When, if scooped, should a news outlets acknowledge that it is second out of the gate with a nod to the reporter and agency that got there first? Earlier this week Newsweek's Mary Carmichael (previous post) broke news of serious doubts among some geneticists that a Boston University team's protocol on a major study, one given heavy publicity promotion, is solid. At stake is the team's report last week in Science that it found a set of genetic markers, or SNPs, markedly more common among people who live past 100 than the average.
This morning's NYTimes, carrying a hard-hitting story filed last yesterday by its Nicholas Wade, reports the same general info but in somewhat larger context. As you'll see reading Wade's story, the BU team and Science's editors are going back through the DNA chip sets used in the study to determine whether systematic errors may have biased the results. Some prominent geneticists think the whole study is in doubt, others say just a portion, and its authors say that their own worst case quick-look tells them its essential conclusions will stand. Both pieces, by Carmichael and Wade, lay a large share of the onus for the snarl on Science's own peer review rigor or lack thereof.
By all indications both reporters have been following, independently, rumblings from the academy that the study looks like it has holes in it. Neither suggests deliberate fudging of results. It's unclear which started down the trail first. Both report that if there was a procedural error it should have been apparent to careful reviewers familiar with the statistical vagaries of different sets of equipment - specifically, the need to be sure that test populations and controls all get the same processing,
The Tracker does not know what the rules on acknowledging somebody else's scoop are, or whether they are in any way codified. But it seems reasonable that if one is independently racing for a story, has its basics, is perhaps tying up some loose ends or trying to make it part of a larger package and gets beat, that is not the same as discovering a big story only by reading or hearing of it from the competition. It's still a scoop though.
Wade's piece carries hints that the Times, hoping to have the story to itself and therefore time to work on it, delayed publication while trying to tie suspicion of Science's shortcomings to a larger concern about major scientific journals in general. His article mentions Science along with Nature, and New England Journal of Medicine, and the like as vulnerable to corner cutting in the race to generate news. He brings up the tendency of reporters not to look all that hard at the turgid details or as he puts it, without kicking the tires, of major papers in big journals. Could it be the Science episode put a sudden boot into the rear of a deeper NYT project already gestating along those lines? Dunno.
Given the seriousness of the bigger issues of scrupulous conduct of science and its self-correcting mechanisms, there is some satisfaction knowing that two prominent news agencies were on this development quick. It will continue to reverberate and grow as a news story.
- Charlie Petit