Show Us the Science

Reporting “science” stories on work that has potential impacts without letting potentially affected readers see directly what the fuss is about is a dereliction of journalism’s duty to fully inform

By Dave Skinner

In late may, to appropriate local press fanfare, a science team led by Flathead-based U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aquatic ecologist Clint Muhlfeld, PhD had their work published in Nature Climate Change. Congratulations.

The Beacon reported on this, of course, but as seems usual for science journalism, the provided “article link” runs readers into a paywall.

Nature Climate Change (NCC) is part of the Nature Publishing Group of Macmillan Publishing, which also owns Scientific American, America’s oldest magazine and top science publication for “non-academic” Americans.

An NCC subscription will set you back $199 per year. Single articles are available, ranging from $32 (Muhlfeld et al) to $18 per download. You can “rent” the article from a “cloud” app for a day, that’s four bucks.

Well, I’m so tight, I make pennies cry … so I looked to see if other news media had reported on Muhlfeld et al. They had, some well, others not.

My “favorite” headline blared “Farewell to the Cutthroat Trout?” – not a surprise considering the “nonprofit news” outfit that produced it is a project of a left-wing group in Virginia. What did surprise and concern me was finding that same “nonprofit” hack work posted in Scientific American word for word – headlined a classier “Cutthroat Trout Cross-Breeds to Survive.”

However, there are ways around these ridiculous “science” paywalls. My inside track was Beacon reporter Tristan Scott, who sent me the article. Professional courtesy, you know. But I also have contacts in academic and agency circles who bootleg me friendly copies.

In communities with a college, sometimes journals are publicly available for reading on the campus library. In our case, FVCC carries Nature, but not NCC.

One can also contact “corresponding authors” directly. Most respond quickly and courteously, although some don’t. Finally, at least for USGS scientists, there is www.sciencebase.gov, searchable by scientist name, which hosts many articles.

During my search, another hybridization paper turned up on NCC’s search engine. So I contacted the “corresponding author” in New Zealand. He promptly sent his paper “Hybridization may facilitate in situ survival of endemic species through periods of climate change,” which in turn refers to a 2009 Muhlfeld Biology Letters publication: “Hybridization rapidly reduces fitness of a native trout in the wild.”

I then sent a corresponding author request to Dr. Muhlfeld for his “fitness” paper. He has not yet responded, but that’s cool – I scored a free copy off the Biology Letters website via Sciencebase. It was paid for by BPA, Montana FWP and Uncle Sam anyway.

Those articles provide plenty of material, which I’ll discuss soon. But for now, I’ll focus on what I feel is terrible journalistic practice.

In their new NCC article, the Muhlfeld team notes that until now, there has been “little empirical information to guide policy and management decisions” about hybridization. The paper hints at the direction they’d like policy to take, which could carry some rather consequential effects on society at large.

When it comes to science that can affect public policy, conducted by public institutions, mainly with public money – why in tarnation must normal citizens (not affiliated with a university or government agency) be slapped with punitive charges for journal articles?

I fully understand that scientists love being published in peer-reviewed articles. Reporters need material to “report” as well. Like newspapers, journals have bills to pay, subscribers to recruit and competitors to beat.

But reporting “science” stories on work that has potential impacts without letting potentially affected readers see directly what the fuss is about is a dereliction of journalism’s duty to fully inform.

Therefore, I strongly suggest that general interest media, including the Beacon, adopt a new science reporting policy: In return for the glory of “free media” publicity, all institutions, academics and journals seeking general interest coverage of their work should provide free or at least “reasonable” access ($32 is insane) to the journal article itself – or the story should not be written at all.

Show us the science.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.