HOW DO I BECOME A SCIENCE JOURNALIST?
HOW DO I BECOME A SCIENCE JOURNALIST?
K. S. Jayaraman 15 February 2008 | EN | 中文
K. S. Jayaraman gives some basic tips on starting off in the world of science journalism.
Had there been a newspaper in the days of early man, the discovery of fire would have been splashed in the front
page. But at that time, of course, there was no need for newspapers. Human society was small, and almost everyone
practiced — or at least knew about — the science of fire making.
Today, however, the opposite is true. Society is large and scientific experiments across the world are carried out by a
relatively small number of people, usually hidden from public view in their laboratories. What they do affects
everyone, yet most people remain largely unaware of how these scientists use taxpayers' money, and how their work
impacts on society.
There is, therefore, a considerable need for individuals who can act as brokers between scientists and the general
public. This need largely defines the role of the science reporter.
A detailed knowledge of science is not necessarily the most important requirement. Most editors agree that the
formula for a good science writer is 80 per cent good journalism plus 20 per cent aptitude to learn and communicate
To quote the late Anthony Tucker, former science editor of the British newspaper The Guardian, "science writers, like
all other journalists, must have an insatiable appetite for reading, and the best are endowed with a memory like a
filing cabinet." To that I would add they must also have child-like curiosity about the world around them, and how it
There is no single designated pathway into science journalism. Great science writers such as Walter Sullivan of the
New York Times, as well as many of the current science writers on leading newspapers in all parts of the world, were
self-taught, at least as far as their writing ability is concerned.
There are, however, certain recognised ways of getting started. Today, one of the best — and, in some developed
countries at least, almost essential — ways to start is through a journalism course or degree at a recognised
This need not necessarily focus on the specific needs of science journalists, although an increasing number of
courses are doing so. In India, for example, the National Council for Science and Technology Communication under
the Ministry of Science has sponsored postgraduate degree and diploma courses in science and technology
communication. These have been started in a few universities.
Recruiters, however, do not always insist on degrees or diplomas in science journalism. They mostly look for a zeal
for science writing and the ability to write science stories in a way that the general public can understand.
It also helps if the applicant for a science writing post has written articles about science during his or her college days.
Prospective employers like to see what you have written. Keeping a portfolio of your achievements and published
work — no matter how small or 'local' the journal or paper, even if it is a student newspaper — could help you get
your first job.
Different organisations have different ways of recruiting. For example, the leading Indian news agency, the Press
Trust of India (PTI), annually recruits trainee science journalists.
Trainees are selected after a written test to evaluate their writing skills and an interview.
This approach seems to be successful; no one recruited by PTI has left science journalism in 15 years. After gaining
experience in the agency several of them have become fully-fledged science correspondents of national dailies,
television channels and prominent international science and environment feature services such the PANOS Institute.
Building your own knowledge base
It used to be the case that a competent journalist could cover any story that was put before of him or her. This does
not always hold true in today's world, where scientific discoveries that often need a least some understanding to
explain effectively are being made every day. Indeed some fields are expanding so quickly that even the experts in
that field have trouble keeping up.
How does this affect you as a potential science reporter? Arming your-self with a basic degree in science, providing it
is not too narrow, is highly recommended. It gives you a base on which to build your scientific knowledge. A general
knowledge of most fields is required on a science beat. Science is not a static field, and new knowledge is generated
every day. A good science reporter must be willing to constantly update his or her knowledge.
You will certainly not be able to spot a breaking science story on your own unless you remain up-to-date with what is
happening in science in general. On any given day, a science writer may be asked to cover a space launch at dawn,
a suspected disease epidemic in the city during the day and interview a visiting Nobel laureate in physics in the
This does not mean you need to be a specialist. But specialisation has its advantages as well. For example, it gives
you easier access to scientists' circles. Scientists often feel reluctant to talk 'off the record' to a 'strange' reporter with
whom they do not feel comfortable. They may fear that anything they say will be taken to be the official stance of the
company or government institution that they work for. As a result, news from such sources is frequently obtained not
on official basis but at a personal level.
One consequence is that if you have specialised in a particular area of science, you may have a better chance of
making personal contact with a scientist in that field than a general reporter who may not be able to converse with the
same level of background understanding of the way that science operates and the way that scientists think.
Such scientific contacts are usually built up on a basis of personal trust over many years and often involve life-long
friendships. This is one of the important aspects of successful science journalism. The sooner you start to build up
your contacts, the better it will be for you.
Getting a good story
Some of the best exclusive stories are the result of a combination of an alert mind, an aptitude for investigative work,
and up-to-date knowledge about latest developments in science and technology.
A good science reporter must know how to get news, and from where. In Western countries, science reporters are
usually flooded with news releases, reports and background material from research laboratories, universities and
private organisations. These institutions usually have press officers who are eager to help a reporter who has taken
the trouble of contacting them.
Reporters are also invited to scientific meetings and conferences. Also, the Internet makes life even easier; the news
is sent directly to your email inbox, and there are a number of search engines and other sources available.
