Read all about it: from “bench” to newsstand
Did you read the one last week about more complex jobs being associated with cognitive ability in old age? Well, that was one of mine! While it’s generally not our style at Research the Headlines to provide a commentary on our own research, or the reporting of that, I thought it might be interesting to use that recent media coverage to illustrate what goes on behind the scenes to go from the research to the headline.
Stage 1: The science bit
For any research to be reported in the media, a key first step is that there is some research being conducted in the first instance. In this case, the research came from a study based at the University of Edinburgh, called the Lothian Birth Cohort and led by Professor Ian Deary and funded by Age UK. The research team has been following up, and continues to follow-up, a group of adults in their 70s, assessing their cognitive ability across time. The aim is to better understand cognitive ageing and identify the factors associated with it.
In the specific research reported last week, the factor we investigated was occupational complexity: how might the complexity of an individual’s work be associated with their cognitive ability at age 70? The information collected from the group allowed us to examine that question, but with the extra twist that we have access to their cognitive ability in childhood, from a test taken when they were aged 11. That allowed us to ask how much of any association between occupational complexity and cognitive ability in late life might result from their cognitive ability from earlier in the lifecourse.
As I said, I won’t detail the results here, as we’ll focus on the process of the research being reported, but you can access the full published paper here.
Stage 2: Acceptance and copy-editing
After being written up and submitted to a journal, the manuscript was then reviewed and revised based on feedback from the editor and independent reviewers. Once we made the changes they suggested, the manuscript was accepted for publication as a paper in the journal Neurology. After being accepted, the paper then went through a basic copy-editing process, turning it from the submitted word document into a nicely formatted journal article. As authors, our role was to then check that process hadn’t introduced any small errors (or indeed, that any earlier typos we missed were then caught at this stage). After we approved the final version, the paper was then scheduled for its online release date.
To give an idea of the timescales involved, we got notification that our paper was accepted on 10 September, we approved the final version by 10 November.
Stage 3: The press release
In this journal, the editors select which of the recently accepted papers they want to issue a press release for. So on the same day as we approved the final paper, we also received an email from the editorial office that our paper had been chosen for press release.
In the first instance, the journal drafted a press release, which I and the co-authors had the opportunity to comment on or correct, or to suggest any useful additions. At this stage, each part of the process was pretty quick; the first edit of the press release needed to be returned the day after we received it. After one or two small edits, the press release was finalised (and you can see that version here), and was marked for release to the media the next day (12 November).
At the same time as a journal prepare their press release, the institutions hosting the research or those funding it often take the opportunity to release their own version. That can be helpful as it may hit a different media audience (in this case, a release by the University of Edinburgh might secure more UK-based coverage, whereas the press release from the journal would predominantly be picked up by their North American contacts – though both would also hit other international outlets). In our case, the University of Edinburgh decided to also draft a release, and they were able to include a few extra mentions of others in the research team who contributed to the study, as well as quotes from the principal funder. You can read that press release here.
Stage 4: Embargo
So, our paper was scheduled to be released on 19 November, but the press release was sent out by the journal a full week in advance under “embargo”. All that means is that journalists who saw the press release are then able to request the paper ahead of time and contact the authors to prepare an article, but their articles mustn’t go out before the embargo lifts.
During the embargo period, I was contacted by a few reporters, some looking for small clarifications based on their reading of the paper, others with some questions that could be answered by email, while others were keen to discuss the paper on the phone. During the embargo week, I dealt with emails from a number of journalists and spoke to 3 over the phone, including BBC News online and the Wall Street Journal. It can all feel quite exiting at this stage for a few days…then it all goes quiet!
Stage 5: The headlines
As soon as the embargo was lifted (when the paper appeared in the journal on 19 November), the journalists were then free to publish their reports. Some of these were based on direct contact they had with me in advance (either email or phone), while others used the published paper and elements from the press release for their coverage. There are obviously numerous occasions where the report was just the press release itself, and you can spot those easily with a quick search and compare.
Broadly speaking, our research was well-reported and got some good coverage both in the UK and internationally. Some small quibbles which are not uncommon when a specific piece of research being reported is drawn from a much larger, ongoing study, included the contact author (me in this case) being given a lot more credit than was due; in this case, phrases like “Gow led the study” or similar miss the fact that I was one member of a larger research group. For example, the actual job of coding and analysis for this paper was led by one of our research associates, Emily Smart. Another little caveat was that the main study and team are based at the University of Edinburgh, while I am at Heriot-Watt University. Correct attribution is pretty important to researchers, their institutions and their funders, but these details can be easily lost in the process.
In the grander scheme of things, I’m only aware of those minor issues given my involvement, and all in all, the experience and the reporting was generally positive and accurate.
Stage 6: Tomorrow’s fish and chip paper
And then it’s time to get back to reality, returning to the data collection, analysis, writing up, and all the other things we do day-to-day to move our research forward. Although the initial press coverage often generates a second, smaller wave of interest, and I’m fielding a few further emails this week on it, the expectation is that most individual bits of research will generate a bit of time-limited interest, before the next batch of press releases come out.
As noted above, this isn’t the only pathway for research to appear in the media, but hopefully it provides an interesting insight into one of the mechanisms for how we get from “bench” to newsstand. Other outlets and particularly breaking news stories are, by their nature, much more reactive and time pressured. Maybe when one of our group hits the headlines with that experience, we’ll give you another glimpse behind the headlines…