Opinion: Why is the BBC so bad at putting links in science stories?

The BBC’s failure to link properly to the original sources of its stories, especially those relating to developments in science and healthcare, may be just be a personal bugbear, and you may well be blissfully unaware of or affected by it, but do indulge me as I think this matters!

For some time now the likes of medic and writer Ben Goldacre have expressed real concern at the underwhelming way the BBC uses hyperlinks on its website. Specifically, when the BBC website carries a story based on papers published in academic journals, clicking their ‘related internet links’ sends the reader to places that are, well, not very well related to the story. Despite the BBC engaging with Ben (albeit in a rather bizarre exchange) and others regarding this issue, and even going as far as changing their official policy on how they should link to external sources such as academic papers, they don’t appear to have learned their lesson.

Take the recent story in the BBC’s health news section, which describes how “Gene therapy and stem cells unite.” As a scientist working on gene therapy, my interest was piqued – the report was about work done in Cambridge where, according to the story, “the research group took a skin cell from a patient and converted it to a stem cell. A molecular scalpel was used to cut out the single mutation and insert the right letter – correcting the genetic fault. The stem cells was (sic) then turned into a liver cells (sic)… When the cells were placed into mice, they were still working correctly six weeks later.” In the interests of practising what I preach, you can read the original paper here, although it may be behind a paywall in which case you should be able to read the abstract for free.

Earlier on in the BBC story the reporter James Gallagher wrote that “Two of the holy grails of medicine – stem cell technology and precision gene therapy – have been united for the first time in humans” (emphasis added). As the experiment described appeared to involve injecting these gene-corrected liver cells into mice, I wanted to follow up by reading the original paper, to ask whether the liver cells had been injected back into patients (or in fact whether ‘in humans’ referred to ‘using human cells’) and other related questions. I often do this – being a ‘badscience geek’ I like to follow up the presentation of scientific findings in the media and blog about whether the report represents the science or not (note how I linked to specific blog posts there, not just my blog’s homepage…!).

Unfortunately, on this occasion as on so many others, the external links proved more than useless – they linked to nature.com (which isn’t even the journal Nature’s homepage), the homepages of the research institutions where the work was carried out, the homepage of the relevant funding body and that of the university where Prof. Robin Ali, invited to comment on the work, is based (declaration of interest, Robin is my boss). Nowhere did the BBC follow its own guidelines which tell its authors to, “on external websites, look beyond homepage to pages of specific relevance” which in the case of academic journals should mean the paper itself instead of the journal’s homepage.

I sent a quick complaint to the BBC (I wasn’t the only one to do so), and within a couple of hours I had received a reply (apparently from the author of the original piece) which was impressive. The reply itself was less so and is as follows in full:

Prateek,

Thanks for getting in touch. Linking is obviously important. In this circumstance it was down to the link not being available when I left work, the story being published overnight, and me going to interview a researcher first thing this morning – meaning there was a, far from ideal, delay in adding the link. Just so you know, the links at the bottom of the page have always been to the relevant institutions rather than “inline linking” within the body of the text.

Best wishes, etc.

These certainly sound like extenuating circumstances and I’m prepared to be understanding – not least because the story now has a full inline link to the original study. However a little digging made me wonder. What bothered me was the bit about the ‘links at the bottom of the page;’ according to the new guidelines these too should be detailed links to specific papers.

Hardly qualifying as a comprehensive study, I decided to look at the first ten stories under the health and science/environment sections of the BBC News site that I could find that were based on peer-reviewed publications and check whether the new links policy was being implemented. As you can see in the ‘supplementary data’ to my ‘study,’ only four out of the ten stories had links to the original studies they were based on, five having no links at all in the text itself. There was little consistency and no correlation between different authors, website sections and open-access vs paywall journals – there just seems to be no pattern in how the BBC links to academic papers (at least from this limited sample).

All this might seem esoteric, barely relevant. However if it takes a trained research scientist as long to find a paper the BBC refers to as it does to read it, if the story doesn’t link to the original research, it makes it that much harder for those reading the story to find out for themselves whether said research is being accurately reported – in this case, my original suspicion that the stem-cell-derived liver cells that had their genetic defect cured were in fact injected into mouse livers not human ones was proven, suggesting a minor yet significant miscommunication of the work on behalf of the BBC.

