Churnalism and plagiarism?

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

If I copied and pasted parts of a scientific article into a blog post, and passed it off as my own writing, what would you say about that? I hope that everyone would be appalled. What about if it was from a press release? This is something that is clearly intended for consumption by the media, but if I copy, paste and claim it is my own writing what would that be called?

This is called science churnalism:


“Churnalism is an article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added” (From FAQ of


I encourage everyone to read the Guardian article on the topic, and to visit It is a site that compares text from news articles and press releases and highlights where text has been copied and pasted. I think it could be a very useful resource, but an additional manual check of the comparison is probably necessary to weed out false positives.

For example, an article “Baby blues: It takes 18 months for a new mother to ‘feel like a woman again’” from the Daily Mail was reported to be ’97 % pasted’. However upon examination of the article itself I could not find many of the passages that claimed to find. Another article where I struggled to find manually matching passages is Drinking grape juice can reduce memory loss: Daily Mail.

However, to give examples where works fine and dandy: I present you with

Dinosaur discovery: new ‘thunder-thighs’ dinosaur discovered by British scientists: Daily Telegraph
Forget Mars and Venus: men and woman are on the same planet: Daily Telegraph
Teachers blame social networking websites for low grades and poor concentration: Mail Online

What do I think on it? As has been previously mentioned, journalism as a whole is subject to enormous time pressures and to be the first to publish. That is probably close to being something of a truism. Science journalism is no different but in my mind, copying passages verbatim from a press release is no different from plagiarism. Copying from a press release and not acknowledging this makes it very difficult to determine where reported information is coming from. I’ll leave you with a quote from Martin Robbins, who puts what he thinks of Churnalism better than I could:


“There’s nothing wrong with curating content to pass on for a wider audience – Ed Yong and I do that daily on Twitter – but if journalists aren’t contributing original reporting, or providing context, or challenging statements made by university press officers, or even just adding informed opinion, then they’re not really doing journalism. At a time when we need to develop new models to support professional journalism online, that may not be a wise path to travel too far down.” (From Guardian article 25/04/11)

Martin Rees and The templeton prize

April 26, 2011 1 comment

Much has been written about Martin Rees, a celebrated physicist accepting the Templeton prize at the start of April. Does Martin Rees accepting the award undermine the integrity of science? Looking through the past winners of the Templeton Prize, many recent winners certainly seem to straddle, associate, or oppose the boundaries between science and religion.

I took the opportunity to chip in on this topic since Professor Rees wrote an article in the New Statesman about the issue a few days ago. I think this particular passage summarises his views, and his entire article:


” I have no religious belief… Despite this, I continue to be nourished by the music and liturgy of the Church in which I was brought up. Just as there are many Jews who keep the Friday ritual in their home despite describing themselves as atheists, I am a “tribal Christian”, happy to attend church services.”


I think Professor Rees attempts to occupy the central ground: he is an atheist, a scientist, but not opposed towards religion: merely ambivalent perhaps? I think the particular passage above leaves him open to attack as being weak and unconvincing. However, as long as Martin Rees maintains his scientific integrity in his field in his past, present and future works, I do not see how he undermines the integrity of science. Whether or not he should have accepted the Templeton prize is in my opinion completely irrelevant. My 2 cents.

Easter Monday and E2 water

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Hope everyone had a good easter, I certainly have enjoyed the break but anyhoo, I thought I’d kick off with some ‘interesting’ science about the joys of real water. This has been well debunked in the Guardian as an example of just how bad pseudo-science can get.

To give a summary: This company is promoting a new product called E2 water. This is a special type of water that claims to fix ‘damaged water’: water that is positively charged and acidic because of all the ‘pipes, filtration systems and various systems’ that the water has to go through. In fact, the water molecules start to clump together, and the cells can’t absorb the water as well. These evil, positively charged waters also cause free radicals to form by abstracting electrons from other water molecules, and these free radicals, you know pull ‘LIFE FORCE’ away from the cell.

To fix this they add ‘hundreds of millions’ of electrons to the water that makes the water less positively charged, and more alkaline. This is good for the body and we go about our day more hydrated and just BETTER.

Let’s finish it with a direct quote from the company on just how good it’s going to get…


We must caution you, your cells have been starving for hydration for a long time (even though you drink a lot of water). With the E2TM Water Concentrate added to your water, the cells hydrate quickly and start to throw out all the accumulated toxins and other crud that they have been storing for a long time. This can result in flu-like symptoms. So take it slow at first. However once you get through the initial period, you will have never felt better.

12 1L bottles, all at the bargainous price of $28.

P.S. If you want supporting science articles for this E2 water, their website says it’ll be coming soon. Promise.

Apologies and easter

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment


Not a good week for posts with life and easter getting in the way. I’ll try and post at some point this week, but it may not be possible. *Definately* posts next week!


Categories: Uncategorized

The weekend!

