It’s triple-check for science reporting

Since the office of the Readers’ Editor was established in The Hindu in 2006, one reader has been relentless in his pursuit for accuracy. He has an excellent eye for detail and a phenomenal memory of sporting events. Dr. Maniyur Raghavendran is a consultant urologist and transplant surgeon. While most of his letters are about slip ups in sports stories, his recent mail questioned the credibility of a journal cited in a medical story.

The report, “Woman takes risk, achieves motherhood after 20 miscarriages” (April 15, 2017), was filed by the Nellore staff reporter. It was a moving story about a woman who wanted to have a child despite difficult medical conditions, and who was ready to take a risk because her husband’s family was pressuring him to marry again. The report was based on interviews with the woman and her doctor. It was a good human-interest story, but was marred by the strapline which read: “In view of the rare nature, her medical report entered the International Journal of Reproduction, says expert.”

Dr. Raghavendran wrote: “I tried searching for this journal, but this seems to be an open access journal where you pay and get your report published. Does The Hindu need to highlight such cases entered in fictitious journals?”

Guidelines for science reporting

I agree with Dr. Raghavendran. It is important for staff reporters and regional desks to read the 2012 internal circular that spelt out the rules for reporting on science and health. The operative part of that circular is this: “Medical stories should be complete and carefully verified; cutting corners for whatever reason, including competitive pressures, is impermissible. Please run such stories by the Science Editor or senior health writers before pitching them to the editorial desk. Do not mail these stories to the Net. If you are not a designated health reporter in a bureau, all stories on press releases on medical claims must be routed through one of our senior editorial experts and not filed directly by general reporters. If such a process takes time, so be it: a story could be held over to check the claims made.”

In my column, “Tall claim is not science” (January 18, 2016), I shared some of the best practices in science and health reporting. The article dealt with the quality of academic journals, and what a reporter can rely upon. Those guidelines are: “Check the quality of peer review, as different journals have different criteria and practices, and the quality of their peer review varies accordingly. Try to find out the limitations of the study: was it too preliminary or too small a sample size to be accepted in a higher quality journal? Be critical if the claim is made in a public statement. How credible is the scientist among his/her scientific peers? Is the scientist based at a recognised scientific institution? How is the study funded? Finding an independent expert to comment is the most reliable way to judge the validity of a study.”

Predatory journals in India

R. Prasad, Science Editor of The Hindu , in “Predatory journals make desperate bid for authenticity” (April 20, 2017), explained how India has a huge and growing number of predatory journal publishers. He looked at data from the India office of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) since March 2014, when the new criteria for DOAJ listings were put out. Mr. Prasad wrote that out of 1,600 applications from open access journal publishers in India, only 4% were found to be from genuine publishers and accepted for inclusion in the DOAJ directory. While 18% of the applications are still being processed, Mr. Prasad contends that the main reason for the rejection of 78% of the applications is the predatory or dubious nature of the journals.

There are some fine journalistic clues in Mr. Prasad’s article. For instance, he cites Bengaluru-based Leena Shah, DOAJ ambassador, India, who gives two important entry points to assess the journal: “Nearly 20% of the journals have a flashy impact factor and quick publication time, which are quick give-aways… Under contact address, some journal websites do not provide any address but just a provision for comments.”

While reporting human-interest stories that have a substantial scientific component to it, general reporters should imbibe the rules and norms of science reporting. While double-check is the norm for general reporting, it is triple-check for science reporting.