Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Bare-Bones Revelation Gives Scholars the Hump

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Bare-Bones Revelation Gives Scholars the Hump

Article excerpt

But Leicester defends its management of the press over Richard III find. David Matthews writes.

When the University of Leicester dug up a car park to search for the body of a long-lost English king, they brought forth more than just the skeleton of Richard III.

The find, announced on 4 February, triggered an avalanche of news and comment articles, shedding light on how universities are judged when they attempt to communicate major discoveries.

The vast majority of the coverage was positive, but there were those who were critical of Leicester, particularly of the decision to announce the findings of its archaeological team in a live televised press conference rather than first submit them to peer review.

Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a well-known blogger and television presenter, was sceptical about the historical value of the find. In her blog, she wrote that she was "put off" by "university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype".

Others have gone further: "The University of Leicester ... has milked this for all it's worth," Paul Lay, editor of History Today, wrote in The Guardian on 4 February.

But Richard Taylor, director of corporate affairs and planning at Leicester, told Times Higher Education that he completely rejected this implication.

"I didn't make 150 journalists come (to the press conference). The public and the media responded in that way. And what are we supposed to do? Tell people to go away?" he said.

Mr Taylor added that the university had no option but to reveal its findings in a press conference before submitting them to peer review because otherwise the conclusions would have leaked out in a "half-baked" way to the press, from which Leicester was under "enormous pressure".

Because Richard III was identified using a variety of techniques - not just DNA - multiple papers would have been submitted to journals, each with "bits of the story missing", he said.

Of the suggestion that Leicester withheld its announcement to coincide with the airing of a Channel 4 documentary on the dig, he said: "The best option is to present the evidence in a publicly accessible way."

DNA discovery

The press conference built up dramatically to the revelation of DNA evidence and the university's "overall verdict" that its team had indeed unearthed royal bones - an announcement that was met with applause and some restrained whooping.

Mr Taylor acknowledged that "there was a little bit of theatre in that". But, he said, the main reason for concluding with the DNA evidence was because "the academic conclusion was not based on one single thing", and had it been presented first, journalists would have written their stories without waiting for the other pieces of the puzzle. …

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