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Should we scrap science news?

By Jon Cartwright

Here’s a statistic for you, taken from a website called Sense About Science. It claims that there’s over a million scientific papers published every year. If that’s right, there must be something in the region of 20,000 published a week. Even if physics accounts for only a small fraction of the sciences, that still means we’re looking at several hundred every day. (I could dig out a reliable figure, but it’s probably not far wrong.)

There’s no way we at Physics World can even hope of keeping you up to date with that many papers. Nor would you want us to — let’s face it, most papers only deal with very minor developments that would only interest those working in exactly the same field.

So, I would like to raise a question: should we bother to comb the journals for the biggest developments, or should we give up reporting research news altogether?

Actually, I’m not the first to raise it. I discovered the idea nestled at the bottom of an article written last week in the Guardian by Peter Wilby. He had been haranguing the Daily Mail for the way they report “breakthrough” developments in health research. (It’s the same old score: this week they tell you a glass of wine a day will increase your life expectancy; next week they will tell you the opposite.) Wilby proposes that, instead of mindlessly regurgitating seesawing opinions from the medical community, the media should offer “state of knowledge” features that give an overview of where the present scientific consensus is headed.

Would this feature-only approach benefit physics too? Conclusions seen in physics papers are usually straightforward to interpret — particularly compared with, say, the vagaries of health surveys — which would suggest the answer is no. However, there are still many difficulties.

One is that small developments in research are seen as being less newsworthy than those that go against prevailing opinion. In the latter instance, unless there is enough context to show how the research fits into the grand scheme of things, a news story can be misleading. Another, as I showed in my recent article on the use of embargoes in science publishing, is that much (if not most) science news is artificially timed to fit in with publishers’ agendas; in a sense, the news is not “new” at all. A feature-only approach would avoid both of these.

The main point I can see in favour of science news is that there are certain developments that deserve to be brought to people’s attention immediately. Think of the recent claims by the DAMA experiment team in Italy that they had detected dark matter on Earth. Or the discovery by Japanese physicists of a new class of high-temperature superconductors based on iron. Should we only report on such critical research? If so, where do we draw the line?

Let’s hear your thoughts. But bear in mind that if we do decide to scrap science news, I’ll be out of a job.

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