Jackrabbit Junk Journalism

By Beacon Staff

If you were expecting a riff from me on the Whitefish doughnut war, sorry, but something else is jammed in my craw: Crummy science and even crummier science journalism.

Around Valentines Day, the Associated Press reported on Wildlife Conservation Society scientist and University of Montana professor Joel Berger’s “discovery” that jackrabbits have disappeared from Yellowstone Park.

This is news? Yep, at least to the 73 news outlets that ran the story on their Web sites. But, as the AP’s Matthew Brown duly reported, jackrabbits are “listed as a species of ‘least concern’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.”

Berger nonetheless suggested reintroducing jacks – apparently to go along with reintroduced wolves, and then of course, study the results.

My initial response to this latest ecological crisis? Turn the page. But a few days later, Park “ornithologist emeritus” and Gardiner resident Terry McEneaney wrote in the Billings Gazette he’d seen at least two Park jackrabbits in the past two days and that perhaps Berger’s bunny issue is “moot” and the species “doesn’t need the help.”

McEneaney’s critique spurred a huffy Gazette open letter from Berger suggesting “Terry read the [journal] paper first” (not the newspaper) and then comment “on the full intent of the paper rather than basing his response only on the media account. That is not responsible.”

I agreed, and went to scrounge up the journal article. Turns out the Science Daily press release that started the “news” has no link to the journal article itself, although it does name the journal, Oryx.

Oryx is a quarterly magazine that “aims to provide a comprehensive view of the conservation and status of fauna, flora and habitats, and of conservation policy and sustainable use,” in essence the house organ of Fauna and Flora International.

FFI, which I’d never heard of before, is apparently a British group where you can “help shape the destiny of life on Earth.” Now there’s a modest mission statement. FFI’s U.S. subsidiary was founded in 1903, and had a 2006 budget of about $1.5 million. Altogether, FFI appears to be an overseas version of the Nature Conservancy.

Yeah, but what about the journal article? Well, to see it, you either get to buy an FFI “Oryx Member” subscription for a lousy $107 a year, or cough up $20 to download the article. Is that a rip-off or what?

So here’s the deal: Scientist Joel Berger and WCS want to toot their horn. Out goes the press release, the reporter cribs from it in writing a science item for the ignorant masses, apparently without actually reading the journal article. Then Terry McEneaney, another scientist, tosses the BS flag, and Berger gets in a snit because it’s “not responsible” to judge work one hasn’t seen without chucking a sawbuck?

Is your BS flag flying now? It should be.

It is the height of irresponsibility, on the part of both journalists and participating scientists, to publicize science journal work through the news media without making the journal article itself freely and easily accessible to the lay public.

Furthermore, how prestigious and newsworthy an achievement is this, really? How rigorous is Oryx’s peer-review process?

Well, on the Guidestar Web site I took a look at FFI’s 2006 tax return and stumbled across an interesting line-item about “donor-advised” grants. One “advised” donor just happens to be WCS, which granted FFI $42,788 that year. Given WCS fiscal involvement, whatever its nature, wouldn’t it have been appropriate for reporter Brown to ask if Oryx’s peer-review process ever bites the hands of people who work for outfits that help feed it?

Now, I understand that journal publication is the stock-in-trade of academic scientists, especially those affiliated with “publish-or-perish” higher education. Berger gets to include another bullet point in his curriculum vitae (that’s resume’ to lay people) and grant proposals, while the press coverage bestows prestige in the public arena.

Yet without access to the journal article itself or an understanding of its publication review process, we the public have no idea how much “prestige” Dr. Berger truly warrants. That is not responsible.