Sciences/Tech/Engineering/Math

'Global Warming and Political Intimidation'

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In the late 1990s, Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, collaborated with two researchers on a pair of studies that altered the dialogue on climate change. The studies, a collaboration between Bradley, a geophysicist named Michael Mann (then finishing up his Ph.D. at Yale University) and University of Arizona climatologist Malcolm Hughes, presented evidence of global climate change over the past millennium and set off a political firestorm.

New Breed of Vet School?

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Lincoln Memorial plans to enter field with very few institutions, and to offer six-year bachelor's/D.V.M. option.

Getting Started in a Lab

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New graduate students need to ask the right questions to pick the best place to work and launch their careers, writes Tom Daniel.

Rules for Science Job Talks

Lynda F. Delph offers advice on a crucial test for job candidates.

Tips for Proposal Writers

A scientist, fresh from work on a review panel, offers advice.

Picking a Postdoc Post

Douglas Natelson suggests approaches in the physical sciences.

Is It Time to Shut Down Engineering Colleges?

With the return of students to campuses this month comes annual hand wringing over the lack of diversity in our science and engineering classes. The United States is at a 14-year low in the percentage of women (16.3 percent) and African Americans (7.1 percent) enrolling in engineering programs.

An engineering student body that is composed largely of white males is problematic not only because of its narrow design perspective, but also because failing to recruit from large segments of the population means the number of new engineers we produce falls well short of our potential.

Although this is not a new problem, it is becoming ever more urgent. We are faced with an engineering juggernaut emanating from India and China, with more than 10 Asian engineers graduating for every one in the United States. Educated at great institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology or Tshingua University, these engineers are every bit as technically competent as their American counterparts.

So here we sit at the beginning of the 21st century, in the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, with a comparatively small supply of home grown engineers, facing an explosion of technical mental horsepower overseas.

Why fight the tide? Couldn’t we simply import all the engineering we need? Couldn’t we play the economic advantage and close our expensive colleges of engineering? Do we gain anything by educating engineers in the United States?

I would argue that, with a few exceptions, we really don’t. As they are currently trained, American engineers are at relative parity with their foreign-born counterparts, are more expensive, and offer no competitive advantage. But there is a way out of this predicament, one that would provide a raison d’etre for American engineering programs, and make for the kind of design the planet now so urgently needs.

Faced with the increasingly complex design challenges of the 21st century -- an era where resources of every kind are reaching their limit, human populations are exploding, and global-warming related environmental catastrophe beckons -- engineers need to grow beyond their traditional roles as problem-solvers to become problem-definers.

To catalyze this shift, our engineering curriculum, now packed with technical courses, needs a fresh start. Today’s engineers must be educated to think broadly in fundamental and integrative ways about the basic tenets of engineering. If we define engineering as the application of math and science in service to humanity, these tenets must include study of the human condition, the human experience, the human record.  

How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science – literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages – that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take -- leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study.

There is a need for advanced engineering training, to be sure, but the place for that is at the graduate level -- in one of the growing number of nine-month masters programs, perhaps.

Teaching engineers to think, in the broadest, cross-disciplinary sense, is critical. Consider two examples of the failures of the old way.

The breach of the levees in New Orleans, which has unleashed a torrent of human suffering, came about not solely because engineers designed for a category 3, rather than a category 4, hurricane. It was caused by decades of engineering and technical hubris, which resulted in loss of wetlands and overbuilding on a grand scale. Would engineers who had studied economics, ecology, anthropology, or history have acted the same?

Or consider Love Canal (or any of a thousand other environmental debacles of the last 50 years). Would designers who had read Thoreau’s Walden, studied Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or admired Monet’s poppies have allowed toxic chemicals to be dumped into the environment so remorselessly?

To prepare our engineers to engage in the major policy decisions we’ll face over the next 25 years -- many of which hinge heavily on the implications of technological design -- we must truly rethink what they need to know when they graduate.