In developing countries, many things are different. Reporters in these countries frequently do not have such
resources readily available. This obviously makes the task of collecting news harder. Furthermore new
communications technologies may have not made any difference to the way news — including science news — is
disseminated, a difference that will impact directly on the science reporter.
Firstly, there are very few organised outlets of science news. The science reporter is unlikely to be handed ready-
made science stories. Furthermore, clues about developing science news are not easily forthcoming, due partly to the
absence of press officers.
In most developing countries, only a handful of companies have media relations units. Rather than publishing news
releases about the hard science going on in their institutions, the tendency is to focus on speeches and inaugural
talks by ministers, company executives, and science administrators.
Secondly, a high proportion of research in developing countries is carried out in government laboratories whose
scientists are governed by rules of conduct that prevent them from talking to reporters without permission from their
'bosses'. The news usually given out by these agencies is what the government wants people to know.
For example, if the space department for a country issues a news release of a successful rocket launch, information
will be readily available. But if you have questions to ask about a failed launch, answers will be less forthcoming.
These two hurdles may not help the growth of healthy and vibrant science coverage by the media in general. But
individual science reporters with the initiative and the nose for news can turn these drawbacks into their advantage.
For example, a lack of formal science news outlets, and an inadequate number of press officers, both mean that a lot
of science news is just waiting to be picked up and turned into exclusive story by the reporters who find them first.
I once stumbled on a two-line statement in an institute report that said its scientists are working on an "immunological
approach to contraception." Further probing revealed that they were using a hormone from placenta to prevent mice
from getting pregnant — a potential birth control vaccine in the making. Had there been a press officer in the institute,
they probably would not have answered my questions, and I would have lost this exclusive story.
Where to look for jobs
Even in this Internet age, newspapers are still the best bet to look for work. Almost all the major dailies contain
science supplements, for which they require a dedicated writing staff. Regional papers are also a potential job market
for science reporters. New entrants are usually taken on as sub-editors or junior reporters rather than feature writers.
Another place to look is television. The growth in satellite and cable TV has led to the formation of many independent
TV production companies. Although few of these are wholly dedicated to science programming, most produce the
occasional scientific programme, usually for a mainstream audience. These companies generally employ journalists
who also double as researchers, writers and producers.
Radio journalism is a third avenue that is worth exploring, although it has been dwarfed by the popularity of TV and
satellite. Other fields include technical writing in the science fields, as well as in specialist fields such as information
technology and biotechnology.
Then there is freelancing. Most journalists do some freelance work outside their salaried jobs, with permission from
employers. A large number of science writers in India are self-employed and make their living through freelancing for
domestic or foreign publications, although it is usually only possible to make a reasonable living in this way if you
have already spent several years gaining experience in a full-time position and building up a reputation.
Most technical publications, as well as the science sections of some national newspapers, accept a certain amount
of freelance material. Once they accept an article from you, they may come back for more. But, as one seasoned
freelance science writer puts it, "it is very difficult to make editors accept good science stories as a freelancer."
In India, most members of the Indian Science Writers Association (ISWA) are freelancers. Indeed, some of the
successful science freelancers in India are established working scientists who have become regular writers with
national newspapers, magazines or science broadcasting units.
So if you are a working scientist with a penchant for writing, there is nothing like taking a crash course in journalism
and then start writing — and enjoy the best of both worlds!
K. S. Jayaraman, former science correspondent, the Press Trust of India
PLANNING AND WRITING A SCIENCE STORY
Jan Lublinski 14 February 2008 | EN | ES | 中文
Professional science journalism means finding an engaging story, structuring
your piece and accepting editorial revisions, says Jan Lublinski.
Successful science journalism requires more than simply writing about an exciting
topic. It is as much about selling a story to editors as it is actually writing. You need to
plan how to proceed as early as possible — and be ready to revise this plan whenever
Choosing and pitching a story
Before committing to a topic, ask yourself how you will pitch the story you want to tell,
and how it fits your target outlet. Different news outlets will be interested in different
topics or aspects of a debate. Make sure that your story will interest them by looking at
what they've already published. How do they present stories? What angle do they take? This will help you focus and
limit your workload.
Make sure you know who the readers are, and be clear why they would be interested in your story. Do they read
about science regularly? Knowing your audience helps you decide what to explore in depth, and which aspects are
Think about how deep you need to dig into the science and methods used. Often it's the implications that are
important, though sometimes the science itself is extremely relevant. For example, a story on potential AIDS vaccines
could explain why these are difficult to test, and discuss when they might become widely available. On the other
hand, a new regional solar-panel project does not need you to report details about the materials used. Rather, you
should focus on what the technology means to the local economy and peoples' daily lives.
Every story needs to have an 'angle' or perspective. There are always many ways to tell a story. For example, you
could highlight a trend or scientific controversy, or put research into context. Summarising the story in a single
sentence can often clarify your perspective and help you decide which angle to take.
You should also consider what type of article to write. If you simply need to present news, or put it in context, a short
news story is often the best format. If there is a longer story to be told that requires more information and background,
a feature may be better. Or if yours is a subjective opinion, present it as a commentary piece. Find and read a
published story in your chosen format. This will help consolidate your ideas and make your outline fit the news outlet's
Whether the story will be published in print or online may also affect your writing. The golden rule of thumb is that you
need only half the words for online text, but more structure.
