The BBC and linking part 1: users are not an audience

UPDATE: The BBC have started a debate on the issue on their Editors’ Blog

Ben Goldacre is experiencing understandable frustration with the BBC’s policy on linking to science papers:

Jane Ashley of the website’s health team, says that when they write an article based on scientific research:

“It is our policy to link to the journal rather than the article itself. This is because sometimes links to articles don’t work or change, and sometimes the journals need people to register or pay.”

In email correspondence defending their policy, Richard Warry, Assistant editor, Specialist journalism, adds:

“Many papers are available on the web via subscription only, while others give only an Abstract summary. In these instances, the vast majority of our readers would not be able to read the full papers, without paying for access, even if we provided the relevant link.”

This just doesn’t stand up. Here’s why:

  • An abstract alone is actually very useful in providing more context than a journal homepage provides
  • It also provides useful text that can be used to either find another version of the paper (for example on the author’s or a conference website),
  • It provides extra details on the authors, giving you more insight into the research’s reliability and also an avenue should you want to approach them to get hold of the paper.
  • Even for the ‘vast majority’ who cannot pay for access to the paper, they will still be taken to the journal homepage anyway.
  • Believing that the time spent pasting one link rather than another is better spent on providing “authoritative, accurate and attractive reportage” is a false economy. Authoritative, accurate and attractive coverage relies at least in part in allowing users to point out issues with scientific research or its reporting.
  • Catering for a ‘vast majority’ belies a broadcast media mindset that treats users as passive consumers. The minority of users who can access those papers can actually be key contributors to a collaborative journalism process. If you let them.

If it helps, here’s a broadcast analogy: imagine producing a TV package which captions a source as ‘Someone from the Bank of England’. That’s not saving time for good journalism – it’s just bad journalism.

Linking – and deep linking in particular – are basic elements of online journalism. Why can news organisations still not get this right? More on this here

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32 thoughts on “The BBC and linking part 1: users are not an audience

  1. Conrad

    Had a little back and forth on Twitter about this with Mike Hirst, a journalist with the BBC News website.

    http://twitter.com/hirstmike/status/9395970442

    http://twitter.com/hirstmike/status/9396408248

    Would love to see when the policy document regarding linking was formulated. Maybe they should be updating that rather than the design of the website!

    Reply
  2. Nick Holden

    If anything, the BBC’s approach probably just loses them readers. If they’re covering the story, chances are that other media websites are doing the same, google will find those – and they will link to the study directly. I guess I spend less time reading about science on the BBC’s news pages than I might do, but that is mostly the BBC’s loss, not mine.

    Reply
  3. David

    Due to the increasing number of funding sources insisting that research is made available in institutional repositories, wouldn’t it make most sense to have one link to the journal and one to the pre-print or journal abstract if a pre-print is not available.

    Linking to authoritative preprints would also be likely to have a positice impact on the use of institution repositories…everyone’s a winner!

    Reply
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  5. Doug

    “This is because sometimes links to articles don’t work or change”

    This should be getting better with the saturation of of the doi. These links seem more permanent.

    Reply
  6. clare

    Jane Ashley has it wrong anyway. If they had a policy of linking via the DOI, then the number of papers which would be unlinkable (due to changing URLs) would be vanishingly small (and if a journal is going to change DOIs on its documents, it’s probably not a good idea to be citing it anyway /snark).
    Anyway, publishers put a LOT of energy into making sure that links don’t become unusable, as otherwise their archives would be fairly useless.

    Reply
  7. Tom

    A very good reason that the BBC news website does not to link to academic articles is that quite often the article they are writing about does not exist.

    I have lost count of the number of times I have been puzzled enough by a BBC science story to look up the journal and author mentioned, only to find that there is no article matching the search criteria.

    Reply
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  9. Mags

    So, they’re demonstrably wrong on pretty much every point there.

    To add some more salt to the wound, the DOI system (http://dx.doi.org/) renders their objection on the grounds that the paper may not be there anymore obsolete. If the URL changes, the DOI will still find it 99.99% of the time.

    Reply
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  12. Ed

    Hi

    I’m from CrossRef which manages the DOIs for scholarly journals. We created a blog plug-in that allows nicely formatted citations with persistent DOIs link to be added to blog posts about journal articles.

    You can see it in action at Research Blogging – http://www.researchblogging.org/

    We’d be happy to adapt this so BBC journalists can use it.

    Reply
  13. Stuart Ian Burns

    What I’m not sure about in relation to the linking issue is why the BBC don’t just do both. Link to the wider website and label it as such and then also link the article/section/page in question. Posting a link to Nature on its own without context isn’t particularly user friendly given that there are hundreds upon thousands of articles on there to be searched through to find the right one. It would be like posting a link to a blog to comment on a post but not actually bother linking directly to that post. Years even hours down the line that’s irrelevant.

    Reply
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  15. Steve Herrmann

    Hi Paul,
    You and others in the comments make some good points here, and in your subsequent post about “curating context” http://paulbradshaw.wpengine.com/2010/03/11/curators-of-context/

    I’m aiming to set out a few thoughts and questions on all this in the BBC News Editors’ blog in the next couple of days http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/

    That is, both on the specific issue of linking to science papers and on the general approach to linking on the BBC News site. Good that the discussion is under way here – I hope you’ll take a look and chip in there too.

    Steve Herrmann, Editor, BBC News website

    Reply
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