If we do, our progeny stand a fighting chance of having a life worth living. And by giving engineering a larger, more socially relevant framework, expanding it beyond the narrow world of algorithms, the field should prove more attractive to women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups.

Just imagine. A growing and increasingly diverse number of domestically trained engineers -- equipped with the broad insight and critical thinking skills the world needs, which will also give them a competitive advantage over their foreign counterparts.

Overhauling the engineering curriculum would be challenging to be sure, but it’s a design worth building.  

Author/s: 
Domenico Grasso
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Domenico Grasso is dean of engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Vermont. He was the founding director of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College and is vice chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board.

Why We Need the SMART Program

For the first 20 years of my adult life I served on research universities’ faculties, worked with medical students, and wrote peer-reviewed papers. As a medical doctor, a scientist, and a professor, I had enormous pride in the strength of America’s scientific establishment. The United States trains the world’s best scientists, runs the best research universities, and attracts the brightest minds from all over the world. Year after year, we take the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes.

I proposed the SMART Grant Program to make sure that we retain our global leadership in the sciences. The program will provide grants up to $4,000 on top of Pell Grants (a total of $8,050 in assistance per year) to help bright, hard-working, full time students of modest means pursue degrees in math, science, and strategic foreign languages. Between now and 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that almost 600,000 students will benefit from the program. These students, I am sure, will go on to teach at our leading research universities, run our top medical research labs, and administer our national science establishment. For them, the program will help a lot: at most land grant universities, in-state students receiving the maximum Pell Grant and a SMART Grant will pay no tuition for their last two years of college. Much of the money to finance SMART Grants comes from revisions to student loan formulas that ask private banks to accept reduced profits.

The SMART Grant program will also help America’s research universities retain their global preeminence. Today, India and China together graduate more than twice as many engineers as the United States. Both nations will continue to increase their ranks of scientists and engineers rapidly in the coming years. Meanwhile, many American employers have a difficult time finding qualified scientists and engineers. Since 85 percent of growth in U.S. income comes from technological change, we need to do everything we can to encourage our best and brightest to enter key scientific fields.

I designed the program with the needs of students and research universities in mind. College presidents, families, and students told me that financial pressures turned many bright students away from pursuing math, science, engineering, and languages. Friends of mine like James Wingate, the president of LeMoyne-OwenCollege, and Gordon Gee, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, knew about the program from its origins and joined me in praising SMART Grants after the Senate passed the legislation.

I know that some college officials have expressed doubts about the way the program shifts away from the traditional practice of awarding federal aid to undergraduates based primarily on economic need rather than merit. But while I believe that the federal government should provide generous financial assistance to students with a wide range of abilities, I see no reason to apologize for creating a program targeted towards the very type of bright, motivated students nearly all colleges seek to recruit. I’m shocked that some of SMART Grants’ critics appear to believe that low-income students can’t earn good grades. While they use the same financial eligibility criteria, the SMART and Pell Grant programs will remain distinct; one won’t impact the other. The program also limits itself to full time students because they pay the most tuition and have the greatest financial need. Although fiscal considerations will play a role in future action, I am open to proposals that would expand SMART Grants to cover needy part-time students who meet similar academic criteria.

I helped create SMART Grants to help bright students from all backgrounds to learn the skills most vital to our country. The future of our nation’s global leadership depends on America’s ability to produce more graduates with degrees in science and engineering. Once they understand it, I believe that America’s great colleges and universities will welcome the SMART Grant program with open arms.

Author/s: 
Bill Frist
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Sen. Bill Frist, a former assistant professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical School, is majority leader of the United States Senate.

It's Time to End 'Physics for Poets'

At the small liberal arts college where I teach, we have recently undertaken a wholesale revision of our core liberal arts curriculum. This is the set of requirements -- some specific courses, some chosen from a range of options -- that all students at the college must take before graduation. For professors in the natural sciences, this revision has required a good deal of thought about the content and nature of science courses offered to a non-major audience.