Finally, find out who the editor is. They are more likely to be enthusiastic if you know what their interests are and what
they have previously published.
Once you have a clear story, 'pitch' it to the editor. Explaining on the phone why it is relevant and topical, and how
you plan to approach it, can be more effective than emailing. Offer a short outline, be open to suggestions, and make
sure you agree how to proceed. Stay in touch in case the story, or your angle, changes.
Planning your own research
If you are writing a long news story or feature article, make sure you do your research and spend time structuring and
planning the article. Write down who you need to talk to and an order for meeting or calling them. Try to get all sides
of the story by talking to experts from different institutions or research groups.
Often, talking to scientists alone will not give you the full picture. For example, if you are writing about the $100 laptop
(an initiative to develop cheap and flexible computers for poor children) you might talk to computer experts as well as
lawyers, teachers, and people from nongovernmental organisations.
Structuring your article
Gather your raw material, then list the essential facts in a coherent order. This rough outline will help create a first
draft, even if you change your structure later.
The beginning must entice the reader into reading on. It is usually best to get straight to the point, telling readers what
the news is quickly. But think, early on in the process, about how an article might end, especially if you are writing a
longer news story or feature article. You might sum up in a single sentence, or point to future developments. Try to
surprise or entertain the readers before you let them go.
A well-written story is not simply a list of facts — it should follow a clear thread, making it obvious to the reader why
one paragraph follows the next. Good science writing relates seemingly abstract facts and figures to the reader's daily
life and imagination. You can bring a story to life by describing and quoting people.
If you've used a real life situation to illustrate your story, make sure it runs through the whole article. It should lead
directly to what you wanted to report, helping to hold the reader's interest.
Well-chosen analogies and metaphors can also help. But make sure you use images and analogies that your
audience can relate to. For example, comparing the acceleration of an astronaut to the strength of the Earth's
gravitational field may simply confuse your reader. And calling the human genetic code 'the book of life' may only
make sense to those who already understand the issue.
Dealing with numbers is especially tricky. They often need simplifying, for example, 51.3 per cent is 'about half'. In
most cases you can judge when a number needs to be quoted with complete precision and when it can be rounded.
Be sceptical of statistics — make sure you understand what they actually mean, and how certain they are.
Do not send your article to the editor straight away! If possible, leave it for a day or two. You can usually considerably
improve your style and content if you re-read work later, double-checking your facts, especially spellings of names
and scientific terms.
Be prepared to revise your story after the editor has seen it. Editors have their own take on a story and some may
want to actively shape your piece, perhaps requesting additional work.
Delivering a science story is a dynamic and creative process. However long you have been in the business, the
editorial process is still a challenging one. But the more experienced you are, the better your instinct for anticipating
editors' questions becomes. Remember, these let you address the readers' probable questions before publication. Do
not be discouraged — revisions are standard editorial practice.
Jan Lublinski is a science journalist
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to
become this practical guide.
SPOTTING FRAUDULENT CLAIMS IN SCIENCE
Julie Clayton 13 February 2008 | EN | ES | 中文
How do journalists know if a scientist's claim is true? Julie Clayton helps reporters check the
quality of claims, and spot the fraudsters.
Most scientists are honest, while some will commit scientific fraud by deliberately
deceiving colleagues and/or the public with a false claim. They may report experiments
that have never taken place, describe patients that do not exist or distort data and
illustrations to appear more convincing.
Norwegian physician Jon Sudbø invented some 900 patients in a study published in
The Lancet in 2005, claiming that common painkillers help protect against oral cancer.
 German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön falsified data in multiple papers, including 15
publications in the top-ranking journals Nature and Science. Most recently, South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk
fabricated data published in Science, claiming to have grown stem cells from human embryos. [2,3] In all three cases,
retractions occurred after the fraud had come to light.
It is important that the media report on scientific fraud in order to hold the scientific community accountable for
maintaining standards in research — which is often funded with public money. The scientific community should not
only act swiftly to punish fraud, but it should also raise questions about the failure of co-authors to know and
understand more about the work being published and to prevent the fraud from occurring.
By publicising fraud, the media can also help to protect the public against fraudsters who, for example, cause patients
to delay getting appropriate treatment in preference for unproven medications — as happened recently with AIDS
patients in South Africa.  Furthermore, the media's reputation is at stake if a fraudulent claim has had prior
Why is fraud so difficult to detect?
Scientists, as a rule, follow an accepted code of conduct. They begin with experiments designed to answer a
scientific question or create a new product. They present their results to colleagues and then publish them in a
scientific journal. A good quality journal requires independent experts to certify that a paper's results are valid — a
process known as peer review.
The process of peer review means journalists can usually assume that published work is of a high standard and
worth reporting. And this is usually true. But peer review is not designed to detect fraud, and peer reviewers and
journalists alike can be fooled by fraud that is well disguised.
