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.”
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.
Some questioned the university’s conclusions. There was “no single piece of evidence that made it absolutely certain that this was Richard III”, wrote Mark Horton, professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol, in New Scientist.
Mr Taylor stressed that he did not want to criticise other scholars for being sceptical. But he pointed out that the university never claimed that the DNA evidence was in itself conclusive.
“People rushed to comment without, ironically, reading the material that we put out,” he said.
The issues raised by the handling of the Richard III announcement were similar in many ways to those brought up by the revelation last July that researchers at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, had found evidence of a particle with the expected properties of the theoretical mass-giving Higgs boson.
These results were “99 per cent” certain, said Corinne Mosese, a press officer at the Science and Technology Facilities Council who coordinated the announcement.
The presentation to the media could have been held back until the findings were “100 per cent” and revealed at a conference later in the year. But as the “99 per cent” certain results “would have been reported by the press anyway”, the decision was taken by the scientists to go ahead with a major media launch before the Higgs had been definitely confirmed, she explained.
THE BANDWAGON: EVERYONE WANTS TO SHARE RICHARD III’S LIMELIGHT
Richard-related university press releases
4 February: Loughborough University
“Loughborough’s world-leading expertise in 3D printing has been used by the University of Leicester to breathe new life into the remains of King Richard III.”
5 February: University of Dundee
“Dundee experts reconstruct face of Richard III 528 years after his death.”
5 February: University of Leicester
“University of Leicester academic gleans clues as to how Richard III may have sounded from historical letters.”
6 February: University of Oxford
“Source of Shakespeare’s inaccurate portrayal of Richard III explored…A new book edited by Oxford University academics has gone further than ever before in explaining why these inaccuracies existed.”