Conventional wisdom -- usually unquestioned -- has it that there are three basic elements that go into making up a good non-majors science course. First, the class should cover a relatively narrow range of topics. The classic "Physics for Poets" survey class, which attempts to cover an entire field in one semester, is almost always a disaster, satisfying neither the students taking it nor those teaching it. It's better to restrict the course to a subset of a given field, and spend more time covering a smaller range of topics.

Second, the topic chosen as the focus of the course should be something relatively modern. Students respond much more positively when they can immediately see the relevance of the material. Ideally, a good non-major science class should deal with either a "hot topic" in current research, or something connected to an ongoing public policy debate. It's much easier to engage the students in a subject if they're likely to read about it in The New York Times.

The third element is perhaps the most important: the course should involve the minimum possible amount of math. Many of the students who are the target audience for these classes are uncomfortable with mathematical reasoning, and react badly when asked to manipulate and interpret equations. This final characteristic is also the main reason why I am profoundly ambivalent about such classes.

Science for non-majors offers an important chance to reach out to students outside the sciences, and try to give them some appreciation for scientific inquiry. This is critically important, as we live in a time where science itself is under political assault from both the left and right. People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of "intelligent design." It's more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.

I worry, however, that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. Despite the effort we put into providing classes that are both relevant and informative, I am troubled by the subtext of these classes. By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject.

The first of these messages is sadly misguided. Science is more than just a collection of difficult facts to be learned. It's a way of looking at the universe, a systematic approach to studying the world around us, and understanding how things work. As such, it's as fundamental a part of human civilization as anything to be found in art or literature. The skills needed to do science are the same skills needed to excel in most other fields: careful observation, critical thinking, and an ability to support arguments with evidence.

The second subtext, however, is disturbingly accurate. We do make special accommodations for students who are uncomfortable with science, and particularly mathematics. We offer special classes that teach science with a minimum of math, and we offer math classes at a level below what ought to be expected of college students. Admissions officers and student tour guides go out of their way to reassure prospective students that they won't be expected to complete rigorous major-level science classes, but will be provided with options more to their liking.

It's difficult to imagine similar accommodations being made for students uncomfortable with other disciplines. The expectations for student ability in the humanities are much higher than in the sciences. If a student announced that he or she was not comfortable with reading and analyzing literary texts, we would question whether that student belonged in college at all (and rightly so). We take the existence of "Physics for Poets" for granted, but nobody would consider advocating a "Poetry for Physicists" class for science majors who are uncomfortable with reading and analyzing literature.

The disparity in expectations goes well beyond simple literacy. I was absolutely stunned to hear a colleague suggest, to many approving nods, that all first-year students should be required to read The Theory Toolbox. We would never consider asking all entering students to read H. M. Schey's Div, Grad, Curl, and All That: An Informal Text on Vector Calculus, even though the critical theory described in The Theory Toolbox is every bit as much a specialized tool for literary analysis as vector calculus is a specialized tool for scientific analysis. Yet faculty members in the humanities can seriously propose one as essential for all students in all disciplines, while recoiling from the other.

This distaste for and fear of mathematics extends beyond the student body, into the faculty, and our society as a whole. Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post, wrote a column in February in which he dismissed algebra as unimportant, and proclaimed his own innumeracy.

"I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again."

It's a sad commentary on the state of our society that a public intellectual (even a low-level one like Cohen) can write such a paragraph and be confident that it will be met with as many nods of agreement as howls of derision. If a scientist or mathematician were to say "I can handle simple declarative sentences all right (although not transitive verbs)," they could never expect to be taken seriously again. Illiteracy among the general public is viewed as a crisis, but innumeracy is largely ignored, because everybody knows that Math is Hard.

Fundamentally, this problem begins well below the college level, with the sorry state of science and math teaching in our middle schools and high schools. The ultimate solution will need to involve a large-scale reform of math and science teaching, from the early grades all the way through college. As college professors, though, we can begin the process by demanding a little more of our students, and not being quite so quick to accommodate gaps in their knowledge of math and science. We should recognize that mathematical and scientific literacy are every bit as important for an educated citizen as knowledge of history and literature, and insist that our students meet high standards in all areas of knowledge.

