Journalistic bias in Science Magazine


There was a piece published on the Science Magazine website, by Eli Kintisch, that smelled fishy to me. The article was an overview of a range of efforts to make the sharing of raw scientific data easier and more common.

You might get the impression that it’s a well-researched piece of journalism. There are several people who are featured with engaging quotes, and there is a lot of detail. The article emphasized those who are working to promote easy and open access to their own data and that of others who choose to share. That’s cool. Kintisch identified me as a counterpoint, a person who “fears” data sharing. He also featured Erin McKiernan as another counterpoint, who also wrote about her own reservations on the topic.

Because I barely interacted with Kintisch, I was surprised to find myself in the article. I guess a couple short email exchanges can count as an interview. I thought it was weird that he didn’t put much diligence into sorting out my viewpoint. But, I thought, at least he talked with Erin McKiernan. But then I saw a complaint on twitter, by a woman no less, that there were no women featured in the piece. I realize that gender is merely a social construct, but I sure thought that everybody would agree that Erin McKiernan is woman. (I can only guess, that in that person’s eyes, Erin McKieirnan didn’t count because she didn’t agree with her.) Then, this was brought to my attention:

And then I discovered that Titus Brown and Ethan White had genuine email interviews, with a bunch of questions from Kintisch. They each shared their interviews in separate posts.

This is what shoddy journalism looks like, in my view. Consult deeply with the people that you’re featuring, and then ignore or barely interact with the people you quote who disagree with your protagonists. Never mind the fact that I wrote to Kintisch, “I think making data sharing as easy as possible is important.” I suppose a thin and misrepresentative caricature of my views was more journalistically convenient.

He was even clear with me that he didn’t really understand my viewpoint:

Terry: Rereading your orig blog post and this note I was a bit puzzled. My editor asked me to summarize your view, so I got:

Biologist Terry McGlynn at California State University Dominguez Hills fears his lab lacks the resources to collaborate effectively with other scientists who might use raw data he posted online. “Once the use of … datasets gets as much recognition and credit [as papers] in the academic sphere,” he says, “I’d be a lot more interested in sharing.”

I was confused by that since small labs generally share w big ones for the very reason that the big ones can offer resources that help them do science/publish papers that otherwise they’d lack the tools/manpower to do…did i write that correctly/fairly?



I wrote back:

Actually it is the opposite of what you wrote. I have lots of capacity to collaborate. But if I share data openly online, the data can be used by others who are not collaborating with me. I want to collaborate, and if others can have my raw data, there will be less incentive for others to collaborate with me.



(sent from my phone)

 There was one other email from Kintisch, three weeks earlier, with one question:

Hi Terry: I’m writing a piece for Science about sharing data.

There is a new tool called ROpenScience, one among several meant to make datasharing easier, more automated, more transparent. Mind taking a look at it? How could the datasharing proposition be made easier for you? For example ROS has a tool that automates the creation of metadata…
Eli Kintisch
Correspondent, Science magazine
And I wrote back:


Thanks for contacting me – I have already been familiar with it (in part from the antweb package), and have given this more of a look.

I think making data sharing as easy as possible is important as more journals are requiring the publication of datasets, so the easier it is for the authors, the better. For me, personally, these tools would not be useful because I am not (yet) an R person. The work in publishing data is clearly an inconvenience that I could overcome if it were a priority, and the next time I end up in a journal that requires it, I’ll have to do it (or if my funding agencies enforce vague policies about the matter).

The main reason that I am reluctant to share data is that, at the current moment, I am able to develop collaborations with others who want to work with my data and we do science together. Considering my position in academia (at an obscure university, with an undergrad-focused lab) I need every resource I have to connect with other labs working on similar questions. If my data are freely available to everybody, then I will have less opportunity to collaborate with others. Once the use of my datasets gets as much recognition and credit in the academic sphere, and once there evolves a standard in which authors of data are given the chance to collaborate on all projects involving their data, then I’d be a lot more interested in sharing.

Of course, I only own my data until I don’t. Which is when my publishers and funding agencies require me to share.

Hope this clears things up.

That was my interview. From reading through the piece in Science, you wouldn’t think that I and McKiernan have thought these issues through carefully and understand the angles. We appear to be skeptical and standing in the way of progress.

