Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Poster with Bite

There's a big difference between science writing and scientific writing. That difference nearly bit me on the ass at the last meeting I attended.

Scientific writing is highly formalized. Following the abstract, articles start with an Introduction that describes the background of the study. In the Methods section, which comes next, the investigators describe how the experiment was conducted. Then come the Results, the actual data generated by the experiment. At the end will be a section called the Discussion or the Conclusion that explains what the results mean.

In journalistic science writing the order is completely different. Journalists typically lead with the most interesting conclusion, go on to describe some of the results, and only then give the important background. (This is true for news articles; it tends to be less true for feature articles or personal essays.)

When I cover poster sessions, therefore, I look for promising titles, and when I find one I tend to go straight to the lower right-hand corner of the poster to read the conclusions. If the conclusions seem newsworthy enough, I'll go back and read the Introduction, the Methods, and the Results.

I'm not normally under heavy deadline pressure when I'm covering a medical conference. Since I usually work with publications that have monthly deadlines, I have the luxury of spending most of my time at meetings collecting stories that I'll write when I return to my office.

But last week I was working for a wire service that needed a fresh, newsworthy story from the meeting completely written by 11:30 a.m. No problem, I thought. There was a poster session starting at 9 a.m., and sitting in my hotel room the night before I circled about a dozen promising titles in the program. I showed up at the poster session as soon as the doors opened, and I figured I'd have no trouble choosing one of the posters by about 9:30, and then I’d have two full hours to write.

Trouble is, none of those dozen posters was exciting enough or newsworthy enough to make a good wire story. A handful of them were decent, and I planned to write about them in the coming weeks, but none had that certain je ne sais quoi.

Abandoning the list of posters I identified by their titles, I started walking up and down the aisles at a gradually increasing pace and with a growing sense of alarm. Nothing was grabbing me, and time was a'wasting. Finally I found a poster describing an epidemiological study of a disease that was difficult to diagnose. Moving straight to the conclusions, I found a sentence about "the high frequency of death from asphyxia in undiagnosed patients" in the 15-year interval between when symptoms appeared in the average patient and when that patient received a proper diagnosis.

Bingo! There's my lead, I thought. Short of time, I snapped a few shots of the poster with my digital camera and ran up to the press room while composing a sexy lead in my head. "Patients with Roueche's syndrome [not its real name] wait an average of 15 years between the appearance of their first symptoms and the proper diagnosis, and during that time x% of them will suffocate to death, according to a poster presentation at the annual meeting of the blah, blah, blah."

By this time it was 10 a.m. I still have 90 minutes to write, I thought, no problem. So I sat down, uploaded the photos of the poster to my laptop, and started reading the Introduction, the Methods, and the Results. The poster contained a relatively complex presentation of the results, with some data described in prose, some data in tables, and some data in grafts. I stared at that for another 15 minutes, all the while searching for the numbers to back up the "high frequency of death from asphyxia" conclusion, but as far as I could tell there wasn't a single sentence, table, or graph that dealt with that.

I ran down to the poster session hoping to find the study's author. Although this was the time period set aside for authors to stand by their posters, she was nowhere to be found. I stood next to that poster so long waiting for her to return that passersby assumed I was the author and started asking me questions.

After another ten minutes I realized that the first author apparently wouldn't be returning, but I also realized that the author of the poster immediately to the left was the second author (out of ten) of my poster. Shifting anxiously from foot to foot, I waited until he was free of the person he was talking to, and I introduced myself and asked him if he'd be able to answer one question about the poster I was interested in. He agreed, so I asked him what data supported the "high frequency of death from asphyxia" sentence in the conclusions.

"Oh, that's not correct," he said. He went on to say that only about one person dies from asphyxia due to undiagnosed Roueche syndrome every couple of years.

"So how did this conclusion get into the poster?" I asked.

"I don't know."

"But you're the second author."

"Yes, but I wasn't involved in preparing the poster. I’ll have to have a word with Dr. Smith [the first author]."

With less than an hour before my deadline, my life started flashing before my eyes, and my own death from asphyxia began to seem preferable to the conversation I'd soon be having with my editor. "How the hell am I going to salvage this situation?" I wondered.

It was too late to find another poster to write about, so I was stuck with this one. I ended up keeping the 15-year gap in diagnosis as the lead while leaving out the dramatic bit about the "high frequency of death from asphyxia." I wrote like the wind, and I uploaded the story at about 11:29:45.

The moral of the story? Don't assume that the conclusions of a scientific study are supported by its data.


Don Burnstein said...

Hello. I print medical research posters. I had this crazy idea that if I could find a schedule of them. I could make a calendar widget of them. I'm wondering what it would take to get some help with it. You seem to cover many of them so what do I have to do to pry the info lose?

My website is

My name is Don Burnstein. Contact phone is on the website.

Can we talk?

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