Of course, the science faculties are not without responsibilities in this situation. Forcing non-science majors to take the same courses as science majors seems like an unappealing prospect in large part because so many introductory science courses are unappealing. If we are to force non-science majors to take introductory science major courses, we will also need to commit to making those courses more acceptable to a broader range of students. One good start is the teaching initiative being promoted by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman who is leaving the University of Colorado to pursue educational reforms at the University of British Columbia, but more effort is needed. If we improve the quality of introductory science teaching and push for greater rigor in the science classes offered to non-majors, we should see benefits well outside the sciences, extending to society as a whole.

As academics, we are constantly asked to look below the surface to the implications of our actions. We are told that we need to consider the hidden messages sent by who we hire, what we assign, how we speak to students, and even what we wear. Shouldn't we also consider the hidden message sent by the classes we offer, and what they say about our educational priorities?

Author/s: 
Edward Morley
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Edward Morley is the psuedonym of an assistant professor of physics.

The Embargo Should Go

When they’re not praising the embargo system -- under which science journals provide journalists with advance copies of newsworthy articles, but set strict timelines on when  that information can be shared -- science and medical journalists often bitterly complain that they are its prisoners. For example, Natalie Angier of The New York Times claims that the embargo system gives journal editors "a stranglehold on journalistic initiative." Embargoes do exert great influence over what gets covered and how, but the embargo system is hardly a tyranny of journals over journalists. Journalists are enthusiastic participants in the embargo system and act to keep it functioning. In short, if journalists are in a stranglehold, it is a self-inflicted stranglehold -- and one that does not serve the public interest.

It need not be this way. Journalists could do end runs around the embargo, if they wanted. "Any decent journalist knows what’s in Nature next week," says David Whitehouse, science editor for the BBC’s Web site. That point is exemplified by Robin McKie, science reporter for The London Observer. He writes for a paper that publishes only on Sundays; because of the embargo’s timing, journal articles seem like old news by the time his paper publishes. Consequently, McKie refuses embargoed access to journals but nevertheless has broken news of important embargoed studies such as the cloning of Dolly and the results of decoding of the human genetic sequence. Much of his reporting, he says, is based on talks given by researchers at open meetings.

What accounts for the embargo’s staying power? One factor, quite clearly, is the extraordinary deference that the scientific and medical establishments receive in society. Few other institutions are given the freedom of action in society that science and medicine have enjoyed. Science and medical journalists have not been immune to the immense gravitational forces exerted by science and medicine, and the embargo system is symptomatic of the deference that journalists pay to the scientific and medical establishment.

From the beginnings of modern science and medical reporting in the 1930s and 1940s, journalists were eager to prove their bona fides to scientists and medical researchers so that those researchers would cooperate with the journalists. Journalists emphasized that they sought to be accurate (as the researchers defined accuracy), and asked the researchers to provide advance copies of their papers to facilitate these efforts. Although the scientific and medical establishments at first were slow to respond, eventually researchers and officials saw the advantages of controlling the flow of news about science and medicine; together, journalists and the research establishment forged the social construction that is now known as the embargo system.

Supporters of the embargo say that the embargo promotes coverage of important scientific research. But these well-meaning proponents of the embargo system confuse what is good for the scientific and medical establishments with what is good for society. Similarly, journalists erroneously equate what is in their interest with what is in the public interest.

Undoubtedly, the scientific establishment benefits handsomely from the unending torrent of news coverage about research being published in scientific and medical journals. The pattern of news coverage signals to readers and viewers -- not to mention lawmakers, business leaders, and others -- that science and medicine are important. Whether the research being reported is “good news” (for example, drug X is an effective treatment for disease Y) or “bad news” (Z causes cancer), the scientific and medical establishments are always cast in a positive light, as the font of the new finding. Some think that breathless coverage of the latest research might even help steer some individuals toward careers in science or medicine.

