Some Secrets Are Just Too Good to Keep

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

One day while at the British Science Festival, I didn’t have a clear story from the press briefings, so I spent the day attending the public talks searching for something to cover. I did eventually find an exciting story but I didn’t write about it.

I’m going to be annoyingly oblique in this blog post and I’m sorry about that but you’ll see the reasons become clear in a moment.

I went to a presentation that I thought was pretty interesting but by the end of it I was unclear whether or not the material was novel and newsworthy. So after the talk, I approached the presenter with my recorder and note book, and asked her directly. She asked why I was interested in the “newsworthiness” of it and I told her that I was covering the festival for the Financial Times.

She informed me that it was really a few years old, which would have been the end of things, except she then said that she had just concluded an important study that would be high impact. She didn’t include the results in the talk because she hadn’t wanted to make it public before it was published.

That, as they say, would have been that except she then went on to tell me all about it. She told me the experiment. She told me the method. She told me the results. Whenever I was unclear on something she was saying, I asked her for more details and she explained it to me. It went better than most of my interviews.

By the time she had finished telling me about it and I had turned off my recorder, I had more than enough material to write a very exciting story for the FT on a novel research program that no other journalist even knew about.

I was flabbergasted. She had said that she didn’t want to make her work public but then had immediately shared it all with a journalist from the FT!

Scientists, listen to me. Listen to me, scientists. Listen:
Do not do this.

As a journalist, I knew that I was sitting on a good story that would interest my editor and FT readers and would scoop all the other papers. As a fellow scientist, I knew the presenter didn’t realize the ramifications of what she had done.

So I buried the story. I did not write it.

I talked to Clive Cookson, my editor, about it and he was super supportive.

I’ve since contacted the researcher and she’s going to keep me up-to-date on the project. I’ll even visit her lab before she publishes. Hopefully, I can still write the article that will cover her work and have enough time to do a better job than other journalists, who will have to rely on the press release when it comes.