Getting Facts Straight . . . or the Sarah Woolley Chronicles

There’s an old maxim attributed to agents of Hollywood talent concerning mistruths and rumors about their clients. Speaking of tabloids and gossip columnists, the agents are supposed to have claimed: “I don’t care what they say as long as they spell my client’s name right.” Well, we in journalism don’t subscribe to that. Which is why so many news organizations employ fact checkers.

One of the more thankless tasks these individuals perform is verifying everyone’s name, affiliation—and, as needed, gender. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but it isn’t always—as our fact checker learned that the hard way, last week.

Our life sciences reporter Susan Milius had just turned in a charming story on birdsong. It addressed whether a serenading guy is aware that he’s being heard by plumed females—and if he does, the extent to which it influences his performance.

Among Susan’s sources was one Sarah Woolley, a research scientist on the project. Susan reached her by phone at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Woolley was easy to find: Her affiliation was on the paper that reported her new birdsong data.

After Susan’s story had been edited, she checked the text because the news item would be printed before the day was out. When all looked well, she signed off on the piece and left for a speaking engagement on the joys of science journalism. It was at a university several hours’ drive outside of Washington.

While Susan was unreachable, our intrepid fact checker set to work verifying details mentioned in the birdsong story. A PhD herself, our fact checker had more than a little experience with journals. Enough to know that they sometimes spelled an individual’s name wrong or neglected to update affiliations to reflect an author’s recent move.

So our fact checker Googled Sarah Woolley, hoping to find a personal web page for the young scientist. And the first citation that popped up was for a neuroscientist in New York City who studies birdsong in zebra finches—the species mentioned in Susan’s story. For due diligence, our fact checker called Columbia University to make sure this was Sarah’s new post, not one she had forsaken to work at UCSF. Columbia confirmed that Dr. Woolley had just recently joined its faculty.

So Sarah Woolley’s affiliation in Susan’s story was changed and the fact checker took a little satisfaction that she’d earned her keep that day.

Late that night. Susan logged onto her computer and with horror read an email from the fact checker announcing how she’d caught the potential error on Woolley’s affiliation.

Except it wasn’t an error. Susan’s zebra-finch scientist—Sarah C. Woolley—indeed worked in California. The one our fact checker homed in on was Sarah M.N. Woolley.

The two Woolley’s learned about each other roughly a dozen years ago. That’s when Sarah C. (for Cushing) applied to graduate school at the University of Washington, Seattle. Then-graduate-student Sarah M.N. (for Margaret Nicolay) had already been at this institution—studying birdsong—for a couple years.

Recalls Sarah M.N., one of her advisors, birdsong researcher Eliot Brenowitz, asked her to explain a perplexing email. That message went something to the effect: “You don’t know me but my name is Sarah Woolley and I’m interested in coming to grad school at the University of Washington to study birdsong.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Brenowitz asked Sarah M.N. in a tart email?

Of course, it soon emerged that the email to Brenowitz had come from an unrelated Sarah Woolley. And the lab decided to give Sarah C. a chance to apply to study there because, as its staff acknowledged, “We can’t not interview her because of her name.”

During Sarah C.’s visit, the two Woolleys met. But ID mayhem was averted because Sarah C. ultimately decided to study lizards in Texas.

Still, “We’re both neuroethologists, which means we study the neural basis of natural behavior”—and this is not a crowded field, notes Sarah M.N.

A few years back, for instance, both attended the massive Society for Neuroscience meeting, and by chance reserved seats home on the same plane. Sarah C. was going back to UCSF, Sarah M.N. to her post-doc just down the road at UC-Berkeley. When the latter attempted to check in she was told she couldn’t—because she’d done it already.

With some persuading the Berkeley scientist ultimately made it onto her plane. “We’ve had a lot of hilarious run-ins like that,” she reflects.

In other words, confusion has become a constant.

Especially when Sarch C. decided to pursue her initial interest—birdsong. This Ms. Woolley has become fairly sanguine about the hiccups. Like the time her mentor applied for a federal grant that would cover the contributions of both UCSF researchers. The money ultimately came through—but not before that mentor had to demonstrate that she wasn’t asking them to send money to UCSF for a coworker at ColumbiaUniversity.

Being mistaken for one another could be a nightmare if one of the researchers was nasty or did shoddy work. “But we’re both decent scientists and decent people—and we like each other,” Sarah M.N. says. Still, she muses about what fun it might be to get back at the system by eliminating their middle initials from published work. Their combined efforts, she suspects, would yield “the best CV anyone had ever seen.”

Actually, one Sarah Woolley doesn’t use her middle initial. Then again, the OxfordUniversity researcher doesn’t study birdsong. She’s an engineer.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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