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No such thing as secrets

Posted 22/06/2010 by roses

I came across a really interesting story earlier this week. I'd like to tell you about it, however, the researcher who told me about it later advised that one of the sponsor companies didn't want to disclose the information at this point in time. As a reporter, I should – and legally could – probably run with it anyway. But despite the reputation of the general press, not all of us in the scientific press are always quite so ruthless. And besides, many of the researchers we write about are also our readers – and authors. It wouldn't do to alienate too much of our readership.

Don't assume, however, that if you tell a journalist a story that it won't get published if you or one of your collaborators subsequently decides they'd rather not have told us that information. A letter to the editor in recent weeks alerted us to an – undisclosed – story in recent issues of C&I that gave away rather more details about an unnamed, and as yet uncommercialised, technology, than the also unnamed company concerned would rather we knew. Too late for retractions now; as the article has already appeared the company would probably rather we did not refer you to.

Most major companies, you might assume, would have mandatory media training courses for all their employees. Rule number one: don't talk to a journalist about anything unless you know you have clearance to do so. Smaller companies and their academic collaborators are equally vulnerable and should be given the same basic training. In fairness, most researchers probably do have training; maybe often it's just so long ago that they've forgotten the rules. Or maybe many of us journalists are just too friendly – or the researchers too eager to enthuse about their new and startling results.

As a journalist, of course, I really shouldn't be telling anyone all of this. Some of the best stories often appear when you least expect to hear about them – before results have been formally accepted for publication or a patent is granted. In the case of the latter, beware – anything you tell anyone will almost automatically invalidate your application. In the modern internet age, it's becoming ever harder to find new stories that haven't already appeared everywhere else – especially working on a fortnightly magazine. So forget everything I've just said. Now what was it you wanted to tell me about…

Cath O'Driscoll – Deputy Editor

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    24/04/2012 03:45

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