Sunday, January 30, 2011

AFD Editorial Policies


Note: My apologies for this lengthy post in advance.


In response to several queries over the past few months as to why I do or don’t do specific things on this blog, I’ve decided to post my rationale for how I manage this blog.


Over five years, this blog (and blogger) have undergone a number of changes. Hopefully for the better - but that is for you, the reader - to judge. I’ve learned a great deal about infectious diseases of course, but perhaps even more about science blogging in general.


So today, if you’ll indulge me, an outline of the editorial policies I use when writing this blog, including  the sticky issue of`fair use’ of other people’s work.


These policies are specific to me, and and geared to address my personal strengths, sensitivities and foibles, and are not intended to be a guide for any other blogger but myself.


We each have our own style, strengths, and weaknesses. It would be a boring Internet indeed if we all wrote by the same rules.


# 5269



I have, admittedly, some fairly stringent self-imposed rules for writing this blog.  Since I serve as both author, and editor of AFD, they are the only safeguards I have to keep this 5-year endeavor from `jumping the shark’ (1).


Primarily, I try not to speculate, rant, or make this blog all about me. I also avoid, as much as possible, lifting more than a paragraph or two (with a link back) from any newspaper article.


Of course, from time-to-time, bits of these elements do sneak in. So it isn’t a complete ban.


But it is a goal.


And then there’s the tricky minefield of what to do with conflicting science, pseudoscience, politics and individual belief systems. 



A day doesn’t pass when I don’t find some idiotic news item, blog post, or nutty idea worthy of an acidic rant. The internet is, as they say, a target rich environment. And the strong, sometimes overwhelming temptation is to go after these nutbars with devilish delight.

But I’m pretty sure my small but erudite band of loyal readers don’t need me to tell them when some idea, or policy, is inane.


I’d be preaching to the choir. In the end, a rant would only serve to vent my own spleen.  So while I sometimes write them (it’s therapeutic!), I rarely post them.


Besides, if I succumbed to the temptation often, this blog would start to sound like a broken record. So I try to resist.



As far as personal speculation or bias goes, I work constantly to remove it from my writing.




Because no one should give a flip what cockamamie ideas this aging ex-paramedic might have on avian flu, virology, or any other subject for that matter.


When on rare occasions I do speculate, I try to clearly label it as such.  And I must feel I have at least some credible evidence to back it up.


Otherwise, it’s nothing more than biased dreck, and I know it.


My goal is to provide context and scientific evidence, not my opinion. I figure my readers are smart enough make up their own minds, without me insultingly trying to do it for them.



I also try to avoid assuming facts which are not yet in evidence.  Even if they seem `reasonable’, I side with caution.


Which is why, when we see suspected cases of H5N1 in Indonesia or Egypt, I don’t automatically assume them to be positive.


Or assume that negative results are always`false-negatives’.


When we see more than one infection in the same vicinity, and at the same time, I don’t instantly assume them to be the result of human-to-human transmission.


Yes, I know.


Someone else will likely be the first to declare that an outbreak has begun somewhere in the world. But since I know of no prize for being first to shout `Pandemic’ on the internet, I can live with that.


I’d rather be a day late and sure of the facts, than a day sooner and dead wrong.


Yes . . .you can always print a retraction, but Google never forgets. 



You’ve probably noticed I use colored text to segregate what I’m writing from excerpts or quotes by others (always in blue text).


Just another way to clarify who is saying what.


The subject of `fair use’ has come up a lot over the last year, and while I’ve always limited the amount of text I would lift from a news item (usually a linked headline, and a few paragraphs, followed by a second link), I’m taking even less today.


Over the past year I’ve tried to go with just the linked headline and no more than 1 or 2 paragraphs, along with my own summary of the news report.


Exceptions are generally press releases, state or official news releases, and of course, open access journal articles.


For other journal articles, I’ll give the citation, and some excerpts from the abstract, and then my own summary. 


Everything gets linked back to the source, of course.


My reasons are simple.


