In the closing months of 2015, several resources emerged that provide information on the life sciences field, health, and medicine. The following are a few notable examples:
- In May 2015, Boston Globe Media, owner of The Boston Globe, announced it would build a newsroom focused on the life sciences, later titled STAT. It launched in November.
- In April 2015, Open Knowledge announced plans to develop OpenTrials, “an open, online database of information about the world’s clinical research trials.” At a Nature Publishing Group event in October, Open Knowledge founder Rufus Pollock gave an update on the project, outlining the importance of providing a comprehensive picture of data and documents about medical trials. While substantive datasets are not available yet, the website launched in December 2015 describes the project’s ambitious aims and vision for the future.
- As part of the continuing evolution of all that is Google, its parent company, Alphabet, launched its life sciences division, Verily, in December.
- The National Library of Medicine (NLM) collaborated with Boston University School of Medicine to develop the Health Literacy Tool Shed, which went live in December.
Dedicating resources to projects has propelled The Boston Globe to successes in the past—for example, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into child sex abuse by the Catholic clergy (which inspired Spotlight, the Academy Award-nominated film). The paper has also built standalone websites devoted to a single subject, such as Crux, which focuses on Catholicism, and BetaBoston, which follows the local technology-innovation economy.
Given Boston’s proximity to the Northeast tech corridor (Route 128) and the research universities and major hospitals rooted in and around the city, it’s easy to see why a site devoted to the life sciences became a focus of Boston Globe Media. John W. Henry, owner of The Globe and the Boston Red Sox (among other organizations), says, “Over the next 20 years, some of the most important stories in the world are going to emerge in the life sciences arena.”
Gurman Bhatia writes on Poynter.org, “They want you to read the news urgently, hence—Stat.” STAT’s mission is to “examine controversies, introduce power brokers and puncture hype” coming from science labs, hospital wards, biotech boardrooms, and political backrooms. It is not based on the concerns of physicians, politicians, and pharmaceutical companies, but is instead meant to appeal to an interested and concerned public.
This experiment “could ultimately help the whole Globe Media organization across the board,” STAT executive editor Rick Berke tells WGBH. He recruited reporters and editors from POLITICO and The New York Times (his former workplaces), as well as from The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Boston Globe. Ed Silverman, who has covered the pharmaceutical industry for 20 years, moved his Pharmalot blog from The Wall Street Journal to STAT (while maintaining his Twitter feed, @pharmalot). Other “regulars” featured on the site include Sharon Begley (Gut Check), Carl Zimmer (Science Happens!), Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus (The Watchdogs), and Luke Timmerman and Meg Tirrell, co-hosts of the Signal Podcast. (Oransky and Marcus also created the Retraction Watch blog, where they “shine the spotlight” on scientific paper retractions.) Interested readers can sign up for the Morning Rounds newsletter.
Additional categories examine the latest scientific research (In the Lab); “the business behind science, medicine, and the drug industry” (Money); how politics intersects with science and healthcare (Politics); the latest developments affecting patients and physicians (Health); and perspectives and commentary from around the world (First Opinion). STAT’s social media profiles, including on Facebook and Twitter, are up and running.
In addition to a site that is maximized for mobile phones and tablets, Boston Globe Media envisions a print component that has yet to be determined. Analysis of initial job vacancy posts provides evidence that the site will feature videos, photography, and interactive content. Gideon Gil, STAT’s managing editor of enterprise and partnerships, says it’s likely STAT will begin to charge for access to “specialized” content in future, although what that content might be remains unclear.
For a host of reasons—some valid but many debatable—much of the data surrounding clinical trials are withheld from the public. Additionally, available data are often difficult to get; for example, they are buried within a large PDF document. “[R]oughly half of all clinical trial results are not published, with positive results published twice as often as negative results,” the OpenTrials website states. This means that patients, doctors, researchers, and policymakers are determining treatments based on partial information, which can be misleading.
According to OpenTrials’ chief investigator, Ben Goldacre, there is a “need for greater transparency on information about clinical trials. … This project aims to draw together everything that is known around each clinical trial,” taking full advantage of unique clinical trial identifiers to thread data and discussions across several sites and types of resources. This ensures that “essential information about clinical trials is transparent and publicly accessible so as to improve understanding of whether specific treatments are effective and safe,” the website notes.