Science PR? I just think about sex

I’ve been a scientist, journalist, writer

Sure, I dabbled in college, didn’t everyone?

But when I got the scientist gig, I quickly realized the PR hacks at whatever university I was at were just that –J-school grad hacks.

CSWA-Slideshow2Can’t blame them, went for the stable income and routine.

But it annoyed me to shit when they wouldn’t do their job, for whatever bureaucratic reason.

I soon learned to just write my own press releases whenever the news was relevant or a new paper came out.

If only I could get paid for it.

But that would lead to excruciatingly endless and mind-numbing meetings where I would daydream about sex.

Good science PR has its role, and Nick Stockton of Wired writes a website called EurekAlert gives journalists access to the latest studies before publication, before those studies are revealed to the general public. Launched 20 years ago this week, EurekAlert has tracked, and in some ways shaped, the way places like Wired cover science in the digital era.

Yes, of course the Internet was going to change science journalism—the same way it was destined to change all journalism. But things could have been very different. EurekAlert gathered much of the latest breaking scientific research in one easily accessible place.

You probably know the basic process of science: Researcher asks a question, forms a hypothesis, tests the hypothesis (again and again and again and again), gets results, submits to journal—where peers review—and if the data is complete and the premise is sound, the journal agrees to publish.

Science happens at universities, government institutions, and private labs. All of those places have some interest in publicizing the cool stuff they do. So those places hire people—public information officers—to alert the public of each new, notable finding. (OK, maybe some aren’t so notable, but whatever.) And the route for that notification is often via journalists.

And, much like the way journalists compete with one another for scoops, journals compete with one another for the attention of journalists to publicize their research. After all, Science, Nature, JAMA, and so on are interested in promoting their brands so they can attract more smart, impactful research. As someone smart once said, science is a contact sport.

So how did EurekAlert become the one clearinghouse to rule them all?

In 1995, an employee for the American Association for the Advancement of Science had an idea for this newfangled Internet thing. Nan Broadbent was the organization’s director of communications, and she imagined a web platform where reporters could access embargoed journal articles. Not just from the AAAS publication Science, but all new research from every journal. Which might seem trite on today’s hyper-aggregated web. But remember, this was an era when anime nerds on Geocities were still struggling to organize their competing Ranma 1/2 fansites into webrings1.

Sorta the way Food Safety Network started in 1993. I hosted the Canadian Science Writers Association annual meeting in 1991 while working at the University of Waterloo, where ideas about access were vigorously discussed.

But while EurekAlert democratized journalists’ access to papers, and PIOs’ access to journalists, those who had the resources to develop their own connections—like Grabmeier’s boss, or reporters at big, national outlets—suddenly found themselves competing with, well, everyone. “EurekAlert is kind of like a giant virtual press conference, in that it pulls everybody to the same spot,” says Cristine Russell, a freelance science writer since the 1970s.

That centralization, coupled with the embargo system (which has existed way before EurekAlert), has contributed to a longstanding tension within science journalism about what gets covered—and what does not. Embargoes prohibit scientists and journalists from publicizing any new research until a given date has passed, specified by whatever journal is publishing the work.

EurekAlert opened up science in a way that it had never been open before. The site has 12,000 registered reporters from 90 different countries (Getting embargoed access is a minor rite of passage for new science writers). It receives around 200 submissions a day, from 10,000 PIOs representing 6,000 different institutions all around the world. Once an embargo lifts, anyone is free to read the same press releases as the journalists (access to the original papers is a trickier ordeal). EurekAlert gets about 775,000 unique visitors every month. Its articles are translated into French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese.

Sure, the site is not perfect. It is arguably no longer even necessary—modern journalists are web native-or-die self-aggregators. But that’s the thing. EurekAlert was never trying to be much more than a convenience. Which turned out to be its greatest gift: Making science easy to access.