The fine line between ethical and unethical science communication

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In 2017, researchers Fabien Medvecky and Joan Leach perfectly summed up the ethical complexities of science writing and reporting. “Science communication,” they explained, “cannot call on any ‘off-the shelf’ ethical guides because fundamentally, science communication is neither science, nor journalism, nor straightforward communication.”

Now that’s not very encouraging, is it? 

My own experience has also led me to believe that ethical science reporting is not quite a black-and-white affair. Most journals, publications and scientific associations seem to focus on only three forms of ‘unethical’ writing: fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. While the need for originality is surely not lost on any of us, what about the grey areas of science communication that confront writers on a regular basis? The kind that that make us pause and wonder – is this really the most accurate way of reporting the facts? Can I in good conscience write on this issue, when there’s a chance it might mislead hundreds and thousands of readers?

For science communication to be truly ethical, it is NOT enough for your writing to be devoid of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism.

You could arguably write gripping original content – that on paper does not violate the two Fs and one P – but still ends up misleading readers, going against every tenet of science and medical communication.  

Here are 5 forms of science writing that should be considered unethical and avoided at all times: 

  1. Reporting only positive findings of the study/research

Science writers often act as liaisons between researchers and the lay audience, the latter comprising patients, consumers and the society. Scientific communication should therefore be reported responsibly, educating the reader on both the pros and cons of a medical breakthrough or discovery. Yes, it is important to highlight the positives, but do not omit the cautionary points of the development while you’re at it. You owe it to your reader to present a clear, unbiased picture. 

  1. Dismissing the competition

 Now more than ever, scientific news is reported with the agenda of making headlines, which tempts organizations into claiming superiority over other brands in the market. As a scientific communicator, it is up to you to find ways to position the new development as value add to the medical and social world, without putting down other researchers or organizations working in the same space. 

As Louis Pasteur once said, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity.” Let this be a reminder that scientific progress has and always will rely on the role of multiple stakeholders, so do not pit one innovator against the other in your writing. 

  1. Making exaggerated claims

Every day, we hear of new treatments that promise to ‘extend and improve the patient’s quality of life.’ But when presented with the actual data, you’ll find that this extension translates to a few weeks or few months at best, with improvement to quality of life also debatable. So take a step back and evaluate the data for what it is. Look at the bigger picture and present the development in a way that offers hope to patients, without exaggerating or compromising on the truth. 

  1. Promoting unsubstantiated data

The current age of fake news and unchecked virality makes it increasingly difficult to question the authenticity of the things we hear and read about today. This makes our responsibility even greater, as science communicators, to verify all data and information before we share it with a wider audience. Unsubstantiated information in the scientific field can take many forms – from product benefits not backed by data, to premature sharing of study results. So keep an eye out for these issues and always push for validated, evidence-based information. 

  1. Publishing in absence of the original researcher

Many science writers (especially freelancers) get their writing brief from someone who liaises between the writer and the study investigator. This dynamic can be tricky and could well compromise your writing. In such cases, make sure to have two things covered: (a) have all your questions answered by the researcher/investigator before you begin writing (b) publish the final story/article only after the original researcher has okayed it. Insist that the content is approved by the actual subject matter expert, and not just the liaison, so you are in a better position to report it accurately. 

If you still find yourself stumped or stuck in the greys, here’s a guide you can fall back on for ethical science writing. It is widely known as the Mertonian Norms of modern science, clubbed under the acronym CUDOS: 

Communalism (scientific knowledge is owned in common by the whole scientific community); 

Universalism (the validity of scientific claims should be based on universal criteria and not on sociopolitical traits); 

Disinterestedness (scientific work should be pursued for the benefit of the common scientific enterprise, not for personal gain); and 

Organized Skepticism (scientific claims should not be accepted until they have been widely examined and tested). 

Lastly, try and stay true to your inner voice that tells you when something isn’t quite right, and when to pull back for the facts. Have you experienced any other grey areas of science communication? Let me know!