We need to talk about preprints: how (not) to deal with the media

BY KATRIEN BOLLEN AND ELISA NELISSEN. Online preprint servers such as arXiv and bioRxiv allow researchers to share their findings with the scientific community before peer review. They are also a goldmine for journalists looking for their next big story. Here are some tips to navigate a potential media minefield.

Katrien Bollen and Elisa Nelissen are press officers at the KU Leuven Press Office and Policy Communications unit. They focus on international media.
Katrien-Elisa

Katrien Bollen and Elisa Nelissen

Time is of the essence when it comes to public health emergencies such as the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. In such situations, preprints – scientific papers that are available online but have not yet been peer-reviewed – allow researchers to work together at a quicker pace and on a larger scale.

However, this unprecedented speed of science also constitutes a significant risk. What happens, for instance, when preliminary – or worse: shoddy – research hits the headlines? Will it not create false expectations about, say, a cure for COVID-19? Who is to say that faulty findings won’t linger in the public mind? Will you still get your findings published in a journal when they’ve been all over the media? And peer review may not be a perfect system, but does that mean we can just go ahead and share science with the general public if it has not yet been through this process?

At the KU Leuven Press Office, we act as the liaison between researchers and the media. To help you deal with the complexities of preprints and the press, we have compiled a list of the most commonly asked questions – and their answers.

1. I have a preprint. Can the Press Office help me promote it?

No. As a rule, the KU Leuven Press Office only disseminates published, peer-reviewed scientific results. We may consider making an exception when there is a particularly pressing need to communicate, for instance when public health is at stake. However, these exceptions are very rare, and we will always proceed with the utmost caution. Press officers are not peer reviewers, and one single press release about findings that don’t hold up can cause long-lasting damage.

2. Can I send my preprint to journalists to draw their attention to my work?

We strongly encourage you not to. Preprints may be a useful way to share your findings with the scientific community, but they are not peer-reviewed. Journalists may not always make that distinction, and even when they do, the words ‘preprint’ and ‘peer review’ hold very little meaning for the general public. As a result, your preprint paper will likely be treated as if it were peer-reviewed.

This may not be such a big deal when your preprint eventually gets published in a journal without any revisions – which, let’s be honest, never happens – but it can have major consequences when one or more of the claims you’ve made turn out to be wrong or need further fine-tuning. Once the word is out, you cannot take it back, and you may end up contributing to one of the greatest evils of our time: disinformation. This is bad enough itself, but you may also cause significant damage to your reputation as well as that of your institution.

Contact us as soon as your paper has been accepted for publication. Or even better yet: if you’re working on a project that may be relevant for the general public, let us know!

Preprints are meant to be read by your fellow researchers, and the general public does not usually benefit from (or even realise that they are) being drawn into what is essentially a discussion among scientists. This holds especially true in the midst of a crisis like the one we are in right now with COVID-19: the whole world is looking for a solution, and the scientific process simply cannot keep up with the public demand for quick and simple answers. This makes it all the more likely that preliminary findings may be picked up too soon and create false expectations.

When you think your preprint may be an exception to the rule and you want to share it with the media, make sure to contact the KU Leuven Press Office to decide on the best approach. We have years of experience in dealing with journalists, and we are happy to share our expertise.

Be careful, though: placing your findings on a preprint server, sending them to a journalist or making your data public by any other means irrevocably destroys the possibility of obtaining a patent on those findings.

3. A journalist has found my paper on a preprint server and wants to talk about it. What should I do?

Journalists rely on scoops to stay ahead of the competition, so it has become increasingly common for them to scour preprint servers for their next headline. When a journalist has found one of your preprints and asks you for a comment, there are various elements to consider before you reply.

  • Know whom you’re dealing with. If you’re unsure whether the journalist or media outlet is legit, don’t hesitate to contact us. Publishing fees for a story should always raise a red flag: the KU Leuven Press Office never pays for media coverage; we earn it.
  • Find out what to expect. When and where will the story be published? Will the journalist give you the opportunity to fact-check your quotes? What is the context of the story? Ask these questions before the interview, so that you know what you’re committing to.
  • Stay in control. Preprints are in the public domain, so the journalist does not need your permission to write about your findings. It is good practice for science journalists to ask other experts in your field for feedback on your paper – which does not mean everybody does it – and get a few quotes from the lead author of the paper. If you decide not to comment, the story may be published without your input, and you will have lost control over the message.
  • Play it safe. If the paper is under review with a journal, ask them what their policy is on preprints and embargoes and include the KU Leuven Press Office in the conversation. Depending on the journal and the paper, responses may range from ‘you can talk to the journalist’ to ‘media coverage will get your paper rejected’. In some cases, there may be room for negotiation: the journal may allow you to answer the questions of a trusted (!) journalist, impose an embargo, or push the publication date of your paper forward, for instance.
  • Be quick. Science journalists work under tight deadlines in a very competitive field, so they can’t afford to wait two weeks for your response. If you have contacted a journal for more information, let the journalist know.
  • Think before you speak. Journalists can use anything you say to them in their story, and there is no such thing as ‘off the record’. If you make wild claims during the interview and it backfires, that’s all on you: you’ve said it, and the journalist is only doing their job. Think carefully about the message you want to convey and make sure to emphasise that the paper is a preprint.

Read more tips for working with the media (KU Leuven staff only).

4. Will my paper still be accepted by a journal when my preprint has already hit the headlines?

That depends on your field and the journal. The only way to be absolutely sure is to contact the journal(s) of your choice before posting your paper on a preprint server. Here are some examples of journal preprint policies:

5. My preprint was covered in the media. Will you still promote my paper once it’s been accepted by a journal?

In most cases, we will not. The goal of a press release is to inform journalists about (soon-to-be) published findings, so that they might cover them. If your findings have already been covered in the media, we have little to gain from promoting the same work again. In fact, we may even annoy journalists by sending them ‘old news’.

6. Can I still apply for a patent when my preprint has been in the media?

Extensive media coverage of your work, in which essential aspects of the methodology or obtained results are communicated, will affect your chances of acquiring a patent. KU Leuven has an excellent tech transfer office – KU Leuven Research & Development – so if you’re working on something that may be patent material, let them know as soon as possible and decide on the best approach together.

7. If not the preprint stage, what is the best time to contact the Press Office about my research?

Contact us as soon as your paper has been accepted for publication. Or even better yet: if you’re working on a project that may be relevant for the general public, let us know! Read more about how we work (for KU Leuven staff members only, sorry).

CONCLUSION

Preprints are here to stay, but they are not suitable for press releases. If a journalist wants to cover your preprint, think carefully about the message you want to convey and consider the consequences. When in doubt, contact the Press Office: we are happy to help.


These guidelines were inspired by the “Preprints: New Questions, Pressures and Opportunities for the PIO” session hosted by EurekAlert! at the AAAS meeting in Seattle. The speakers on the panel were Bethany Baker (PLOS), Karl Bates (Duke University), Linda Glaser (Cornell University), Mathias Jäger (EMBL), Meagan Phelan (AAAS), and Jennifer Holshue (EurekAlert!).


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