How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

For the Birds

Researchers: just passive participants in those terribly misleading media campaigns for their papers?

Michael Schulson writes in Undark about the hyping of that big bird-decline Science magazine study I wrote about last week. In Schulson’s retelling, it was

  • A) Overenthusiastic science communicators +
  • B) A big journal hungry for media that offers very little space to the paper itself (hence, for scientific nuance) that led to
  • C) a sensationalist media storyline to take advantage of a growing public taste for apocalypse.

Schulson says that the “research team was able to develop an unusually sophisticated media strategy” for the findings — including the website 3billionbirds.org, “a hashtag, a YouTube video, summaries of the paper, a media resource center, and a downloadable document outlining actions people can take to help birds.” In addition:

Cornell provided a media package that included b-roll for TV stations and formatted-for-Instagram illustrations of startling stats from the paper. The study’s title, “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” was chosen in part, [Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist and research team lead Ken] Rosenberg said, because it echoes the phrase “decline of the Roman Empire.”

Oh, marketing! The horrors! Smelling salts, please!

Frankly: that’s just a solid promotional package. Not “unusually sophisticated.” And there’s nothing wrong with it…if the science is there to back it up. (Cornell did go overboard with one graphic, which Schulson rightly points out.)

Schulson’s piece strongly implies that the big journal-big hype system has overwhelmed poor scientists to the distortion and detriment of science. He quotes insect ecologist Manu Sanders (whom I wrote about vis-a-vis the insect armageddon narrative) and Brian McGill of the blog Dynamic Ecology tsk-tsking about the future of science under the spell of hype.

But Schulson’s quotes from Rosenberg show that the study’s authors were right in on the development of the media plan. And while the paper’s abstract doesn’t use the word “apocalypse,” it might as well have:

Using multiple and independent monitoring networks, we report population losses across much of the North American avifauna over 48 years, including once common species and from most biomes. Integration of range-wide population trajectories and size estimates indicates a net loss approaching 3 billion birds, or 29% of 1970 abundance….This loss of bird abundance signals an urgent need to address threats to avert future avifaunal collapse and associated loss of ecosystem integrity, function and services.

Takeaway: Scientists are not helplessly tied to the railroad tracks as the marketing locomotive for their findings chugs inexorably over them, crushing their integrity and that of their science.

If you’re going to play in the Science or Nature or PNAS arena, make sure you can stand 100 percent behind what’s being represented — in the paper and in its promotion.

Better yet: Realize that research is the MacGuffin. Stop promoting papers and start promoting your expertise — and the unique ideas, innovation, paradigms and solutions you have to offer.