After all, reviewers do not witness the experiments, so they must trust that the study is honest, and may not notice if
data are fabricated or altered. The fraud often only comes to light when other scientists are unable to replicate
Non-expert journalists have little chance of uncovering such deception.
Sometimes, however, fraudsters have so obviously flouted the normal standards of scientific conduct that well-
informed journalists are as capable as scientists in raising the alarm. For example, they may omit scientific evidence
altogether and rely on anecdotal observation — even in a published report. In clinical studies, they may fail to register
details of their experiment to regulatory authorities or refuse to make test results available for independent analysis.
How can you get better at detecting fraud?
The following tips are intended to make journalists better equipped for judging the quality of scientific claims and
Get to know a field of research
Attend scientific conferences or visit research institutes and meet scientists in your area of interest to find out their
goals, methods and progress and also the type of criticisms they may have of each other's work.
Visit university libraries, or use Internet databases such as PubMed to find publications on a particular topic or by a
This will provide more insight into individual studies. Although primary research papers may be too full of jargon and
technical detail to make much sense to a non-specialist, review articles, which explore ideas and hypotheses, may be
easier to follow and present a more general view of a fields progress.
Check the quality of peer review
Ask the scientist whether their claim is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Even if the answer is yes, do not assume
this to be a mark of quality — different journals have different criteria and practices, and the quality of their peer
review varies accordingly. It is therefore important, if possible, to find out the quality of the journal in question. To do
so, consult scientists directly, or check with university librarians that the journal is held in high regard.
High quality journals tend to be more widely read and more frequently cited in academic papers. Journalists may also
wish to try the internet search engine Google Scholar, a free resource that rates results according to the number of
times a paper is cited by others, and hence indicates relative importance in the scientific community.
If you are uncertain about the journal's quality, try to find out the limitations of the study. Was it too preliminary, or too
small a sample size to be accepted in a higher quality journal? An honest scientist will readily admit to the weakness
of a study, and the need for further research — a less scrupulous one may instead exaggerate the importance and
significance of the results, and deny that any data are lacking.
If you discover that a study has been refused publication, find out why. It may be honest work, but poorly designed, or
insufficient in some way.
Alternatively, it may simply have been submitted to an inappropriate journal — good science, but too narrow in scope
for a broad-interest journal such as Nature or Science, for example. Then again, the authors may have refused to
redesign or expand their study, for fear that their assertions will be proved wrong.
Question the numbers
Are the numbers involved in a study appropriate and sufficient for the kind of investigation involved? Clinical trials, for
example, proceed through three recognised phases from initial safety trials of just a handful of individuals to larger
trials of effectiveness involving hundreds and then thousands of people. This will reveal whether or not a result has
arisen by chance (its statistical significance), enabling conclusions to be drawn with greater certainty. Even if the
statistics appear to back the claim, they are still worth checking with an independent expert, as mistakes can and do
occur, including in the top journals.
Be critical if the claim is made in a public statement.
A journalist hearing an unpublished claim during an interview, press conference or seminar, should dig deeper to
investigate how the study has been conducted. Ask the following questions (which can also be applied to a published
How credible is the scientist among his/her scientific peers? Asking other scientists directly can be a quick indication.
Otherwise, checking through an Internet database such as PubMed may indicate how often others cite the person's
Is the scientist based at a recognised scientific institution?
How is the study funded? A publicly funded study, for example, has had its protocol scrutinised by experts in order to
compete against others for funding; and
Is the author likely to profit from the sale of products relating to the work? Although many journals require authors to
declare any competing financial interests, some scientists fail to do so.
Find experts for advice and comment
Finding an independent expert to comment is the most reliable way to judge the validity of a study. When interviewing
a scientist, ask them for the contact details of other scientists doing similar work. Alternatively, identify a relevant
expert by checking the editorial board of a journal – as long as it is a reputable one.
Use the PubMed database to see who has published on the topic. Or go through the list of speakers at a relevant
conference, which you may find advertised in a journal, or on the website of a scientific society. Local universities,
research centres, funding agencies or government departments may also provide a list of academics willing to talk to
Check for ethical and regulatory approval
If the study is a clinical trial, and claims to provide evidence for a treatment, vaccine or cure for a disease, check that
details concerning the drug or vaccine composition, and any toxic side effects, are publicly available. Make sure that
the investigators are officially registered medical practitioners and that the trial or product has both ethical and
regulatory approval — either for experimentation or for sale.
There are now public databases, such as the US National Institutes of Health service, ClinicalTrials.gov, where
clinical trials may be registered and which all top quality journals now insist should be referred to in published papers.
Be sure of the facts
Journalists must be certain of their evidence, as an accusation of fraud could leave someone's career in ruins. They
should check their facts with more than one source, and also anticipate that they may have difficulty in persuading
some researchers to speak out against a colleague. An accused scientist may threaten to sue a journalist or their
paper for libel, in which case it may be wise to seek the advice of a lawyer before publication.
In conclusion, it's worth remembering that most science is honest, and fraud is difficult to detect. In following the steps
above, however, a journalist can certainly enhance their skills and reputation for reporting accurate and good quality
scientific studies, and maybe catch a fraudster in the act.
