Arrington’s experiment revealed that lionfish — the invasive, venomous species of fish thought to be native to saltwater oceans – could actually survive in nearly freshwater environments, which could potentially damage the marine ecology of estuaries, where salty ocean water and fresh river water mix.
The story went viral. Arrington’s work was featured in science magazines and local newspapers, and word of her “breakthrough” discovery made its way to major news organizations, including NPR, CBS and NBC.
But on Monday, a marine biologist by the name of Zack Jud made an explosive claim: All these stories were based on a “lie,” because Arrington was taking credit for research he’d published three years earlier. [WaPo]
I’m not going to take sides here (those who are interested in doing so should read the full Washington Post article, this io9 piece, and Dr. Craig Layman’s timeline of events) as I want to make a different point. This whole kerfuffle underscores the importance of having highly science-literate journalists. Those who write about science need to thoroughly understand how science works, as a field and a process. Just as in marketing, law, or any other profession, science has its own shibboleths and rules of collegial conduct.
As a scientist you have to cite who you worked with and where your ideas came from (if not all your own, which they rarely are). This isn’t just important, this is tantamount. It isn’t like award shows where you can get up there and thank your mom and Jesus and all the little people when you and your PA both know you wouldn’t be there if they didn’t drag you out of bed every morning and have that almond milk half-caff no foam latte to get your brain started.
My speculation (and I want to stress, this is only speculation) is that the proper credit was lost at an early stage, between subject and journalist, or original article and viral reposting. A non-scientist could easily interpret a comment like, ‘She got the idea for her project from my colleague, Dr. X’ as an offhand remark instead of a crucial piece of the story. With the wheels of the internet news machine spinning as fast as they do in our modern world, flawed stories get shared (at best) and loosely paraphrased as new posts (at worst) faster than you can say “fish fight”.
All of this underscores the deep irony that we simultaneously live in an age where we have to fight for our right to be forgotten on the internet but nobody fact checks anything anyway. It took me all of 2 minutes to search Google Scholar for pre-2012 papers with “lionfish low salinity” (Jud’s 2011 paper is the second result) and find that Arrington did in fact cite Jud when she published her results in 2012.
Fact check your stories, people. Do it for the kids. (And adults and dogs and everyone else who uses the internet).
*Able to survive conditions across a wide range of salinities (e.g. from seawater to freshwater)
**It may be helpful to think of tweets as having the properties of both waves and particles.