On pre-approving articles before publication

The debate about whether it is fair for scientists to expect science journalists to let them proofread articles in which they are quoted before going to print has reared its head once more, at least on Twitter, following one round of exchanges last year. The central animus is the same: journalists believe – rightly – that editorial independence is a non-optional component of their jobs and some scientists believe that it isn’t too much at all to expect journalists to let scientists they have quoted check their drafts before publication.

Even though this is playing out on Twitter, I don’t want to jump in there because I don’t want to deal with too many notifications right now. Instead, I’m logging my thoughts here. TL;DR version: I agree with Priyanka Pulla. If you are struggling to get your facts right, pre-approval is okay; if opinions are in play, pre-approval is a no-no.

  1. When you are writing about a particularly tricky topic with multiple facts working together to feed the larger picture, it is good practice to run it past a topical expert and make sure you have got it all right.
  2. It is okay for a scientist to make sure they have been quoted right. I am okay with sharing their quotes back to them together with a little bit of the context in which the quotes will be appearing (e.g. one of the preceding and succeeding lines or with an explanatory note from the journalist).
  3. Scientists often want to change what they have already said because, for example, because they have been more blunt than they would have liked. This is also okay. But if they want to change what they have said altogether, talk to them and find out why they are backtracking. It is possible they are nervous about being misquoted or quoted out of context, and it is often possible to reassure them that you are going to get it right.
  4. Scientists throw tantrums more often than you think about having a certain topic explained a certain way or being quoted a certain way. This understandable with direct quotes but – in India at least – they need to acknowledge that it is possible what they are trying to say can be said better – more effectively, clearly, economically. Journalists have a commitment to accuracy as well as to a reader, so if something can be said better, it should be.
  5. There are different kinds of science pieces: a) explainers; b) paper-based, short, straightforward; c) chronicle of an issue with multiple viewpoints; d) op-ed. (This is a non-exhaustive list but suffices for my illustration.) It is okay to share (a)-type pieces freely with a scientist before publishing, and to share individual-specific parts of (b)-type pieces with some preset limitations on what can/can’t be edited. It is not at all okay to share (c)- and (d)-type pieces with the people who are quoted in it before publication.
  6. However, when dealing with a particularly tricky topic, I share (c)- and (d)-type pieces with an expert who has not been quoted in the piece for what I call a “hygiene check”. These are people who have a good sense of what I am asking of them: to check if a piece is legitimate, not if they agree with it. And I let the scientists who are quoted in the piece know that I am doing this (without naming any names).
  7. The boundaries around (a), (b), (c) and (d) types of stories are fluid, not fixed, and often blur into each other. So ultimately, journalists should work with their editors to figure out what is okay and what is not. If they don’t have an editor, then reach out to one for a consultation.
  8. If you feel you have good reason to ‘break’ a rule, do so – but don’t take unilateral action if/when you are working with an editor. No matter how strongly you feel about your position, your commissioning editor and the publication they are working for have a say.
  9. For scientists: I would say this Twitter thread hits the nail on the head, with one addition: the ‘media’ is not a monolithic entity, and it is not at all fair to spite The HinduThe TelegraphThe Wire, etc. because you have been screwed over by The Daily MailTimes of IndiaThe Sun, etc. Take time out to sample the media space, read the right writers and save your time and energy for people you trust. We’re all working with different goals here.

In case you are a scientist: The Wire performs a form of fact-check that has proven effective but doesn’t match up to the New Yorker in intensity; I highly recommend you read this to understand why. We have commissioned, edited, reported and published some excellent long-form science articles (e.g. thisthis and this). Most of all, we are reflexive and will make corrections if requested, often promptly.