The VWN Publication Award 2017 and the Golden Chisel for the best article by a Dutch science journalist go to Martin Enserink for his article ‘Fishy Business’. In the article he describes a fraud case concerning research into young fish that supposedly are more than eager to eat plastic. Enserink has also been nominated for the title ‘European Science Writer of the Year’.
According to the Swedish study from 2016, the larvae of perch would prefer small particles of plastic over their normal food. As the BBC wrote at the time, they are attracted by it as ’teenagers to fast food’. This clearly didn’t benefit the fish: plastic eating larvae grew less well than those that received a normal diet, and their behavior changed, making them an easier prey for predators. When this study appeared in the scientific journal Science, it hit the new headlines worldwide. The implication is clear: with the increase of plastic pollution in lakes, rivers and seas, we are heading for an outright ecological disaster.
But, after the scientific publication appeared, several fellow researchers – including a friend of the principal investigator – blew a whistle. According to them, the tests that were described in the paper never took place in the lab where they also worked.
Tension and human drama
In Fishy Business Martin Enserink describes how this fraud case unfolded, the obstacles encountered by the whistleblowers, the absence of thorough control of the scientific research and the pressure on researchers to publish in leading journals. The jury of the VWN Publication Prize praises how Enserink has spoken to all parties, explained all sides of the case, and even traveled to the lab in question. His story reads almost like a thriller. In addition to the tension surrounding the question whether or not fraud has been committed, the article also contains human drama, due to the (now broken) friendship between the principal researcher and one of the whistleblowers, and the consequences of the fraud for everyone’s career.
The jury also praises that Martin Enserink does not shy away from being critical of his own magazine. He works for Science himself. In addition to purely scientific articles, the magazine contains a popular science news section, for which Enserink has been working for almost twenty years. Since 2012 he is doing this from Amsterdam, as European Correspondent. The news section of Science is independent of the scientific part of the magazine. With Fishy Business, Enserink shows, according to the jury, that he is a critical, very good and indeed an independent science journalist. His article was published a year ago, on March 21, 2017, and can be read online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/groundbreaking-study-dangers-microplastics-may-be-unraveling
At the time of the document, no firm statement had been made about the alleged fraud by an independent body. In the meantime this has happened, and it has been established that data has indeed been fabricated within this high-profile study.
VWN Publication Prize
The VWN publication prize is awarded annually by the Association for Science Journalism and Communication in the Netherlands (Dutch abbreviation: VWN). The jury of this year consisted of Nadine Böke, Eef Grob, Joost van Kasteren and the prize winner of 2016, Hester van Santen. The jury was generally very pleased with the quality of the submissions. The articles show that in the Netherlands we have a good tradition of high-quality science journalism. The jury did, however, believe that the number of submissions – twelve – can increase, given the large number of articles about science that appear annually in The Netherlands, and the more than 300 members of this national association. They conclude that science journalists may sometimes be a bit less modest.