Ed Yong, the Atlantic staff writer whose Covid-19 coverage earned a Pulitzer Prize this year, knows a thing or two about how science works. He also knows the dangers of placing science on a pedestal. “Science is not just an abstract thing,” Yong said at a September webinar hosted by the Knight Science Journalism Program. “It’s not a march of progress or a series of objective truths; it’s in fact an intensely human endeavor. It’s done by people and is subject to all the frailties and foibles that humans contain.”
Those frailties and foibles, Yong noted, have been magnified during a Covid-19 pandemic that has pushed the scientific enterprise — usually painstakingly slow and methodical — to operate at breakneck pace. It has become difficult, he said, to tell the signal from the noise — to discern reliable, meaningful scientific results from those bound to buckle under scrutiny. And in that way, the pandemic also serves as a potent reminder: Now more than ever, science journalists have a responsibility to understand not just formulas and results, but the human side of how science works.
That message was a recurring theme of “The Fundamentals of Science, from Funding to Publishing,” a webinar featuring Yong, New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, award-winning freelance science journalist Emily Anthes, and moderator Joshua Hatch. The 90-minute session was the sixth in a series of live events held in conjunction with the release of the KSJ Science Editing Handbook. (A full recording of the webinar is available here.)
Anthes kicked off the session by going over the basics of the science publishing process, including the vetting process known as peer review, wherein outside experts review a scientific study, as Anthes put it, to check “that the methods and the experiments are sound, that the results add up, and that the conclusions the scientists draw are justified.”
Although peer-review plays an important gate-keeping role in scientific literature, it is not infallible, Anthes warned. For proof, one need only look back to June of last year, when two Covid-19 research papers published in two of the world’s top peer-reviewed medical journals — The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine — were retracted over concerns that they were based on unreliable data.
Such missteps are sometimes a biproduct of competing incentives, Anthes explained. For scientists, publishing — and publishing prolifically — is not only a means to communicate results but a way to build prestige and advance one’s career. It can be tempting to cut corners, which is one reason Anthes says it is imperative that science journalists continually be on the lookout for “massaged,” manipulated, or otherwise questionable data.
Yong echoed that sentiment. “The competition in academia is absolutely ferocious,” he said. “And, to make matters worse, the metric that most defines an academic success isn’t publishing high-quality, rigorous work that solves societal problems. It’s publishing as many papers as possible in high-profile journals.”
Instead of pushing scientists toward careful work, such skewed incentives in academia drive them towards practices like slicing data from a single research study into multiple smaller “publishable” pieces, as well as “cutting methodological corners, and trying to do work as quickly as possible with smaller sample sizes.”
Although these problems existed before Covid-19, and will likely remain long after, Yong urged reporters to be savvy about them. “When we look at the literature, when we talk to people, we have to really ask hard questions about all of these structures, and the incentives, and the processes that led to the kind of work that we are seeing in front of us.”
Yong also noted that Covid-19 has driven a seismic shift in scientific funding: Scientists have faced enormous pressures from funding bodies — whether academic institutes or government agencies — to put their existing research on hold and “work on this new thing.” As of December, Yong said, the medical research search engine PubMed “had archived more than seventy-four thousand Covid related papers, which is more than twice as many as there have been about diseases like polio, measles, cholera, and dengue.”
According to Mandavilli, the webinar’s final speaker, the pressure to please funders is pervasive in science. There are seemingly countless research proposals and limited money to fund them, so scientists are continually searching for ways to “make their research look attractive” to granting agencies and to make their results look good enough to justify continued grants and publications.”
And although Mandavilli believes that science is self-correcting, she said that process of self-correction takes time. “In a pandemic like this, where things are really fast, we don’t have the luxury to wait for science to correct itself.” It’s up to journalists, she said, to do their part in holding science accountable.
Shafaq Zia is a research associate with the Knight Science Journalism Program and a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.