Julie Clayton is a science journalist and a consultant for SciDev.Net.This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's
e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.
 Sudbø, J., Lee, J.J., Lippman, S.M. et al. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer: a nested case-control
study. The Lancet 366, 1359-1366 (2005)
 Hwang, W.S., Ryu, Y.J., Park, J.H. et al. Evidence of a pluripotent human embryonic stem cell line derived from a cloned blastocyst.
Science 303, 1669-1674 (2004)
 Hwang, W.S., Roh, S., Lee, B.C. et al. Patient-specific embryonic stem cells derived from human SCNT blastocysts. Science 308,
 Bolognesi, N. Bad Medicine. Nature Medicine 12, 723-724 (2006)
REPORTING ON CONTROVERSIES IN SCIENCE
Tim Radford Former science editor, The Guardian 12 February 2008 | EN | ES | 中文 Flickr/jsmjr
Scientific controversy is fascinating, but do you ensure the reportage is responsible, accurate
and interesting? Tim Radford explains.
Should science writers seek or exploit controversy? Science works by debate — which
is simply another word for controversy. So does journalism. People open their
newspapers or browse online news sites hoping to be surprised, provoked, enraged,
disgusted, challenged, titillated, amused, entertained and informed. I cannot imagine
anyone reading a story headlined "Dangerous criminals should be locked up — but only
if they are really guilty, says judge" or "Mammals are warm-blooded: zoologist's claim
rocks animal world".
The word 'controversial' is often abused by journalists or dismissively used about their reports, but controversy is
innately interesting: it is one of ordinary people's pleasures to watch experts squabble and professors engage in
Inquisitive, sceptical — and fair
Some controversies may be safer to report than others. There is much seemingly scientific bickering and confusion,
for instance, over diet and dietary supplements and their links with health. Here reporters should use their common
sense. If scientists report that garlic pills reduce the risk of heart attacks, the first question to ask is who paid for this
research? If it is the garlic pill manufacturers' federation, you should already know what to think. But at least garlic
pills won't kill people.
Other controversies are not really about the validity of the science: they are about whether the science should
proceed at all. When a team in Scotland first cloned Dolly the sheep, they achieved something astounding, difficult
and not immediately medically useful.
But they provoked a worldwide debate driven by political alarm, religious concern and ethical consternation: would it
be right to clone humans? Most people weren't interested in whether it would be economical, safe or even possible:
that is, they were not interested in the science itself, but in the direction that it seemed to be pointing. The same is
true for current arguments over embryo stem cell therapy, which has yet to contribute to a single reliable medical
Journalists are obliged to be inquisitive, sceptical and fair to all sides of the debate. They cannot be sure of being
right, but they can try to be responsible.
Still, there are some 'science' stories that verge on lunacy. I was delighted some years ago to see dozens of US
reporters simply walk out of a press conference at which a psychologist claimed to have established that some racial
lineages were more intelligent than others. To report such a claim at all, even to dismiss it, would have provided
bogus ammunition for some unwholesome political movements.
Other issues are a matter of judgement. There are engineers who claim that Apollo astronauts faked their moon
landings in 1969, creation scientists who dispute the Darwinian theory of evolution, and politicians and commentators
who argue that AIDS is not transmitted by HIV infection. Just remember there will always be people who wilfully deny
the most obvious truths and prefer to believe evidence for these truths is a result of worldwide conspiracy.
Who to believe?
There are also areas where science and culture are in simple conflict. Astronomers routinely say that astrology has
no scientific basis. Still, billions go on consulting their horoscopes. How does a reporter know whom to believe?
There are many cases where science really has done its homework, and orthodoxy really has established its
authority. If in doubt, consult two or three scientists in appropriate university departments.
But remember that mostly scientists will be telling you something that seems to be the case, at that moment, on the
evidence of the latest research. They are unlikely to be lying (see Spotting fraudulent claims in science). But they
may be mistaken, misled or just too fond of a theory to give it up. If in doubt, talk to a scientist from a competing
It seems to be a rule in journalism that if you speak to one scientist, you get a clear picture of cause and effect. If you
speak to two, the picture becomes perceptibly less clear — with two differing interpretations of essentially the same
For example, one scientist could argue convincingly that people who drink fruit juice benefit from natural antioxidants
that block tumours, prevent heart disease and preserve intellectual faculty. Another will point out that frequent fruit
consumption could be a symptom, so to speak, of better education and greater health awareness, both of which are
linked with longer and healthier lives. Both agree that fruit juice drinking is part of the link, but one is emphasising that
it may not be the direct link.
Scientists may also have a bias that unwittingly affects their point of view. They could be employees of big business,
for example, or researchers for a particular medical charity, agents of political decision-making or would-be members
of a scientific society. If in doubt, consult another scientist in the same field.
Distinguished scientists tend to be more confident, and more persuasive, than younger researchers; but they are, in
some cases, just as likely to be wrong. Lord Rutherford — famous for splitting the atom — was convinced that atomic
energy could never be harnessed.
