Follow up to Ed Yong’s Origins of Science Writers.

As I linked to previously, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has started an interesting collection of personal career trajectories posted by science writers. It’s very interesting to see the different ways that writers have ended up in their chosen field. I have done interviews with a few of the people who have posted comments, and several others are people whose blog or articles I read and enjoy.

One thing that troubles me, however, is that amidst all the good advice being provided to aspiring writers, almost no one has said anything about actually talking to scientists or how to go about doing so. Not much about fact checking, or confirming that the quotes are correct. Lots of “you don’t need to have any training in science” though. Several of the writers have, for no obvious reason, taken digs at scientists. This bothers me.

Scientists love science, too. We like to have our work understood and appreciated. We enjoy having our research discussed outside of scientific journals. However, for the most part we are very anxious about being misquoted or having our research over-hyped. A misconstrued quote can do a lot of damage to our credibility among peers.

I freely admit that many scientists are skeptical, even dismissive, of science writers. Some think that science writers are people who wanted to be scientists but couldn’t hack it (something like this comes up in a number of the writers’ posts, actually), or that they have no experience in science (also common in the posts) and therefore don’t understand what research is like and how important accuracy and tentative conclusions are. Lots of scientists have been burned by stories that caused them embarrassment for much longer than the short lifespan of a typical science story. I have no patience for science writers who don’t respect the practitioners or values of science. (Nor for scientists who oversell their results or make basic errors of interpretation).

All of this said, I recognize that good science writers care a great deal about accuracy and appreciate the challenges of doing science. Likewise, good scientists make an effort to communicate their work both to colleagues and to a larger audience. In this sense, the good writers and good scientists are on the same team and have very complementary skills.

As a follow up discussion, I think it would be useful to consider two additional questions:

1) What advice do scientists have for science writers to ensure accuracy of their stories?

2) What advice do science writers have for scientists to improve their communication with writers and the public?

I have some ideas for #1 but I’ll wait to hear from readers, and I certainly look forward to some feedback for #2 (there are also books on this topic, which scientists should consult).


5 comments to Follow up to Ed Yong’s Origins of Science Writers.

  • I would love to hear answers to #2. What books do you suggest? Are they specifically for scientists or along the lines of Strunk & White?

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  • It’s very difficult for science writers to keep on top of a subject. They often can’t tell when their source (e.g. scientist who has just published a paper in Nature) is misrepresenting the field.
    My advice to science writers is stick to one discipline (biology, chemistry, physics etc.) and cultivate a cadre of knowledgeable scientists who you can contact quickly for a reality check. If you don’t have any reliable sources then remember that Google is your friend. There are lots of bloggers out there who have written about the subject you are researching. Learn which ones you can trust.
    Also, keep in mind the cardinal rule of good science – there’s no such thing as a breakthrough.

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    • I like the notion of a “reality check” — having some friendly scientists you can go to on particular topics for comments on a draft article. As scientists, we send drafts of manuscripts and grants to colleagues for comment regularly and we also provide both formal and informal feedback for journals, student theses, grant proposals, and colleagues’ manuscripts.

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  • Make it clear just how the science you’re reporting on was presented to the world:  was it published in a journal?  Talked up at a conference?  Delivered in a press conference?  Link to the original paper.  It might not mean much to somebody idly surfing your newspaper or magazine’s website, but the people who care the most will appreciate it.  Such an easy way to spread good cheer throughout the world!

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