All this matters, believe it or not. It matters because it is crucial that the BBC acts transparently in reporting medical and scientific advances, and makes it easy for nit-picking bloggers like me to view the original sources of their stories and draw our own conclusions. It matters because sometimes research findings may be (shock horror) mis-represented and the BBC should be easily held to account for its stories. And it matters because at a time when (most) bloggers link to the original source of the subject of their writing, if the BBC wants to remain a relevant news source it has to catch up with common practice and link to what it is they’re writing about.

Hat-tip to Mark Pack for suggesting I get this off my chest, and to @andrew2186 on Twitter for some of the above links.

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10 Comments

  • This isn’t just the fault of the media – this is the fault of the scientific community keeping much research hidden away behind paywalls and subscriptions. If scientists got their digital act together, journalists would follow. If in every scientific article the BBC cites 101 papers I can’t access then it adds something but not much.

  • Adam Corlett 17th Oct '11 - 2:18pm

    I partly agree with Alistair, that open-access is also important (and something our party should push for). It would emphasise that in science, you can choose how trusting of others you want to be. You can trust the journalist to have got it right; you could go further and read the abstract; or further still and read the paper and its references; or – this being science (i.e. awesome) – you can [in theory] try yourself to replicate the results in the paper.

    But more importantly, I think we should have the PCC, or its replacement, require similar linking in newspapers’ online stories (or at the very least have guidelines suggesting as much). Referencing academic papers in print editions might be too much to ask for!

    I wonder if it would also be possible to link to other primary sources, such as press releases. I can’t imagine that would be popular with churnalists.

  • You’re right Prateek, links to abstracts would be better than what we have now. I may be mis-remembering but I think once heard the BBC excusing the lack of links and references on the basis that they had write up stories in such a way as to be able to push them across different media types, some of which have space and technology restrictions that would make links useless (eg Teletext) I thought that was a bit odd at the time, must be possible to structure the data behind a science piece so that the references appear on the webpage but not on a TV screen.

  • Jonathan Monroe 17th Oct '11 - 3:17pm

    My wife (who used to be a science journalist) says that another problem is that “big paper of the week” stories are typically based on press releases sent out under embargo several days before the paper is published. This means that at the time the story is being written, the link can’t be inserted because it doesn’t exist.

    The press release embargo expires either the very minute the paper is available online or (all too often) at midnight the previous night. Since “news” is time sensitive, the sub who posts the story at the exact time the embargo expires isn’t going to wait around finding the link.

  • Good to see this sort of thing being aired. I would say another reason why it is important that the BBC does what you suggest is its public service remit. As it is in many other respects, the BBC could become a force for good, offering simple, accessible and accurate reporting of scientific and medical stories – where so many others (Daily) fail.

  • This isn’t just the fault of the media – this is the fault of the scientific community keeping much research hidden away behind paywalls and subscriptions.

    Nah, it’s the fault of arts and humanity trained staffers reporting on hard science topics. Related is the presumption that just having an undergrad in one field of hard science imparts an unassailable understanding of all others (I think George Monbiot falls into this catagory).

    The matter of making scientific papers free access is separate – yer lay-reader wouldn’t be able to follow much of them anyway – but any undergrad submitting a piece without basic referencing would get C-.

    Put Dr. Alice Roberts (a real doctor, as well as one of those johnny-come-lately physicians) in charge, I tells yow!

    ~alec

  • Andrew McLean 17th Oct '11 - 9:37pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with the article. It has got to the point that I simply ignore descriptions of some types of research in the mainstream media, unless I can at least read the abstract. Some of the worst examples are reporting of research of the type: “People who enagage in activity A are more likely to suffer from medical complaint B”, because journalists seem incapable of reporting these stories sensibly. To assess this sort of claim, you really need to know whether someone has merely spotted a correlation when looking at some data, or whether it is the outcome of a study that has made a serious attempt to control for confounding variables.

  • Direct link to a BMJ paper in a BBC article today:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-18018067

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