April 15, 2011 2 comments

This weekend, I’ll be running around a muddy field in Cardiff, chasing a plastic disc. Happy days. Next proper post is on Monday. Until then, you might want to read about…

Hedgehogs and Foxes holding Erlenmeyer flasks What type of scientist is a career chemist?

Just in: yellowstone is big(ger) How big is the supervolcano at Yellowstone?

San Francisco to Paris in two minutes Time lapse video of an 11 hour flight from San Francisco to Paris.

Otherwise. Please let me know what you think of the Blog. Drop me an email at sciexplainer at



Helen Caldicott on the nuclear debate: some observations and questions.

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

George Monbiot1 and Helen Caldicott2 have had a series of high profile debates on the merits and risks of nuclear power. Helen Caldicott’s latest article claims that “George Monbiot and others at best misinform, and at worst misrepresent and distort, the scientific evidence of the harmful effects of radiation exposure”.

As I have interpreted it, a summary of her article is that no dose of radiation is safe (even background radiation), as this increases the risk of cancer. Radioactive nuclides remain in the environment for generations and emit high levels of radiation. Columnists such as George Monbiot, organisations such as the WHO and other ‘seemingly reputable groups’ have misinformed the public about the dangers of ionising radiation.

My observations to her article:

• I believe that if you are writing a retort about the dangers of nuclear radiation, then it should be done dispassionately. Several examples of the tone of her article show an arrogance and presumption that is entirely inappropriate. It undermines her attempts to convince the reader of her arguments.

“… George Monbiot, who has had a mysterious road-to-Damascus conversion to its supposedly benign effects”

“How nuclear apologists mislead the world over radiation”

“…Let me educate him”


• Various claims are presented without any quantitative data or any sources. Several examples:

“…No dose of radiation is safe, however small, including background radiation; exposure is cumulative and adds to an individual’s risk of developing cancer”

“many of the [radioactive] nuclides remain radioactive in the environment for generations”

“Monbiot appears ignorant about the WHO’s subjugation to the IAEA, yet this is widely known within the scientific radiation community”


My questions for Helen Caldicott:

•I understand that ionising radiation causes damage to DNA, causing genetic abnormalities that could cause tumour cells to develop. However, the body has also many repair mechanisms to repair this damage. Therefore, what is the increased risk of cancer as the result of background radiation?

Can you provide data and sources to support your claim? Where appropriate, could you also provide an analysis of the data? I believe a detailed analysis is necessary because it forms the basis for most of your arguments.

• You quote a figure of 980,000 as the number of deaths attributable to the Chernobyl meltdown, and a single study is referenced as the basis for this. George Monbiot has attacked this figure. You also acknowledge ‘various seemingly reputable groups’ have ‘differing reports’ on the incident.

Why have you used the study by Yablokov et al as your preferred study? Is there an advantage in their analysis over other studies that have caused you to pick this study? Could you provide other sources that support the data as presented as Yablokov et al?

To my understanding, measuring nuclear activity in sieverts is a quantitative method of measuring the biological damage to humans as a result of radiation. Would you disagree with this? If not, could you provide data and primary sources that illustrate that the Fukuyama incident presents ‘a medical problem of very large dimensions’.

• Could you discuss your claim that “Monbiot appears ignorant about the WHO’s subjugation to the IAEA, yet this is widely known within the scientific radiation community” Evidence and case studies that indicate this to be true would be ideal.


1 Latest George Monbiot article on the nuclear debate: also see links therein
2 Latest Helen Caldicott article in the Guardian: also see links therein

Fun links

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m off on conference today so no post here. However, here are some of my favourite articles from two of my favourite science sites: PhD comics and in the pipeline.


PhD comics: Whimsical look at the life and times of PhD students

“How do I love you”
“Grad school energy levels”
“How Grad school is just like kindergarden”


In the pipeline: Really good posts and insight into chemistry and the pharmaceutical industry. However there are some great posts on ‘what not to work with’ in the lab

Things I Won’t Work With: Dioxygen Difluoride
Things I Won’t Work With: Thioacetone
Sand Won’t Save You This Time



Units for measuring nuclear radiation.

April 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Since the Fukushima nuclear incident happened, there have been a lot of news articles quoting levels of radiation. Some do so in sieverts. Some have done so in grays, rems and becquerels and others have interchanged between them in the same article. This article attempts to explain what each of the units mean.1

Becquerels (Bq) measure nuclear activity of an isotope, but say nothing about the energy of that activity.
Some radioactive isotopes are more active than others and emit different levels of radiation. 1 becquerel is defined as 1 nuclear decay (an emission of a particle) per second. Therefore, Becquerel is a measure of the activity of the isotope, but says nothing about the energy that it hits an object at, or what the biological effect might be.


Grays (Gy) measure energy absorbed by an object, but say nothing about the biological effect to that object.
So some radioactive emissions are heading towards an object. 1 Gray is the absorption of 1 Joule of energy per kg of any matter. It says nothing about its biological effect. That object could be anything, whether it is human tissue, or a door.

