A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Observer 'fesses up to a Google moment 

The Observer admitted to a Google moment this week.

A "commissioning editor" had used Google to find an expert on MRSA. What they actually found was a Dr Malyszewicz who as well as not being a microbiologist was not even a medical doctor, having a "correspondence course" PhD from a non-accredited distance learning institution in the US (although in the UK the title of doctor is not a protected one and anyone can legally use it - just beware if you're on a plane and they need one).

The alarm bells should have been ringing for the sub-editor when Dr Malyszewicz said in his advice in the article in question that "Finally, Manuka honey does work as a treatment for MRSA, but only after infection."

This is classic fodder for Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column, which regularly debunks articles in popular newspapers that quote dubious or non-existent "scientific research" generally to support quack cures.

And here's the funny part (not for the said "commissioning editor", though). Ben Goldacre has raised the dubious nature of Dr Malyszewicz's qualifications on no fewer than five occasions in his column that happens to appear in The Guardian, The Observer's sister paper.

The admission by The Observer illustrates the dilemma for web publishers; the original article does not contain any reference to the subsequent admission, even though it could do. Similarly restaurant reviews usually only get updated when the restaurant is re-visited by a reviewer rather than when the establishment changes hands (should that happen). This is the problem when content is merely republished on the web - should such content remain untouched as it reflects what was originally published or should it be updated and the original content lost?

The answer (if resources permited) would be to have two views of the content - one which faithfully reflects what was printed at a particular point in time and one which merely updates what already exists. (In fact publishers often already take the latter approach when stories change as later or different editions are printed.) This blurring of the nature of online content has got to change because readers will increasingly get fed up with the dis-service that publishers are doing them just because their systems aren't up to making the distinction possible.

Finally, if you were worried about your mother contracting MRSA would you write to a magazine or speak to your doctor?
sounds like an excellent opportunity for the wiki approach, allowing readers to go backwards in time and see what has changed since original publication.
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