In their recent book A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media (which I enthusiastically recommend, by the way), Hayes and Grossman describe the role that university press offices have in disseminating new findings by researchers at their institutions. I agree that this is an important job and that good press releases can have a very positive effect. The corollary, of course, would be that poorly crafted ones can sow confusion. I have been critical of science blogs and science news services in the past, but in some cases they are simply re-posting (albeit uncritically) the stories from press offices, which may be where the actual problem is.
Witness two frustrating examples from genome biology. The first was by the press office at Johns Hopkins [How Neutral Genetic Drift Shaped Our Genome], and was re-posted by some science blogs. The second is by the University of California, San Diego, and is re-posted at ScienceDaily and Scientific Blogging [One Man’s Junk May Be A Genomic Treasure].
Both stories are guilty of over-hyping the significance of the research (which perhaps is not surprising) and of including significant factual errors (which is not acceptable). Notably, the Johns Hopkins release mangles basic evolutionary theory, and now we have this from UC San Diego:
Scientists have only recently begun to speculate that what’s referred to as “junk” DNA — the 96 percent of the human genome that doesn’t encode for proteins and previously seemed to have no useful purpose — is present in the genome for an important reason. But it wasn’t clear what the reason was. Now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have discovered one important function of so-called junk DNA.
The first line is patently false. In my area of study, I encounter far too many speculations regarding functions for non-coding DNA, and this is how the situation has been for decades. It also bears noting that the study in question studied one transposable element, SINE B2, which makes up around 2.4% of the mouse genome and appears to contribute to the regulation of a growth hormone gene. This is not very surprising; recall that McClintock first characterized transposable elements as “controlling elements”, and even the earliest and most vocal proponents of the “selfish DNA” hypothesis surmised that some TEs would have regulatory functions. SINE B2 itself has been implicated in regulation at least since 1984 (see also here from 2001). This is not in any way a critical comment about the work — it is sure to be an interesting study and I look forward to reading the article when it appears in Science this week. But this press release — which I suspect had little to do with the authors of the study — is vastly overstated to the point of twisting the history of the discipline. (They also suggest that protein-coding genes make up 4% of the human genome whereas the real total is less than 2%, but that’s a comparatively minor issue).
I am very interested in working with the media to provide accessible, interesting, and (not or) accurate information to the public. I also realize that writing about scientific research is difficult, and that there are many individuals out there who are very good at it. I don’t like to be critical all the time, but we really must clean up reports on “junk DNA”. I am open to any suggestions on how scientists can help to make this a reality.