At least Science had the courtesy of contacting me to let me know he was writing the piece. Which is more than they did for Erin McKiernan. Kintisch even got her institution wrong in the piece.

Much to his credit, Kintisch saw that I thought the article misrepresented my views, and wrote back to me in great detail to address my concerns about the piece and asked how to make amends:

Hi Terry: Been off email/twitter all day. You have some concerns with how you were quoted in the article? Thanks, Eli

I wrote back:

Yes. I am not afraid or have any fear of the outcomes of data sharing. But I am more bothered that you said that you lacked female sources when you quoted one without contacting her.

I understand that interacting with journalists has its risks, and that I just lost out in this interaction.

And I haven’t heard back. Which is fine with me.

Kintisch was asked why he didn’t contact McKiernan for the piece. To my knowledge, neither he nor his editors have responded. Was this a journalistic crime? No. But the piece gives the impression that people were contacted, when all he did was interview people who represented one side of the issue. If you feature a counterpoint, then do it justice and have a genuine interaction with the people who (allegedly) represent that view.

I thought about running this post by Kintisch and his editor for fact-checking before running it on this site. But then, I realized, they wouldn’t mind if I didn’t.

4 thoughts on “Journalistic bias in Science Magazine

  1. Terry, I’m not quite sure what you complain about – the article literally quotes from your blog post, the quote seems completely representative of the view you voice in this post, and there is even the link to your original post with it. You want to be quoted for “I think making data sharing as easy as possible is important”? Then why do you write a blog post titled “I own my data, until I don’t”, where you basically say you won’t share unless forced to, instead of an article about the benefits of data sharing? If you don’t like your opinion to be quoted, don’t put it on your research blog.

    As for the “journalistic bias” – I really can’t see it. This is an article about data sharing movement, and all the text except for one paragraph is about the movement and technical options of data sharing. Naturally, Eli Kintisch was looking for people that can talk about the data sharing movement. Invoking gender-bias seems really a bit far-fetched, as complaining about getting Erin’s affiliation wrong, happens all the time .

  2. I answer your question within this post. If you read my email response to Kintisch, you see how I say I was misrepresented.

    The primary bias in the Science piece was the lack of due diligence in representing the counterpoint perspective. If the author conducted more detailed interviews with people from one side if the issue, then merely quoting from views that (he thinks) are dissenting is weak sauce.

    And then he says that there were NO women to talk to, even though he quoted one?! That’s obvious gender bias. I recommend reading this post while attempting to see it from my perspective, instead of an adversarial approach.

  3. Hi Terry,

    I just realized the quote was from your email and not from your blog, sorry about that. This feels a bit more private to me, but as you make exactly the same points on your blog, I still feel a journalist can assume that you are OK to be quoted on them.

    When I compare what you said: “If my data are freely available to everybody, then I will have less opportunity to collaborate with others. Once the use of my datasets gets as much recognition and credit in the academic sphere, and once there evolves a standard in which authors of data are given the chance to collaborate on all projects involving their data, then I’d be a lot more interested in sharing.”

    with what the article said: “Biologist Terry McGlynn […] fears other scientists might use data he posts online and not collaborate with him. Once sharing data sets “gets as much recognition and credit [as papers] in the academic sphere,” he says, “I’d be a lot more interested in sharing.” ”

    I find the quote pretty accurate. I take your point that you also said “I think making data sharing as easy as possible is important.”, but I guess everyone agrees with that. In the Science piece, the section about critics actually starts with “Scientists generally believe that sharing is a good idea in principle, […] but in practice many are reluctant.”, so the author skipped what seems uncontroversial, and concentrated on the point where there is actually disagreement.

    My other point was that this Science piece was mainly about what’s currently going on in the area of data sharing, and that the selection of interview partners was a result of that. You might find it unfair that critics of data sharing (female AND male alike!) were not given more space, but I don’t know – my feeling is that you got quite a lot of attention for your posts as it is, many other people that blogged in favor data sharing or the new PLOS policies were not quoted. Same for the editorial boards of various journals that recently implemented data sharing policies.

    Anyway, just an outsider’s perspective. I realize that I would also be upset if I felt that I was misinterpreted / played in such a situation.

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