Sometimes it pays to listen to young, eager scientists: they are more patient, more interested in the ambiguities
within their own discoveries, and more open to scientific possibilities. It doesn't mean they are right. But it does mean
you will hear more about the complexity of certain fields of research. This is itself rewarding and instructive for any
journalist. It doesn't, of course, make it easier to find that snappy first sentence that will push its way onto the front
page, but then politics and economics are never simple. Why should science be easy to understand?
A reporter's job is to report the latest evidence, the latest twist in a debate. Sometimes this is not a problem. When
two scientists announce that they have discovered a tiny but measurable 28-day variation in global temperatures
which coincides with the full moon, then you have a simple story: scientists have established the heat of a
moonbeam. It's a first. It's deliciously pointless, useless information, but it's a good story all the same.
But if a team of epidemiologists report in a serious medical journal a link between (I am making this up) eating fried
potatoes and having Alzheimer's disease, be very wary. A quick check with the cuttings library, the dementia
research team at your local university, or the Alphagalileo and Eurekalert internet archives of scientific press
releases, will tell you that the frequency of Alzheimer's has also been linked in equally reputable journals by equally
respectable teams to smoking, coffee-drinking, tea-drinking, educational achievement and red wine consumption. If
you report the fried potato link, you should also have a paragraph that says, "This is only the latest in a bewildering
procession of claims that have included …" It's another way of saying: this is interesting research but don't stop frying
your potatoes just yet.
Preferring the particular
Most scientists would prefer that science reporting be sober and inconclusive — but don't even think of it. Science
reporting is not privileged. Most people are not interested in 'science'. They are interested in what they eat, what
makes them sick, why they feel miserable, how they get better and what makes them die.
They do not, as far as they are aware, want to know about general advances in virology, neuroscience, drug design
or gerontology. But you can get them interested in the antioxidant properties of Chilean wine, the killer tactics of the
HIV and Ebola virus, or why some musicians have perfect pitch. This has nothing to do with being anti-science. It has
to do with people's preference for the particular, rather than the general.
This is the reality of all journalism. Nobody buys a newspaper to reflect on the epistemology of team games as an
index of communal confidence through the ages. They buy it to read about whether Germany could beat Brazil. They
don't absorb science news as if it was value-free information: they also want to know why this or that science is being
done, and indeed whether it should be done. All these things involve preference, and point of view, and debate — or
to put it another way, controversy.
Tim Radford is the former science editor of The Guardian
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to
become this practical guide
HOW DO I SUBMIT A PAPER TO A SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL?
Maxine Clarke Nature 11 February 2008 | EN Flickr/cudmore
Maxine Clarke takes us through the processes involved in submitting a paper to a scientific
Before submitting a paper to a scientific journal, two factors should be kept in mind. The
first is the need to ensure that you have a clear, logical message. The second is to
present your paper in the correct format for the journal to which you intend to submit
The first of these is the most important. However careful and beautiful the
presentation, a paper will not be published unless it has a clear, sound conclusion (editors of reputable journals will
always be happy to advise authors whose scientific conclusions are publishable but who have difficulty in presenting
these conclusions in, say, a foreign language).
Before submitting a paper, therefore, be sure that you have something important and publishable to say. To know
this, you should discuss your results with others working in the field, both in your own institution and elsewhere.
The best way to do this is to present your results at scientific meetings — if you can get to them. An additional (or
alternative) strategy is to join an email list relevant to your field, and use that to obtain feedback about your research
plans, and learn about results from others in the field.
Discuss your ideas and proposed paper with people whose work you respect and admire. It may be a good idea to
send one or two key scientists a brief summary of your paper, and ask them to send you some informal comments on
whether it is worth your while writing a full paper, or if whether you should to do some more work first (and if so,
Use the Internet and email if you cannot speak to people directly at meetings. If you can discuss your work by
telephone, then do so; but send the recipient a synopsis or draft of your proposed publication first, so that you have
something concrete to discuss.
Writing a draft
When you are sure you are ready to write up the paper, prepare a first draft, including the figures, and repeat the
consultation process. Ask people at this stage which journal they think would be most appropriate for publication of
Once you feel you have a solid conclusion to present, you need to prepare a final draft of your paper (see "How to
write a scientific paper") in the format of the journal to which you intend to submit.
In deciding on the journal, you should bear in mind the advice you have received from others in the field (some of
whom may be academic editors of journals and referees themselves, and hence experienced at judging which journal
is most appropriate).
You should also be aware of which journals are publishing similar papers to yours, and whether the journal that you
have selected has any rules that make it particularly easy — or difficult — for you to submit.
For example, some journals impose page charges (although many do not), which are typically US$50–100 per page
but vary greatly. A journal will state its page charges in its instructions to authors. If your institution cannot pay these,
you should ask the journal before you submit whether it will waive the charges — many do under such
Another factor to bear in mind is that although some journals allow electronic submission via the Internet or by email,
others only allow 'hard-copy' submission by post. This may affect your decision about where to submit.
Most journals or their publishers (for example, a scientific society) have websites containing information that will help
you to make this decision. Alternatively you may be able to look at the journal of your choice in your library.
