From Paper to the Press: a Controversial Process

1_ripollesUniversitat de Barcelona
From left to right, Josep Marco Pallarès, Pablo Ripollés and Antoni Rodríguez Fornells, researchers at the UB-IDIBELL who led the research on «The Role of Reward in Word-learning and Its Implications for Language Acquisition».

On 24 October readers of «La Vanguardia» came across this striking headline «Learning new words has the same effect as sex». So did Pablo Ripollés Vidal, and from then on he started his own particular David-against-Goliath battle. In this case the giant he was facing were the mass media, and his weapons the Internet and the support of the people. Pablo Ripollés is a PhD student at the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Group of the University of Barcelona and author of the study «The Role of Reward in Word-learning and Its Implications for Language Acquisition» published by Current Biology. This is the same study La Vanguardia referred to. «So why publish an article with such a sensationalist and out of reality headline?» Pablo Ripollés wondered in the opening lines to his new blog «La ciencia somos todos» (We All Play our Part in Science). In this text, the researcher showed his anger, caused by the distortion of his study to the point of nonsense. We talked to him about this specific controversy, but also aboout the tense relationship between science and the mass media in general.

You mention your «anger» on your post «Sex, Words and Rock & Roll?». What is causing this anger?
Our project was not precisely a simple one. I spent six months in Germany because cutbacks made it impossible for me to carry out the experiment here. Afterwards we spent another year analysing results, drawing conclusions and writing the paper. So when all this effort was summed up by La Vanguardia as «Learning new words has the same effect as sex» I was just very angry. It is not true, learning words has not the same effect as sex. Just ask anyone what they prefer to do. I asked them to please withdraw the article because of its sensationalism and inaccuracy, but they did not listen to me. But it was harder reading some comments like «again wasting public funds». We do basic science and that means that our research has no direct practical applications in the short term. But in order to take giant steps, we first need to take small ones.

  «Learning words has not the same effect as sex. Just ask anyone what they prefer to do»
2_ripollesPablo Ripollés    
3_ripollesPablo Ripollés
La Vanguardia was the first medium that published the news with the following headline: «Learning new words has the same effect as sex». Together with the picture shown above.

Sometimes press releases themselves are the ones that highlight a striking part of the research in order to get the attention of the media. Did this happen in this case? 
The press release was jointly written by the scientific editorial team as well as the communication team at the University of Barcelona and also ourselves; it was true to our results. It is in fact true that it included this sentence «Researchers find that the reward area activated is the same one that responds to stimuli such as food, sex, drugs or gambling». We wanted to give an idea about the kind of area the ventral striatum is. However, this sentence was not more prominent than others and we did specify that it also responds to food or gambling, why did they choose sex, then? Because sex sells.

What is the paper published in Current Biology about?
Darwin said that although language is not an instinct, we do have an instinct for language learning. The question is to what extent our motivation and reward systems can be linked to language learning. We started planning the project and its testing system in early 2012. We decided to use a contextual learning paradigm where participants could learn new words autonomously. Participants, who where adults, read a German phrase that ended in a new word. For example: «In the lake, the man took a jedin». After a while they read another sentence with the same new word in it, e.g., «The man rowed his jedin». Thus, participants could learn for themselves that jedin means «boat». In addition, we added two extra variables to control the new stimuli; either the amount of attention or the amount of effort required to complete the task. We saw that when participants were able to learn a new word, the ventral striatum, one of the main areas of pleasure, reward and motivation of the brain, is activated together with cortical areas in the left hemisphere, traditionally related to language. In turn, our participants also made bets where they could either win or lose money. We found that active areas in the ventral striatum overlapped when participants learned a new word and when they made money. Finally, we reconstructed our participants’ white matter pathways, the «information highways», and we saw that the subjects with better structures were able to learn more words.

  «We hope that our results open new paths for research on language learning more focused on reward circuits»
4_ripolles_engPablo Ripollés
To test the project we used a contextual learning paradigm where participants could learn new words autonomously. In the picture, a diagram of the experiment conducted by researchers.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this?
We have proven for the first time that the reward system can respond to such an abstract stimulus as learning a new word. We have also provided neurobiological grounds for motivation and reward in language learning. In addition, we have shown that the anatomical connection between the learning and the motivational systems can be a reality and that might have been important for our evolution as a species. However, we hope that our results open new paths for research on language learning more focused on reward circuits. And maybe in a few years time we will be able to use these areas to help patients with language issues.