But media coverage of research journals often amounts to little more than highbrow infotainment: What’s the latest theory about the extinction of the dinosaurs? What’s the newest thing found to cause cancer? Look at the cool photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope! These are the types of subjects that dominate embargo-controlled news reporting about science and medicine.

Journalists and their media organizations -- particularly those with daily deadlines, such as newspapers, network television, and Web sites -- also benefit from the embargo. The embargo supplies news on a dependable schedule keyed to the production constraints of news organizations: if it’s Thursday, it’s time for a newspaper article about some paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The embargo reduces the stress on journalists from having to rush a story into print or on the air, and it also reduces the possibility that the journalist will be scooped by a competitor. The news peg provided by the embargo (“In a paper published today in Science...”) also makes it easier for journalists to convince their editors to run certain research stories. This news peg supplies an appearance of sudden and urgent newsworthiness to a research paper that had been conceived, executed, written, reviewed, and rewritten over a period of months, if not years. By keying the news story to the event of journal publication, the embargo system capitalizes on the fact that science and medical journalists and their editors -- like other journalists -- rely heavily on timeliness as a criterion in defining what is news and what is not. In fact, science and medical journalists are fully aware of the artificiality of the embargo’s news peg, but rely on it as a way to get research news into print and on the air.

This is a long-standing problem in journalism about science and medicine. “To write a story saying that ‘X’ was discovered today is a fiction,” Howard Simons, then a science writer for The Washington Post, said almost 40 years ago. “The today lead is something most of us do because we are still trapped in traditional ideas of newspapering. At a scientific meeting there may be hundreds of papers delivered, all of them important. There is no reason why we shouldn’t pick up one of those papers three weeks later and do a story about it. But the traditional light bulb flashes on in our minds and says it’s old if it’s not hung up like a coat on a news peg.” Although the urgent demand for a news peg -- even an artificial one -- for science and medical news is not new, the embargo perpetuates the problem by giving journalists and their media organizations an unending stream of such pegs, so many that a lazy journalist could write only about journal articles if he or she chose.

Journalists’ role in perpetuating and even extending journal embargoes is illustrated by the recent history of embargoes at online journals published by BioMed Central. Like a few other innovative journal publishers, BioMed Central has seized on the Internet as a medium for publishing research journals at lower cost and with wider reach than traditional journals. These new online journals are known as open-access journals. One of its hallmarks is that it publishes a journal article as soon as peer review and editing are complete, without the lengthy delays that sometimes characterize printed journals.

When BioMed Central started in 2000, it did not offer advance embargoed access to journalists; journalists had to wait to read a journal article until it was publicly posted on BioMed Central’s Web site. But journalists ignored its journal articles.

Consequently, in 2003, BioMed Central tweaked its editorial processes so it could start offering journalists a brief period of embargoed access -- a few days to at most a week. Since the change, BioMed Central has seen a marked increase in press coverage.

The fact that some journalists and scientists benefit from the embargo does not mean that the public benefits from it as well. Indeed, the embargo works against the public interest in many ways. One is in how the embargo steers journalists away from covering science and medicine as institutions with messy problems, such as fraud, mistreatment of human subjects, failed research, and misplaced priorities. Journalists who are chasing after the latest embargoed journal article do not have time to investigate the workings of science and medicine in this way.

Indeed, the central problem with embargoes -- and the reason that the embargo system should be eliminated -- is that embargoes are a distraction for journalists and their media organizations, which diverts them from covering what really matters. "To survive, reporters become dependent on the daily cascade of embargoed research papers, e-mailed press releases, university tip sheets, and conference abstracts,” says Robert Lee Hotz, a science reporter at the Los Angeles Times. “The goal of all of us ought to be to try to get around embargoes and pack-aged science journalism by finding new ways to get our collective noses under the tent,” according to Cristine Russell, former science and medical reporter for The Washington Star and The Washington Post. “I think that we should not have such herd journalism.... I am very concerned that we get very lazy and complacent by sitting around waiting for the journals to deliver us the news that something’s happening in science.... I think people should get out and cover science.”