Sieverts (Sv) or rem measure the biological effect that radioactive emissions have.
What kind of radioactive emissions are heading towards me? Which parts of the body are they affecting? Some emissions are a lot more harmful than others and some organs (such as the thyroid) are more susceptible to radiation damage than others. Therefore, multipliers to take this into account are applied to the energy absorbed, to give some idea of the biological effect. Therefore, 1 sievert can be defined as 0.333 gray with a weighting factor (WR) of 10 (for emissions) and another weighing factor (WE) of 0.3 (for tissue type). These weighing factors can be seen here.2

Sieverts and rems are closely related in that: 1 sievert = 100 rem

So to give an analogy on the whole thing: if a cannon fired objects at me:
The number of objects per second: becquerels
The energy at which they hit me: grays

Firing a ball of feathers would do me less damage than firing a ball of lead at me. Firing it at my leg does less damage than firing it at my head. The total damage is the energy with multipliers, and measured in sieverts.


1 Sources of information:
Hyperphysics article on radiation risk
Alternative article on radiation units
2 If you take into account all weighing factors: this is known as the equivalent dose. If you only take into account the type of emission, it is known as the effective dose.

The curious science story in the Daily Mail (UK)

April 11, 2011 2 comments

The Daily Mail had a headline on Friday that said:

How oven rust could be the key to unlimited fuel that will power everything


This was based on a press release from Caltech showing a new method producing fuel from sunlight. Dr. Sossina Haile and co-workers developed a new reactor that converts carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide1 and hydrogen using a lining of ceria (cerium oxide) as the catalyst. Interestingly, ceria is a common material for coating the walls of self-cleaning ovens, where at high temperatures (see here2 and here3) it decomposes the food and other junk that is embedded in the oven walls, turning it into a fine ash.

Ceria is not rust. Ceria does not form “when ovens are heated” nor does it form in self-cleaning ovens. Specifically, rust refers to iron oxides, the oxidised form of iron giving it its red and brittle qualities. The implication that ‘oven rust’ is ‘the key to unlimited fuel’ is very clearly wrong.

When I found this article, and wanted to check back to the original press release from Caltech, which dated to the 19th January. I was surprised to find the length in time between the press release and the news article when very clearly this no longer counts as recent news. Should I be surprised at the Daily Mail? Perhaps not, but it is disappointing to see such lazy, inaccurate science journalism in a major national newspaper.

1 Carbon monoxide and Hydrogen can be combined to form syngas, a precursor to hydrocarbon fuels.
2 Self cleaning ovens – wikipedia article.
3 US patent on coating for self-cleaning ovens.


On a slightly different tack but quite closely related, this comic depicting the science news cycle by PhD comics is definitely worth a read!

Science, religion and faith.

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s an interesting one: “Is science just a matter of faith?” appeared in the blogosphere this week, and was commented on extensively at Slashdot. The central claim is that for most people, science is so complex that it is incomprehensible. To understand it, we require scientists to explain it to us. Therefore, faith in the scientist that explains it is required, and we base our faith on the authority of the scientist in question. All very relevant to this blog indeed! Is science just a “matter of faith”?

Science is a vast and complex subject. I’m a PhD student in chemistry. I did my undergraduate degree in chemistry, yet chemistry is so vast that my specialism is organic chemistry. However, organic chemistry is so vast, so I specialise in a particular brand of organic chemistry. This continues up to my PhD, in which I’ll be the world expert on my project, but a tiny, almost infinitesimal speck in the vastness of science.

Where have I read an article? Is it at a rigorous, peer-reviewed journal, where every article has been scrutinised by a person from the field before it is considered for publication? Or is it at some WordPress journal that some geezer started yesterday? To be sure, I will be more sceptical about the second, because my WordPress journal has all the authority of a bum in the street, compared to somewhere like nature or science.

I don’t disagree with the facts presented by the author. What I disagree with is the conclusions he makes with them. Science is not just a matter of faith. What distinguishes science from non-science is that it is empirical and testable. You might need the Large Hadron Collider and a lifetime of research in particle physics to determine if the Higgs Boson exists. It makes it difficult, not a matter of faith. Science invites you to come along and prove it one way or another. Can you prove it exists? Great. Can you prove it’s false? Also great too. You have to have the experiments to support your claim, but otherwise anything is fair game.

Everything in science is falsifiable by observation. Good science does not make conclusions after seeing a bunch of observations. That is called inductivism, and is dangerous. This is because you are fundamentally biased towards the theory you are trying to prove, to the exclusion of everything else. Every hypothesis, from the big bang to evolution is open for people to falsify, to try out, and disprove. What makes them good theories are the centuries of experimental evidence that fall firmly on the side of the theory after the theory has been made.

These are questions associated with the philosophy of science. I can only point you to some of the most important people in the field. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are great starting points. Karl Popper is the father of falsification that I have previously mentioned. Thomas Kuhn wrote a hugely influential book ‘The structure of scientific revolutions’ and coined the term ‘paradigm shift’. If you ever get a chance, Professor Hasok Chang is an inspirational speaker on the subject.

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