Follow the guidelines
Make sure you read thoroughly the journal's editorial policy, guidelines to authors and any other relevant information
— for example, which people in your scientific field are on the editorial board — before you submit.
Author information of this type is usually on 'free access' areas of journals' websites, even if the content of the journal
is only available to subscribers. But if your library does not subscribe to the journal of your choice and that journal has
an online version, it is worth sending the journal an email saying that you are planning to submit a paper, and asking
the journal if it will arrange for you to have online access to its contents for a limited time.
This will allow you to look at the level and format of published papers, information that will be helpful when you
prepare the final version of your own paper.
Submitting your paper
Once you have read the journal's instructions to authors and prepared your paper, you must submit it according to the
Different journals have different rules about number of copies of papers to submit, how to prepare figures and tables,
whether to include other information supplementary to your paper, whether all the authors have to sign the letter of
submission (known as the 'cover letter') or just one, and so on.
When you submit your paper, the cover letter should contain:
• Your name, address, phone and fax numbers and email address;
• Alternative contact details if you will be away for any length of time;
• A brief statement, in a sentence or two, why you think the paper is important and why the journal should
publish it (in other words, state the main conclusion of the paper);
• Names of anyone in the field who has commented on the paper previously particularly if they are individuals
of high standing in the field and/or if they are on the editorial board of the journal;
• Suggestions of a particular person you would like to referee the paper (although you must be confident that
the person is independent, in other words does not collaborate with you or have any other reason to be
biased in your favour);
• Details of anyone you would not like to review your paper because you think they would not give an
objective assessment; and
• Any other details you think are relevant.
• It is important to keep this cover letter as short as possible, as the editor who will read it probably receives
many papers, and will find it easier to assess yours if you can be succinct.
Reacting to a journal's response
When your paper has been submitted, the journal will probably acknowledge receipt. If you do not hear anything
from the journal for a couple of weeks, send the editor a short email asking for an acknowledgement of receipt of your
paper, a reference number, and the name of the editor who is handling it.
Use this reference number in any subsequent status enquiries. A journal usually provides an email address on its list
of staff (known as the 'masthead') that is published in each issue, usually on the front or the back page.
When the journal has assessed your paper (usually with the help of referees, who are independent scientists in the
field selected by the journal's editors), the editor will write to you with a decision about publication, and enclosing
Sometimes an editor's letter will be clear, and it is obvious how you should revise your paper for resubmission. If the
letter is not clear, write back to the editor (by email) explaining what you do not understand, and ask for an
explanation — for example if the referees' comments are difficult to understand, or you are not sure what the editor
means in his or her instructions for revising your paper.
What to do if your paper is rejected
If the journal declines to publish your paper, it is a usually a good idea to discuss this decision with a colleague in the
field, showing them the reports and editor's letter, before proceeding further. It might be worth appealing the decision,
or it might be better to submit your paper to another journal.
If you do decide to appeal the journal's decision, send a letter stating your case, sticking to scientific points (for
example, those parts of your conclusions that may have been misunderstood or not appreciated).
Do not send angry or abusive letters, as this will not help your case.
What to do if your paper is accepted
If your paper is accepted for publication, ask the editor immediately, certainly before the paper is published, about the
journal's policy on copyright and reprints, and whether there are other conditions of publication.
A journal may provide you with some reprints free of charge if you do not have funds to pay for them. But it is
important to ask about this before your paper is published; the journal may not be able to provide free reprints after
publication, as they are much more expensive to produce than reprints made at the time of publication of your article.
Alternatively the journal may be prepared to waive its standard copyright restrictions. But you will probably need to
ask for such concessions, explaining your circumstances.
When you are given a publication date for your paper, tell your institution so that it can include this information in its
annual report or other documents promoting its research.
Finally, remember to thank personally all those who have helped you in preparing the paper, letting them know that it
will be published and in which journal.
Maxine Clark is the executive editor of Nature
HOW DO I SUB-EDIT A SCIENCE ARTICLE?
Peter Wrobel Nature 10 February 2008 | EN | 中文 Flickr/prasan.naik
Sub-editing an article means making it readable, accurate and attractive — not putting
words in the author's mouth — explains Peter Wrobel.
Scientists and science writers are always keen to communicate new ideas and
developments. But they are not always the best judges of what their intended
audience can absorb.
The problem is common throughout journalism, where specialist writers tend to
assume that others share their knowledge. But it can be particularly acute in
science journalism for two reasons: scientific specialisms often have an extremely narrow focus, and most specialist
writing is about things that are, by definition, new, and therefore unfamiliar to many readers.
In the course of commissioning such an article, an editor normally learns a great deal about the story subject. Indeed,
their understanding of it may rival that of the intended author, and will probably be more comprehensive than almost
anyone's, apart from those involved in the research itself.
All this knowledge, however, already sets the commissioning editor apart from the intended audience, whose first
acquaintance with the topic will be when they read the article. This is where the sub-editor comes in.
