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Forget Science Blogging vs. Science Journalism: Let's Talk Paywalls

Forget Science Blogging vs. Science Journalism: Let's Talk Paywalls

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Science blogging vs. science journalism: Isn't this debate over yet? Apparently not. Canadian journalist Colin Schultz points to a new study by two Northwestern doctoral students suggesting that science bloggers rely on more diverse sources than political bloggers or traditional science journalists.

Schultz writes:

They found that science bloggers, unlike the other two camps, rely on a higher diversity of sources, particularly primary literature or other academic work. Science bloggers are also much less self-referential; they don't talk about themselves as much.

This isn't exactly earth-shattering, and one could take issue with the idea that science bloggers don't talk too much about themselves (witness the PepsiCo debacle).

But one point raised in the comments – about linking to scientific journal articles that may be behind a paywall – is relevant for anyone, blogger or journalist, covering health issues. One of the commenters criticized mainstream media for not linking to primary sources like research articles, or at least abstracts. In fact, many health journalists and news outlets do just that. Some, like the BBC, do not, which has become a bit of a cause for doctor-blogger Ben Goldacre.

But really, how useful for your audience is a link to a journal article that may cost $30 or more to read? Have you ever convinced a journal or other content provider to liberate a particular article from its paywall so you could link to its full text? I have, on numerous occasions, in past years. Given the general rise of paywalls, however, I wonder if that's still an option.

What has your experience been? I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

(Hat tip to ReportingonHealth member and science blogger Dr. Peter Lipson, who pointed me to Schultz's post.)


Picture of R. Jan Gurley

I have found that general readers will specifically comment on links to academic articles - often with pertinent, insightful responses to the data. There was a frenzy of such comments on an article I wrote about medical marijuana, for example. Paywalls are very frustrating to readers, however, who will complain about running into them. I have found one work-around, which is to link to the articles' abstract on PubMed (or other data search portal). While this approach is suboptimal in that readers can only get the abstract, it is one way to direct links to the original research, and allow them to take it further past a paywall if they want to, or can. And, while paywalls may be necessary for the fiscal survival of a publication, it is more than a bit annoying to deal with them when all the original research was paid for with grants of tax dollars - yours and mine. For this reason, it appears that more and more such papers are becoming free for viewing in their entirety (which appears as a "View this article free" type tag in many search engines).

Picture of Carolyn Thomas

Very interesting points about paywalls, Barbara.  I agree - it's so annoying to land on some medical journal 'teaser' link only to get an Elsevier message advising that you need to be a subscriber to read the whole journal article you're referencing.

I've seen some journalists (in the New York Times online version, for example) who quote liberally from a published medical study for the story, include the live link to that journal, but then write "requires subscription" as a disclaimer.   Why even bother?  This is why writers are driven to come up with lines like: "According to the New York Times..." because the Times apparently does have money to subscribe to every journal!

The PubMed abstract is an appropriate option because the average lay reader rarely needs the depth of coverage on methodology that the full article would provide, but personally, before I write about these studies, there are some standard questions I need to ask. I do like to know how big the research sample was, for instance, or what the gender balance was among subjects, and (often the most important credibility factor) I like to study the list of conflict of interest disclosures from study authors.  Who paid for this study and these opinions?  It's not uncommon to have full-time employees of the very pharmaceutical companies that funded the study listed as the medical journal article authors, for example.  I think it's important to point that out to your readers before supplying them the "facts" of any study.

That's another reason that I like open access journals like PLoS Medicine. 

And speaking of a 'higher diversity of sources', please don't forget the business media when reporting on health issues. Because I frequently write about Big Pharma marketing, I like to see what industry insiders and stock market analysts are saying about the drug or company I'm writing about. Recently, the World Health Organization was mercilessly slammed for essentially inventing the H1N1 flu pandemic based on the advice of an advisory committee made up of industry-funded "experts" who stood to gain financially if their vaccine/Tamiflu sales got a global boost. But months before this headline hit, I found a revealing piece on Bloomberg advising which companies to invest in now to profit from the swine flu scare coming soon.  Very enlightening!

Thanks so much - love your site!



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