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Promotion vs Accuracy in Science Writing

Promotion vs Accuracy in Science Writing

Via redOrbit.com, Image Credit: Roman Pyshchyk / Shutterstock

It's no secret that photographs are great for gaining attention.  The photo goes hand-in-hand with the headline itself.   It's also no secret that in science writing, 2 things are very common - that articles tend to be "dumbed down" to communicate with as large of an audience as possible, and that the articles tend to leave out elements of doubt, scope, or context that are carefully included in the original peer-reviewed science paper.

The headline, or sometimes the photo itself crosses the line in order to grab more attention, which is arguably their purpose from the start.  The goal of the Science article is to communicate real, accurate, and true information, while the goal of the headline/photo is usually simply to gain attention.

So the age-old question is naturally produced: does the end justify the means?  If an inappropriate photo gains a lot of attention for an article, but at a sacrifice of authenticity, is it an overall "plus"?

Certainly there is something to be said of the intended audience.  If the audience is the general public then it seems reasonable to stretch for that extra percent of attention while sacrificing a small portion of realism.  This is especially true if the author has already decided, even unconsciously, to modify the information for wider understanding and for brevity, as mentioned above.

I'll save the question of what the consequences of this might be for a later post, but one wonders if public trust in science, or other credibility issues could be at stake.

Take the photo at the top of the article. There are several incarnations of it used in other science stories, for example Plasma Arc Waste Gasification Plant to be Made in Marion? in Feb 2012.

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However, let's take a closer look at the photo itself.  Have we even started with a real photo?  In this case, no - it has been photoshopped as shown here.

Start with a stock photo of a common novelty plasma ball, in this case by the same photographer - Roman Pyshchyk.

Clean it up, work the center area into a circle shape, and perhaps add some wires at the edges

to make the thought of electricity come to mind, and voilĂ ! - you've created "plasma".

From here, it's just a quick search for stock photos of fingers, and some more photoshopping, and you can offer a photo of "hand-held plasma".

With this kind of photo in hand, we can now get the attention that the article deserves.  Now, what was the article about again...?

Plasma Device Developed at MU Could Revolutionize Energy Generation and Storage, University of Missouri

Like the original source, I used the 2 minute video that shows the actual device in operation, along with a short interview with the head of the research, Prof Randy D. Curry.

The results were quite low, compared to posts that used the more interesting fantasy photo.  The redOrbit.com article garnished 4.6k FB likes, 273 Twts, 3.7k +1s, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ respectively.  On G+, it drove at least 2 posts to the "what's hot" list:  +Mara Mascaro got 1613 +1s, 650 shares, and 324 comments, while +Lacerant Plainer got 600 +1s, 183 shares, and 92 comments nearly a month later using the same photo.

Probably unsurprisingly, we confirm the idea that a good photo draws more attention.  The question that remains open is do they, when used improperly, undermine the authority that peer reviewed science tries to bring to the public?