Of course, no one forces journalists to report embargoed stories. In part, the embargo’s focus on late-breaking research appeals to the personal and professional interests of many science and medical journalists, who entered the field to report about the wonders of research -- not the bare-knuckles reality of the research world. “Most science reporters tend to behave rather like sports writers: they have chosen their topic out of love for it,” the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin has observed.

The embargo system also works against the public interest in the way that it misleads the public about science and medicine. The embargo creates a torrent of news that draws excessive public attention to most research. Put simply, journalists should ignore most of the journal articles that they now cover so energetically. Most journal articles are but single dots in the pointillist enterprise that is the scientific method -- but the breathless coverage catalyzed by the embargo system often gives the impression that each week’s paper is a major breakthrough. Journalists pay much less attention to later studies that play down the findings.

The best science and medical journalists recognize the inherent uncertainty in any piece of research. “It takes repeated observations or experiments, usually attacking the mystery from different angles with results all pointing to the same answer, before honest researchers begin to believe that they actually understand something new,” says Boyce Rensberger, a former science journalist for The Washington Post and now the director of a mid-career science-journalism fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The trump card for embargo supporters is accuracy: News about science and medicine is so difficult to research and write, goes this argument, that journalists need time to do the job correctly -- or the public could be harmed by inaccurate reporting. Susan Turner-Lowe, former director of public affairs at the National Academy of Sciences, describes it this way: "Journalists have traded accuracy for scoops.” Among many proponents of embargoes, being critical of embargoes therefore is tantamount to supporting erroneous reporting.

But the fact is that many other journalists work effectively without embargoes, day after day. Consider the complexity and implications of other stories covered by journalists who do not specialize in science and medicine: the latest Supreme Court decision, a tax bill passed by Congress, a massive airplane accident, and others. Each of these stories rivals many science and medical stories in technical complexity, the difficulty that journalists may have in reaching expert sources for comment, and the impact on readers or listeners if inaccurate information is reported. Yet reporters uncomplainingly cover these and a myriad of other stories without the helping hand of an embargo. Even Nature’s Peter Wrobel concedes that the embargo is not essential for good coverage of science and medicine. “It doesn’t require five or six days, or even three, to write most stories,” he says. Alexandra Witze, a science reporter for The Dallas Morning News, says that the accuracy rationale for journal embargoes is “insulting” to science journalists. “It assumes that we are incapable of doing our job as journalists in any other field are.”

However, views such as hers are scarce among science and medical journalists, who agree with journal publishers that embargoes serve the public interest because embargoed advance access to scholarly journals promotes accurate, orderly journalism about science and medicine. This is not necessarily the case. Journalists who operate by a learned set of professional norms and practices are likely to make the same mistakes in a story whether they have a day or a week to prepare it. Moreover, an individual reporter may not use all the additional time that the embargo provides. With an embargo of several days, the reporter may work on the embargoed story in bits and pieces, fitting that story around other stories that the reporter is covering.

Journalists do have an ethical obligation to society to be accurate, but accuracy is more than the technical accuracy of figures and scientific terms. Taken as a whole, science reporting should provide an accurate picture of scientific and medical research, particularly in areas of personal importance to members of the public, such as health issues. The embargo arrangement encourages pack reporting of research from a few selected journals regardless of whether the research is truly important or definitive.

It also bears noting that although the editors of scholarly journals that operate under embargoes voice support for the practice, it clearly does not enjoy total support in academe. Some scholarly societies -- such as the American Geophysical Union and others -- see no need for an embargo or believe that it does not operate in the public interest. Individual scholars also criticize the embargo arrangement. Some characterize it as a type of collusion that interferes with the stated purpose of scholarly communication. In the words of one science librarian: “Science is supposed to progress through rapid communication of results among scientists, but the embargo system is a barrier to this free exchange of information. One can understand that publishers do not want to feed the public with incomplete and inaccurate information but other scientists in the academy would have liked to enjoy the same kind of privilege extended to the media.”