If you were a journalist that gets this press release, what would your headline be?
You need to use a headline that stands out but that in turn reflects the reality of the study without being misleading. And this is not a simple thing to do. But some journalists wrote very appropriate headlines regarding our study. For example: «Learning New Words Activate Reward Areas», perhaps the most «scientific» one and obviously the one that is truer to our results. Also, «Excited about new words? You are not alone». In my opinion, the latter is shows a good balance between what a journalist would say and what a scientist means. It catches the reader’s attention pointing to our results and is certainly truthful.

But it actually was «Learning new words has the same effect as sex» what went viral. Was it then when you decided to start your blog «La ciencia somos todos» (We All Play our Part in Science)?
Seeing that my work was being used to provide a trivial and basic perspective of science infuriated me very much and that is why I decided to do everything I could to amend the situation. I started the blog and with my friends’ help we diffused the text through Facebook and Twitter. One of them shared the article in Meneame and it ended up at the front page of this news aggregator. Suddenly, complete strangers began tweeting the news and requested «La Vanguardia» to correct it. The Internet is very fast, both for the good and the bad things. Something has been made clear here: you can only fight against the mass media with the support of the people.

In addition to the note published on your blog, did you directly contact La Vanguardia?
I did it many times, both through Twitter and email, but no one replied. What La Vanguardia did is very annoying because had they paid attention when they should have, we could have saved us a lot of trouble. But what La Razón did is just pure comedy. La Vanguardia published its story on 24 October. During the weekend it appeared on the foreign press. On Monday 27, most Spanish news media copied the news from English written publications; that night I started my blog. On the 29th, when everything was over, La Razón published the press release without changing a comma except for the headline: «Learning languages produces pleasure to both adults and children». They claim that we have observed children! [Cries]. But perhaps what bothers me most is what the magazine «Muy Interesante» did. That is not science diffusion. They copied and pasted just like the others. They won’t answer my calls or reply to any of my messages.

But La Vanguardia has finally answered.
Yes, although it took a week and it happened only after the media controversy and my post, I very much appreciate that La Vanguardia took responsibility for what they did. Joan Rovirosa, its Press Ombudsman, and I had a personal meeting and on 9 November they published a column in the print newspaper. In addition, the changed the headline on their online version and now it reads  «Learning new words activates the same brain areas as sex».


«Seeing that my work was being used to provide a trivial and basic perspective of science infuriated me very much and that is why I decided to do everything I could to amend the situation»

5_ripollesPablo Ripollés
Joan Rovirosa, La Vanguardia‘s Press Ombudsman, published a column in the print edition of the newspaper to rectify the news about the study led by Pablo Ripollés on November 9.

From this experience, will you change the way you handle the diffusion of your future research?
This experience has to some extent undermined my confidence in the press and we are going to have to be a lot more careful when writing press releases, although this time we had already double-checked it carefully. But I still have all the support of many journalists who did a good job and published the story properly. Or of those who interviewed me before publishing anything as well as all those who helped me spread what had happened. There is quality journalism in this country in spite of everything.

Let’s talk about the relationship between science and journalism. Do you think it is a «difficult but necessary balance»?
I could not agree more. Scientists need good communicators. Otherwise, how can we explain the importance of R & D to taxpayers? If a society is aware of the importance of research, people will fight for their money to be properly invested. I like the idea of ​​creating journalist-and-scientist teams. If we want popular science to work well we have to understand each other.

What is your advice, from researcher to journalist, to avoid cases like the one we are talking about?
To avoid cases like this one we just need to do one thing: verifying information with the authors of the study. I believe we need to remind reporters of the power of language. Words can be comforting, yes, but sometimes they can also be very harmful.

Íngrid Lafita. Journalist. Mètode, University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2014.








«If we want popular science to work well we have to understand each other»

© Mètode 2014

Graduate in Journalism and Audiovisual Communication. Revista Mètode, University of Valencia.