independent, I am critical, I am not always a contrarian so please do not label me. I always get the feeling scientists are labelled. I want none of it. The buck stops here. I do not need a journalist to communicate my science as I will do it myself. Please read my papers and quote them. If you want to interview scientists with something new to say please do not leave us on the cutting room floor.

2 comments

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  1. Antony Williams says:

    I have been interviewed a number of times. Some times I have not been quoted even though my OWN opinion of the interview was that I gave them comments of value and something worth using. The times I have been quoted I have multiple experiences:
    * What I said was used appropriately, in context and communicated what I was trying to say
    * What I said was used inappropriately, OUT OF CONTEXT and caused my problems
    * What I said was used without reference to me at all
    *What I said was not used as it would have collided with the articles bias (I judge)

  2. sean says:

    thanks Tony,
    I should have added some links to some of the folks and places I mentioned..
    I think we are often interviewed for color commentary. I see people used as contrarians in interviews when their viewpoint is probably equally deserving of an article in itself. I just read 2 news articles from different Nature Journals on the same topic in July written by different journalists ( Nature Biotech 30: 571 (2012); Nat Rev Drug Disc 11: 1 (2012)) The format was similar, introduce topic, use 3 people to make the point why it was important for over 80% of article, give naysayer a few lines . Both used different sets of scientists to spice up the comments of the NIH and MRC main interviewees. How many times do we see this and accept it as ‘balanced’ reporting? It’s basically an expanded press release.

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