It’s no secret that newspapers, and journalists, are in financial trouble. And at least part of the problem is the wholesale `borrowing’ of their work, and reposting it all over the web.


I believe I can help them by enticing people to follow the link I provide and to read the original article with a well placed snippet or two, but I would be hurting them if I took much more than that.


I’ve too much respect for the talent and hard work of Maggie Fox, Helen Branswell, David Brown, Jason Gale, Lisa Schnirring, Robert Roos, David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna, and many others to ever want to scuttle their ships in order to pad my blog.


You’ll find that I use the very same standards when referring to another blogger’s work. And whenever I use a news item dug up by a newshound, I try to give them credit (note: I don’t use items unless linked to the original source), as well.


Now, I must confess that I have a personal bias when it comes to this blog.


I believe in promoting evidence based public health policies.


Unfortunately, sometimes scientific evidence is weak, anecdotal, or conflicting.  And as we all know, today’s `accepted truth’ has a bad habit of becoming tomorrow’s rejected fallacy.


Which is why you’ll sometimes find I write blogs like The Temporary Immunity Hypothesis and When Studies Collide (Revisited), that look at conflicting reputable scientific studies.  


When I do, I try not to take sides (at least not in print).


But when scientific evidence favoring one side is strong enough (notice I used the word `evidence’, not `proof), I’ll side with the preponderance of evidence. Even though I know there is a chance it may be proven wrong later.




Because the best we can do on any given day is to base our decisions on what the best evidence indicates right now, even if absolute proof is lacking.


As I’ve said before, if you want a guarantee. . . buy a Craftsman.


Which explains why I am pro-vaccination, even though I’m aware of the (minor) risks involved and the fact that they aren’t 100% effective.  And why I don’t use this blog to actively push unproven protective regimens, like Vitamin D (a frequent question, btw), even though there is some evidence that it may be effective.


(Personal admission: Being a `belt and suspenders’ type of guy, every flu season I use both).



Beyond that, I try not to attack anyone personally, even if I vehemently disagree with them (their ideas are always fair game, however). I also avoid dragging politics or religion into this blog like the plague, simply because I believe they polarize the audience, and distract from the science. 


I’ll leave that to others, better equipped and better suited, to joust with those windmills.


But most importantly, I try my very best not to sensationalize, or use unnecessary hyperbole when reporting on emerging threats. I believe that to do so is both irresponsible, and unprofessional.


And that, I think, harkens back to my years as a paramedic (yes, I’m violating the `about me’ rule here, but this whole blog post teeters on that precipice), where maintaining calm while in the midst of chaos was ingrained into us.


It’s why we walked (albeit briskly) at the scene of an emergency, never ran. And its how we `handled’ dealing with a dozen horrible events every day.


So if you detect the hint of a detached or dispassionate voice when I report on what are admittedly terrible events around the world, you now know why.  


There you have it.  The basic rationale I use when writing this blog.  These are my rules, for my blog, and are not meant to apply to anyone else.


I’ll post this on my sidebar, so that it remains available on the front page.


Hopefully it will have answered any questions you may have had, and now that I’ve written it down, will make it easier for me to stick to.


          *             *           *           *            *


(1)  `Jumping the Shark’ is an American idiom that goes back to the late 1970s.  It refers to an episode of the sitcom Happy Days, where Fonzie on water skis, jumps over a shark.  It was seen as a low point in the series, and a sign that the show was running out of good ideas, and on the decline.

To `jump the shark’ now means that something that was once great, has lost its way, and is on the downhill path.


ReadyMom said...

Mike your blog is a breath of fresh air, where I can IMMEDIATELY turn to get a non-biased, calm, informative read when a questionable situation is arising.

I KNOW that when I arrive at your blog, I will read, and then leave with much more calm and understanding than when I arrived.

Your skill at the written word is amazing. Your principles are obvious in each and every post.

I hope you continue to blog for a long, long time! -k

Anonymous said...

Mike, your blog has been a great asset to my work and my life. I enjoy your non-biased information, your links to the original article and as well your speculations, here and there, back up with reliable evidences. Continue your high-quality blogging! Silverdunes