In the short run, the Internet has probably bolstered the embargo system, particularly because the World Wide Web and electronic mail have provided new tools for distributing embargoed articles to journalists. EurekAlert! in particular has been a resounding success story for embargo proponents, so much so that it has spawned imitators such as Nature’s p ress Web site and AlphaGalileo.

But in the long run, online communications will probably undermine embargoes on news about science and medicine. One reason is the very phenomenon noted in the previous paragraph as an argument that the Internet has initially bolstered the embargo: the ease with which the Internet can connect journal publishers with a worldwide cadre of journalists. More and more science and medical journalists, around the globe, are participating in embargoes sponsored by journals in the United States and Britain. Many of these journalists may not be as heavily invested in the embargo system and therefore are more likely to jump the gun when an important paper comes along.

Put more simply: Decades ago, when journal embargoes began, science and medical journalists constituted a handful of reporters who worked alongside one another constantly, at various scientific conferences, meetings, and events. A science or medical journalist who broke an embargo knew that he (and back then, a science or medical journalist almost always was a “he”) would face angry questions from fellow journalists the next time he encountered them. By contrast, the journalists who today participate in the embargo are scattered around the world; many are unlikely to ever have to face the journalists in the United States and Britain who would be most discomfited by an embargo violation. Or from the standpoint of the social construction of news, the widening of the pool of potential embargo participants made possible by the Internet’s global reach may seriously erode the social bonds that maintain the embargo. As the embargo comes to include more journalists around the world, the participants are likely to include individuals who have not been socialized to honor embargoes and who would be immune to social pressures from other embargo participants to conform to embargo rules.

The Internet will also weaken the embargo because it is transforming the process of scientific communication itself. Most traditional journals now offer online access to their articles, with the articles often posted long before the printed journal arrives in a scholar’s mailbox. Some journals have gone a step further, by publishing some or all of their articles online before they are published in print. The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, has posted on its Web site certain articles that, in the opinion of its editors, were in the public interest for rapid dissemination. Although the New England journal generally restricts online access to paid subscribers of the journal, anyone could read or download these “early release” articles. Science and Nature have also begun to post selected journal articles online, after they have completed peer review and editing but before they appear in print.

Increasingly, early online publication appears to be becoming the norm for at least some journal publishers. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, for example, publishes all articles online before they appear in print, as much as five weeks later. The American Chemical Society also publishes online some of the articles issued in its 27 journals as soon as they are ready for publication, even if they have not yet appeared in a printed publication. The articles are posted online after they have been peer-reviewed, copyedited, and checked by the author. Embargoes for these articles are much shorter than embargoes for printed journals.

The Internet is also changing other aspects of communication among scientists. One example is the departmental seminar, often conducted in the late afternoon, perhaps along with punch and cookies, at which a local researcher or a visiting scholar offers a brief presentation on recent research. Increasingly, departments are transmitting live video of these seminars across the Web, using streaming video, to anyone who cares to watch and listen. The National Institutes of Health, for example, Webcasts many such seminars each week. The Multi-University/Research Laboratory --  a joint effort of computer scientists at six universities or corporations -- similarly transmits live seminars in that field.

Although it is impractical for most science journalists to cover departmental seminars in person, nothing stops journalists from covering these broadcasts as news, or watching them as a way to develop leads on future research developments. There is little indication that journalists are using Webcasts as a reporting tool to date, but journalists could use the fact of such a live Webcast (and, more compellingly, the existence of a freely available online copy) as evidence that a particular research finding is in the public domain, vacating any embargo. (Interestingly, The New England Journal of Medicine -- one of the most staunch foes of online prior publication -- has ruled that it will not disqualify from publication an audio recording of a presentation at a medical conference along with “selected slides from the presentation.”)

Scientists are also using the Web to archive and distribute preprints of their papers. With the advent of the Web, scholarly societies and even individual scholars have created databases on which authors can deposit electronic copies of their papers. Few journalists use the Web sites to plumb for news.

