Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Strawberry Daiquiris Lesson

The electronic age bumps up against paper age law and a small skirmish breaks out.

Scientific American: If you blinked at any point over the last few days, you may have missed a minor scandal in the science blogosphere, pertaining to fair use of information from a scientific journal.

Anyway, on Tuesday, over at the ScienceBlog Retrospectacle, neuroscience PhD student Shelley Batts ... posted an analysis of a study appearing in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, which suggested that the antioxidants properties in fruits were boosted by alcohol. In other words, as this UPI article exclaims: Strawberry daiquiris, a healthier cocktail.

Great news, right? Although Batts--bravely eschewing the press release--did a thorough read of the article and found that, sure, co-mingling ethanol with strawberries and blueberries both better preserves fruit and heightens its anti-oxidant effect, but that among the other compounds tested, ethanol was neither the most effective at staving off decay nor the best at boosting anti-oxidants. Surprise, the findings were overstated by the mainstream press (as well as in the press release, courtesy of the Society of Chemical Industry.)

On Wednesday, Batts received a letter from the journal's publisher, John Wiley & Sons, demanding that she pull a single graph and a single chart that were included in the paper, and which she'd posted in her explanation of the work. The letter read: "The above article contains copyrighted material in the form of a table and graphs taken from a recently published paper in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. If these figures are not removed immediately, lawyers from John Wiley & Sons will contact you with further action".

Long story short, Ms. Batts pulls the “copyrighted” graph but then reposts the data in her own format while also posting the legal threat. The combined pull and post move acts as some sort of danger signal and soon a large group of howler monkeys are raising a ruckus on line. The publisher then backs down blaming the whole attack lawyer gambit on an overzealous subordinate employee.

Scienceblogs: My esteemed colleague here at scienceblogs, Shelley Batts of the Retrospectacle blog, did what we all do all the time - what is one of the primary role of science blogs: compared what a scientific paper says to what the press releases and media say about the paper. It was a paper widely reported by the press about the potential health effects of drinks like daikiri. Shelley wrote in her post that the paper is fine, but that the media coverage is faulty (what's new?). In order to demonstrate what the paper really says, she, as we often do, reprinted a table and one panel of a figure from the paper in her post.

What should not be overlooked in the copyright vs. fair use frenzy, is that the point of the original post is to demonstrate that media reporting of the study conclusions is inaccurate. The take home message of this episode is that all media coverage of scientific research needs to be read with critical skepticism. The media is about making money, not about getting facts correct. - H/T John Hawks