[Editor's note: Tara Haelle is a freelance science writer whose specialties include medicine, vaccines and public health. Her work has appeared in Scientific American and Slate. She blogs at Red Wine & Apple Sauce and is working on a book about science-based parenting with Emily Willingham.]
It's a favorite media trope – whiz kid makes amazing scientific discovery. So it was no surprise that the story of 12-year-old Lauren Arrington went viral. For her sixth-grade science fair project in 2012, the Florida girl tested the lower limit of salt concentration that invasive marine lionfish could withstand, identifying the lowest concentration ever recorded for a living lionfish. Ultimately, her work earned her an acknowledgment in a just-published paper addressing the same question. Headlines ensued: Girl's science fair project leads to huge discovery. Someone even set up a petition demanding she be added as a paper author.
For her project, Lauren, now 13, set up lionfish tanks at the Loxahatchee River District in Florida, where her biologist father Albrey Arrington is executive director. According to some versions of the viral narrative, Lauren had discovered the invasive lionfish in the brackish water of the Loxahatchee River.
The Palm Beach Post claimed that Lauren "made history." The b-word–"a Florida teen's experiment turned into a real breakthrough"–and the p-word–"meet the science prodigy whose work is already leading to change"–both appeared in a CBS report.
But there was something was missing in this glowing coverage. Even the most rudimentary reporting should have made clear that this fish tale, as told, didn't hold water.
When we meet Lauren in the CBS story, she describes wondering whether lionfish could swim upriver from the ocean, where they're already wrecking Florida's marine habitats. We also meet her father, who is asked whether anyone knew lionfish were a threat in "rivers like this one." His answer? "They didn't. We certainly did not understand that. Lauren's research showed they are."
But "they" did know.
The first author on the peer-reviewed paper was Zachary Jud, Ph.D., who had done lionfish salinity work as a graduate student at Florida International University with his adviser, Craig Layman. A simple web search turns up Jud's 2011 paper describing the discovery of lionfish in the Loxahatchee River. The last author on the paper was Lauren's father–Albrey Arrington.
Arrington also knew Jud had found lionfish in water with salinity as low as 8 ppt, documented on Layman's lab blog, where Arrington commented–"Cool!"–in August 2012. That might explain how Lauren knew in winter 2012 that she could take the salinity down to 6 ppt – not far from 8 ppt – without killing the lionfish, which would have violated science fair rules.
The synergy is clear between a father's attempts to shape the narrative and the media's adoration for the underdog story. The result: a failure of basic reporting and fact-checking.
Ideally, Craig Layman, Jud's adviser and co-author, could have clarified the timeline: Jud found lionfish in the river, published and lectured about it, and inspired a girl's science fair project. Her lab experiments confirmed field findings, contributing incrementally to the scientific process. Jud went on to conduct and publish his own findings.
But Layman's firsthand and secondhand quotes only muddied the waters. In a blog post Thursday morning, Layman noted he "was not happy with the way I was quoted in these early articles," leading him to decline further media requests.
Then the narrative moved from problematic to train wreck. As the story gained momentum, Arrington attributed Jud's research primarily to Layman, and stories portrayed Lauren's work as inspiring scientists to suddenly look for lionfish in river water – already a part of Jud's dissertation.
After Arrington rebuffed Jud's email request for proper credit, Jud went to Facebook with a public post, inadvertently shifting the narrative toward another media favorite – the wronged man.
Gawker's io9 ran with a headline "Sixth-Grader May Have Stolen Credit For Marine Biologist's Lionfish Research." Then Boing Boing, UPI, Fox News and USA Today picked it up. Before long, Lauren had "hijacked" Jud's research. Commenters traded accusations against Jud and Lauren. Even reporters such as Bethany Brookshire, whose reporting at Student Science accurately reflected Jud's earliest statements, were caught in the crossfire (for which Jud has officially apologized).
By the time the story reached The Blaze and Miami Herald, Arrington had changed his narrative, acknowledging Jud's work as Lauren's inspiration. But the damage was done. Then the self-correction cycle began. The Washington Post tried and failed to parse out events. The Scientist delivered a more thorough account. NPR and others added updates to their stories, and NPR has since published an ethics blog post and a reflection story. Christie Wilcox, who spoke with Jud (as did I), published a chronology at her Discover blog, incorporating the details of a timeline Layman posted Thursday.
This narrative began with a shiny fish tale of a girl science prodigy, a sparkle so irresistible that journalists let the spin mislead them and failed to clarify the facts early on. Now, as the feeding frenzy fades, two people are suffering most: a newly minted Ph.D. on the job hunt, and a girl whose dream is to become a scientist.
We might want to put those loaded words–"breakthrough" and "prodigy"–back in the desk drawer.