Brazilian journalists create platform to connect scientists and the press

Despite the large number of scientific studies published each day in Brazil, finding the people behind the research can be a great challenge, and getting them to talk an even bigger one.

Faced with this reality, Brazilian researchers and journalists created a platform to serve as a bridge between researchers and the press, in addition to helping change the culture of sharing scientific research in the country.

Agência Bori has already partnered with 90 scientific journals, but the proposal is to expand and include new publications, according to the project's coordinators, science researchers and journalists Ana Paula Morales, 35, and Sabine Righetti, 38.

Sabine Righetti, 38, and Ana Paula Morales, 35 (right) (Photo: Bori/Marcelo Justo)

Sabine Righetti, 38, and Ana Paula Morales, 35 (right) (Photo: Bori/Marcelo Justo)

Each week, the platform will present at least three unpublished and embargoed studies from partner journals, which have potential for dissemination and are in the public interest. In addition to selecting these articles, the Bori team prepares a summary of each piece of research, conducts a short media training with the scientists and makes their contacts available.

"We make a press release and pass it to the researchers to approve. If they agree with the disclosure on Bori, they need to be available to give interviews during the embargo period," Righetti said during the Feb. 12 event in São Paulo that launched the site.

To have access to the material, journalists need to register for free on the platform. From Feb. 6, when registration was opened, until the agency’s launch date, 167 journalists registered. "This is very cool. In less than a week we already had journalists from all over the country registered," Morales said.

The platform is aimed at reporters from all areas, not just science. The idea is for Bori to disseminate relevant research to several editorial sections, such as economy, cities, health, education, environment, sports, among others. After the end of the embargo, the releases are stored on the platform and can be copied in full, as long as credit is given to Bori. "Newspapers from the interior, which have smaller newsrooms, for example, have this demand," Morales said.

Event in Sao Paulo that launched the platform. (Photo: Bori/Marcelo Justo)

Event in Sao Paulo that launched the platform. (Photo: Bori/Marcelo Justo)

The initiative, inspired by the American platform EurekAlert!, aims to increase the visibility of science produced in Brazil. According to Bori research, the country published about 230 scientific articles per day in 2018, which places Brazil among the 15 largest science producers in the world. "About 10 percent of these research pieces have potential for dissemination, they could be in the press. With just this material, it would be possible to fill an entire newspaper. But we do not see this science in the media, which distresses me a lot," Righetti said.

The consequences of this invisibility are serious, the coordinators point out. According to a survey by CGEE (Center for Management and Strategic Studies), published by Folha de S.Paulo in July 2019, 90 percent of Brazilians could not mention the name of a scientist and 88 percent did not know where scientific research is carried out in the country.

At the same time, in increasingly smaller newsrooms, Brazilian journalists face several obstacles to reporting on scientific research. "The main difficulties are finding studies and talking directly to the researcher. This takes a long time, and journalism has an urgency," Morales said.

As a result, the Brazilian press ends up covering studies from abroad more than science done in its own country. "There is research from Bori that shows that Nature appeared 11 times in a single month in Folha. Meanwhile, between 2007 and 2011, only two Brazilian scientific journals appeared in the same newspaper in terms of scientific dissemination, according to a study from State University of Campinas (Unicamp) researcher Germana Barata," Righetti said in an interview with the Knight Center.

Another problem, according to the coordinators, is that few scientific institutions in Brazil have a press office. "Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone from NASA than to a scientist at a university here on the corner, because there is no press office or you do not find the contact of the researcher and, when you do, he does not want to speak," Righetti explained.

According to the coordinators, this meant that Bori had to take on the dissemination work more actively. "EurekAlert! only republishes releases from research centers, but that wouldn’t work here. In addition to being few in number, the press offices are often institutional. They release the agenda of the university’s dean, but they don’t do scientific dissemination," Righetti said.

A major obstacle, they point out, is the culture of the Brazilian academy, which mistrusts scientists who frequently speak to the press. Of the researchers sought by Bori leading up to the launch of the platform, 20 percent could not be located or refused the disclosure of their work. Some think the press "misinterprets or oversimplifies," and others just don't want to talk to journalists.

The coordinators consider the rate high. "It is not enough to defend scientific dissemination, you need to want to talk to society," Righetti said. Present at the event, the director general of Impa (Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics), Marcelo Viana, said that Brazilian scientists are not trained, encouraged or rewarded for talking to the press. "On the contrary, some colleagues even start looking at you ugly, thinking that you have some hidden agenda.”

Righetti cited the example of the United States, where researchers are more likely to receive funding if they can demonstrate they were published in the media. "This needs to be a metric, a way of evaluating the scientist," she said.

Morales reinforces that Bori's objective is to bring journalists and researchers together, to help promote this cultural change. In this sense, she claims that the Flat Earth or anti-vaccine movements, in addition to the attacks by governments on science, universities and intellectuals in general, represented a window of opportunity for Bori. "Before, when we were going to sell the project, they said: 'there is no money even for science, imagine if it will be available for dissemination.’ Today they understand the urgency of this," she said, in an interview with the Knight Center after the launch.

Platform uses artificial intelligence and a 'human filter'

Bori has its own artificial intelligence system that unifies the data of scientific journals and generates alerts according to criteria defined by the platform's journalists. "It was something I did manually in the Official Gazette, in each PDF. Search for keywords like dengue, DNA, Amazon, genetically modified or Niobium," Righetti said.

In addition to the automated search for subjects that can yield stories, the journalists intend to implement alerts according to other criteria. "If a university never publishes, when it publishes a study, for example, artificial intelligence will highlight that for us," Righetti explained.

After this automated scan, the team curates and selects the best studies, in a kind of "human filter.” In a second stage, journalists look for the researcher – even on social networks if necessary– and obtain permission.

Bori's members at the event that launched the site.  (Foto: Bori/Marcelo Justo)

Bori's members at the event that launched the site.  (Foto: Bori/Marcelo Justo)

Currently, the platform has five permanent professionals and eight freelance writers, but still cannot stand on its own. In 2017, Bori received its first contribution, when it started to officially be developed. Since then, the platform has won R $200 thousand (about US $46,000) in funding from the Serrapilheira Institute and R $163 thousand (about US $37,000) from the São Paulo State Research Support Foundation (Fapesp). With this, it was possible to put the platform on its feet and guarantee its operation for one year after launch.

Despite the funding, the coordinators work as volunteers to this day – they started planning Bori about eight years ago. Therefore, both had to develop the platform in parallel with other activities: Morales is an editor at a scientific journal, and Righetti is a researcher at Unicamp. During that time, the two had to pay for plane tickets out of their own pocket to publicize the project across the country and heard many negative responses, until they got the first financing.

According to the coordinators, Bori has a planned business model, which is based on the sale of subscriptions or packages to institutions and scientists who want to have a greater or periodic presence on the platform. They have already signed an agreement like this with the São Paulo School of Business Administration of Foundation Getulio Vargas (FGV-EAESP). "We will do two of their studies per month,” Righetti explained.

Bori will also offer scientists the possibility to pay to have their article featured on the platform. As long as the model is not consolidated, the coordinators continue to seek funding for upcoming years of the project.