One who does is Tom Siegfried, science editor of The Dallas Morning News. “There’s plenty of stuff to report out there before they appear in journals,” he says. Every night, he says, he checks physics preprint servers, because the latest research is usually reported there first. “In physics nowadays the journals have become increasingly irrelevant,” he contends, with their role largely limited to serving as the archival copies of important papers and for proving records for tenure.

Even aside from these new forms of online scholarly communication, the Internet weakens the embargo system by providing new routes for embargoed information to leak into the public sphere. “A lot of my reporting is Web surfing,” says Alexandra Witze, also of The Dallas Morning News. “Journals are one tool among many. I think the problem is that many journalists focus on them as the only tool.”

Internet mailing lists, newsgroups, Web sites, and blogs all provide venues for interested nonjournalists to swap information about research news. Journals publish tables of contents of upcoming issues. Scholarly societies post abstracts of papers to be presented at their scientific meetings. Support groups for individuals suffering from particular diseases and their families, for example, are likely to operate online information sources that discuss clinical trials of treatments for the disease in question. Attentive journalists monitoring these Web sites and mailing lists could well glean information that could lead to stories outside the embargo.

Such a surfeit of information will increasingly create situations in which science and medical journalists decide that online information has vacated the embargo on a specific journal article. Indeed, this was one of the justifications made by The Detroit Free Press and journalists at other media organizations who prematurely reported findings on a study of hormone-replacement therapy in 2002; the findings, they said, were already being discussed online: “Women’s health sites on the Internet were buzzing about what the study said and what women should do.”

The embargo system should be replaced with full and open disclosure of research results as soon as they are ready for public consumption, which generally would mean as soon as peer review is complete. Once a scholarly paper has been accepted by a journal, scientists and their institutions should be free to tell the world about it, and journalists should be free to report on it if they deem it newsworthy. As many have already begun to do, the journal in question could make the accepted paper available to its subscribers online, so that the subscribers could consult the full text of the paper for themselves. Journalists would be freed of the perceived tyranny of the embargo, and they would have newfound time to visit scientists in laboratories and troll for investigative stories rather than leafing through press releases and password-protected Web sites in search of what the competition is probably going to report.

This is emphatically not to suggest that science and medical journalists should break embargoes. To the contrary, journalists have both an ethical and a legal duty to abide by agreements with their sources, including embargo agreements. If a journalist obtains information under an embargo, that journalist is ethically bound to honor that embargo, just as the journalist would be ethically bound to, for example, withhold the name of a source if the journalist agreed that the source would be unidentified.

But although journalists are ethically bound to honor embargoes to which they have agreed, they are not ethically required to continue to agree to embargoes. Continuing the parallel to anonymous sources, many media organizations have established policies that govern the conditions under which they will grant anonymity to a source. But the fact that a media organization has had a policy for granting anonymity in the past does not mean that it will always grant that anonymity to all sources in the future. Similarly, the fact that science and medical journalists have used embargoed information in the past, and have respected those embargoes, does not mean that those journalists or their media organizations must continue to agree to embargoes in the future.

In short, science and medical journalists, and their media organizations, should terminate their embargo relationships with journal publishers and stop accepting embargoed information from them. Scientific societies and journal publishers should stop distributing information under embargo. Government research agencies and foundations should stop supporting the embargo, which provides a few with privileged early access to taxpayer-financed research. Universities, which cast themselves as champions of free expression, should oppose embargoes on their faculty members’ research, rather than seeking to hitch their own publicity machines to the journals’.

It is time for science and medical journalists to break out of their dependence on journals as a source of science news, and it is time for scholarly societies to stop trying to shape the flow of news in a way that suits their own political ends. The embargo should go.

Author/s: 
Vincent Kiernan
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Vincent Kiernan is an instructor of journalism at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. This essay is an excerpt from his book, Embargoed Science, published this month by the University of Illinois Press.

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