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Media misconceptions

How the nuances of scientific work are lost in mainstream reporting

So, the knotweed paper is finally published;

Optimising Physiochemical Control of Invasive Japanese Knotweed is now freely available via the open-access peer reviewed journal Biological Invasions.

In the run up to publication our team went into media overdrive.

Press releases were finely crafted to give a precise lay summary of the paper. Interviews were held over the phone. And journalists were given private tours of the main field-trial site in Taffs Well.

Press coverage of the paper has been spectacular. The BBC, Telegraph and Daily Mail all featured it in stories online. On an evening’s notice Dan Jones was also invited onto BBC Breakfast to discuss the research on TV - he’s gaining quite the niche media profile as one of the UK’s 'leading knotweed scientists'  (more on the cult of 'the knotweed expert' another time).

The paper can be read online, without downloading, even so we're currently at 4.5k downloads - a huge number for an academic paper.

Such exposure creates a whole new layer of issues, since accurate reporting of scientific work is always challenging. Fans of Ben Goldacre will know that the UK press struggle to accurately report the nuances of scientific studies, all the more so when it comes to large-scale trials testing a wide range of methods.

Here's the issue;

From beginning of the field research through to final publication of the paper, the research project covers 7 years of academic work. 19 different knotweed control treatments, covering a range of physiochemical methods, were tested over 3 years of experiments. The paper itself went through over 300 revisions and has around 70 pages of supporting notes, and full statistical analysis explaining a number of nuanced outcomes. 

Can all this be accurately summarised into a pithy headline? Unlikely!

At its best, mainstream reporting helps to dissolve unhelpful myths surrounding the subject at hand. In its worst tabloid variety, reporting borders on the actively disingenuous.

Weaving an especially lurid scare-story concerning Japanese knotweed seems to be a favourite for journalists who trade in the outrage economy. And whilst we’re flattered by all the press attention here at Advanced Invasives, unfortunately we lack editorial control of Britain's largest media channels, hence these misleading headlines from the BBC, Telegraph, and Daily Mail:

Naturally these headlines have been leapt upon by some of the leading Japanese knotweed contractors whose bread and butter is physically remediating development sites infested with Japanese knotweed. They’re flustered mostly because they haven’t read the academic paper itself, only the headlines.

We’ve received breathless accusations in company blogs and comment sections, ranging from whether Biological Invasions is peer reviewed (it is), whether we understand rhizome ecology (we do), through to oddly personal speculation about the motives of founding a knotweed consultancy, supposed conflicts of interests in the funding of the research (there aren’t any), and most bizarrely that we aren’t contributing to the public domain (we lead the industry here).

To be clear; the results of the most comprehensive peer-reviewed research project ever undertaken on knotweed control are available to everyone — the knotweed paper is open access so that the entire industry, and in turn local government, and the public can benefit from the work.

We want people to scrutinise our work — to improve future research projects and also to pool new findings and ideas. Interestingly none of our detractors seem to have read the paper with any sincerity. More telling; all of them were too shy to get in touch and simply ask us about work.

So, a reminder to the easily outraged - we’ve got nothing to hide; we're currently at over 3.9k downloads of the paper to date.

The next article gives our official response to the the headlines sparking the debate.