Controversy over a Sixth Grade Girl’s Science Project

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 4.52.54 PMAny science writer worth their salt would do a literature search when researching a science story. Had that been done with a recent story that has gone viral, I may not be writing this blog entry, but the local reporter who first reported on a sixth grader’s science fair project was not writing a science story. Now this human interest story masquerading as a science story and attacked on those grounds has become hopelessly muddled in the media and mired by social media accusations and admonitions further obscuring some important science in a largely media-made showdown between a marine scientist and a 13-year old girl.

The research project undertaken by Lauren Arrington for The King’s Academy Science Fair was undertaken in late 2012 and looked at the salinity tolerance of the invasive volitans lionfish (Pterois volitans). As Arrington told me in an interview for a piece I published in the current edition of CORAL Magazine, her decision to focus on salinity tolerance in lionfish was inspired by a talk she heard by Craig Layman, co-author of a 2011 paper titled “Recent invasion of a Florida (USA) estuarine system by lionfish Pterois volitans / P. miles” (Jud et al). The paper was published in the journal Aquatic Biology.

Here’s how I told it in CORAL based on what I learned in my interviews with the Arringtons and my own research:

July/August 2014 CORAL Magazine Article on Arrington

I was familiar with the 2011 paper from my literature search before conducting the interview, and I had already reached out to corresponding author Zachary R. Jud. Jud is the marine scientist who is now calling foul on the media attention given to Arrington in the absence of any mention of him or his work. I reached out to Jud not only because of the 2011 Aquatic Biology paper, but also because of his 2014 paper in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. This later paper, titled “Broad salinity tolerance in the invasive lionfish Pterois spp. may facilitate estuarine colonization” presents research I believe may be essential to how we think about and manage the lionfish invasion. Again from my CORAL article:

The 2014 paper…concludes that the new data on lionfish salinity tolerance could have wide-reaching consequences. “[A] broad salinity tolerance may allow lionfish to colonize estuaries throughout their invaded range,” the authors write. “Because of the ecological and economic importance of estuaries, this facet of the lionfish invasion warrants further study.”

As a science writer, I am interested in the science, and I therefore went a little further in my CORAL Magazine piece about the potential implications of the 2014 paper’s findings. While the article on Arrington in CORAL was a fairly short supporting story to a series of well-researched, in-depth features on the origins of the lionfish invasion and the state of Florida’s efforts to manage that invasion, I wanted to lay the groundwork for a future piece I knew would take more research than time allowed before my looming CORAL deadline.

July/Aug 2014 CORAL Magazine Article Excerpt

While CORAL Magazine made the editorial decision to run the Arrington story for many of the same reasons other media outlets did (e.g., We really do need more “girls in science” stories), CORAL also wanted its readers to understand there is a bigger science story here beyond the human interest story of Arrington being acknowledged in a peer-reviewed scientific paper. While time and space didn’t allow for the full telling of the salinity tolerance work in the current issue of CORAL, I’ve continued working with Jud and pitching editors on what I think remains an important and largely untold story.

Jud has expressed his frustration privately to me and publicly via Facebook and now in The Washington Post. I understand why he is upset, but I also see the bigger picture. The fact of the matter is that this story was initially picked up in local and then national media because Lauren Arrington is a sixth grade girl who had an award-winning science fair project acknowledged (twice) in a published, peer-reviewed scientific paper. It was picked up because her school released the information largely as a human interest story when they learned of the acknowledgement (what school wouldn’t?). King’s Academy wrote on their website on 28 May 2014:

TKA Student’s Scientific Findings Spur Vital Scientific ResearchAs I’ve already said, I think the salinity tolerance story has real merit based on the science alone. I think it has legs as a science story aimed at a general audience, but not all editors agree. I’ve been pitching the story about Jud’s work, and I hear a lot of responses like, “That’s really interesting, but we’re kind of saturated on lionfish stories unless it’s something really big.” While, as a science writer, I may not like it, I understand that the general public may glaze over when they hear “broad salinity tolerance” or “estuarine colonization.” The fact of the matter is that, from a mainstream media perspective, a study about salinity tolerance in lionfish undertaken by men in a largely male-dominated field just doesn’t have the same broad appeal as those same men acknowledging a precocious grade school girl in their published, peer-reviewed paper.

…and let’s cut through the media hype and remember that the acknowledgement in the 2014 paper that served as the impetus for this human interest story that has become so controversial was far less sensational than some of the media outlets have let on. In case you have not seen it, here it is in its entirety:

Acknowledgement from 2014 Paper of Arrington's work

As you can see, Jud, Layman and the paper’s third author, Patick Nichols of the University of Miami Department of Biology, simply state in the acknowledgement that “Lauren Arrington conducted preliminary laboratory experiments that helped give rise to our experimental design.” Earlier in the text of the paper, they also acknowledge Arrington, pointing to her “small pilot study that showed lionfish could survive and feed at 6% for short periods of time (L. Arrington, unpubl. data).” Likewise, both in my interviews with the family and on the poster presentation for the science fair, Arrington gives credit to the 2011 Jud et al paper that influenced her project. That’s pretty much the way it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?

The media should have done a better job reporting and should have steered clear of over-sensationalizing the story. Nonetheless, I fail to see how Arrington’s work is “based on a lie” or how she may have “stolen credit for a marine biologist’s lionfish research” (both accusations are flying around social media and now mainstream media outlets). I also fail to see the merit in a petition also going around the Internet to have Arrington listed as a co-author on the 2014 paper.

An in-depth science story would have placed Arrington’s work in the broader scientific context and surely would have brought more attention to the work of Jud, Layman and Nichols, but this wasn’t played out as a science story in most media–it was positioned as a human interest story. Because of the viral success of the human interest story, I’m guessing there are more than a few other kids out there (some of them girls) who will be inspired to maybe kick their next science project up a notch. I for one hope the controversy won’t turn the story sour.

When it comes to the science, I’d love to see the scientists behind so much of the great science I read everyday in journals get the recognition they deserve in the public sphere. Through the media attention the Arrington story has generated, Jud et al’s work is seeing more of the light of day than most scientists’ work sees outside of conferences and academic publications. I’m pleased for that. Perhaps it will also serve as the springboard for a true science piece on an important development concerning what some consider the most destructive marine fish invasion ever documented. I trust the controversy won’t turn that story sour either.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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