The sub-editor can be seen as the reader's last line of defence. A sub-editor's main concern is what the reader is
likely to know before seeing the article, and whether they will be able to understand the article in the light of such
knowledge. And the sub-editor's main task is to ensure that the article is comprehensible to as many readers as
But comprehension is not the only challenge. During the process of making an article understandable, the sub-editor
must also try to ensure that it is readable, legally sound, ethical and written in a consistent style. She or he must also
make sure that it fits the space assigned to it; that it has an enticing headline and good captions on pictures and other
illustrations; and that it is accurate — right down to the spelling of the author’s name.
Keeping the reader's attention
While it is only one of the sub-editor's tasks, ensuring that the article can be easily understood is perhaps the most
important. Sub-editors often find it useful to start by asking how much people read of any given article.
It is often assumed that readers read everything. But this is far from the case. Sub-editors have to work on the
general assumption that 80 per cent of readers will not get past the fourth paragraph of a printed article, and 90 per
cent will not touch the scroll button when reading an article online.
It is easy to understand why this happens. In a newspaper, for example, every double-page spread is littered with
headlines all designed to grab the reader's attention — rather like a street market, with different traders shouting out
their wares. As their eye roves over the page, giving it any excuse to hesitate — a word they don't understand, an
obvious mistake in spelling, grammar or fact — will break their concentration. There are plenty of other stories vying
for their attention, and once their eye wanders off, it is unlikely to return.
In that sense, the sub-editor's aim is simple: that for any given story, the reader will read it all, down to the end.
To achieve this, the sub-editor has to deal with elements that can break the reader's concentration. Here we return to
the sub-editor's many tasks — with making the article comprehensible at the top of the list. If a reader cannot
understand what the writer is saying, there are plenty of other articles to read, or plenty of hyperlinks to click on.
So a sub-editor will assess every word (some quicker than others) to ensure that the readers will understand it. And
for any publication aimed at a broad readership — SciDev.Net, for example, or New Scientist — a sub-editor will
assume that the average reader of any given article is a non-specialist. After all, how much molecular biology will
even the average condensed-matter physicist understand?
So what will a sub-editor identify as being incomprehensible to a non-specialist audience? The first, and most
important, rule of thumb is that if the sub-editor cannot understand it, the non-specialist audience won't understand it
Applying this rule demands a certain level of self-confidence, however. Science is full of hierarchies, social and
otherwise, but one of the most powerful is based on knowledge: the more you know, the higher your status.
In this situation, sub-editors have to be willing to assert their ignorance. For a sub-editor, saying, "I don’t understand
this" is not an admission of failure or inadequacy; it is a vital first step in turning the article into something that is easily
At this point, writers — and even editors — can become a little frustrated, and may exclaim, "But everyone knows
xxx!" The sub-editor has to remind the author that "everyone" can't know xxx, since they don't. Or that what everyone
has learnt in the past is not important — it’s what everyone remembers that counts.
Along with this requisite self-admitted ignorance, sub-editors also need to keep alert to changes in 'common
knowledge'. Ten years ago, for example, the word 'genome' did not fall into this category, even within that section of
the public closely interested in science. Today it is understood, at least up to a point — and normally that point is far
enough for readers to understand what the article is about (although there are still circumstances in which the term
may need to be explained).
Likewise, you may not need to explain what a protein is. But you would want to explain what the proteome is. It is all
a matter of judgment, something a sub-editor requires in abundance.
The next key ambition of a sub-editor is to make an article readable, which is not the same thing as making it
Something may be clear, but dull; or clear, but difficult to take in at normal reading speed. Readers find it hard to
maintain concentration if a text is dull or difficult, and they'll quickly move on to the next headline. Readability is what
will keep them going to the last sentence.
Sometimes your word processor can help to check this. I am writing this article using Microsoft Word, which — along
with other standard word processing programs — has a function for checking readability. All readability checkers do
fundamentally the same thing: use algorithms based on word length (or number of syllables), numbers of words in
sentences and, sometimes, numbers of sentences in paragraphs, and then tell you how difficult the article is to read.
The level of difficulty is often expressed as the number of years you'd need to have amassed within the American
education system to understand the piece.
In my first draft, the result was 11 years, which means, roughly, that the average 17-year-old could understand it — a
little high for easy reading. Newspapers tend to aim a bit lower. The reading ease so far is 53.9 — on a scale where
100 is very easy, 60 is 'plain English', 40 is 'difficult' and anything under 20 is 'very difficult'. For comparison, a paper
on molecular biology in Nature will typically rate between 20 and 25!
The principle behind all readability checkers is simple: neurological perception. However familiar a long individual
word might be — take 'demonstration', which has 13 letters and four syllables — once you start filling up a sentence
with long words, the eye and the brain simply cannot read them easily.
This creates particular problems for sub-editors working on science stories, since science is full of long words —
'epidemiology', for example, or 'crystallography'. The solution is to go short wherever possible: short words, short
sentences and short paragraphs.
This is often easy to do. Words such as 'demonstrate' can easily be shortened to 'show', or 'consume' to 'eat'. Other
words can be cut out entirely — the word 'very', for example, is almost always unnecessary — while words such as
'however' can often be changed to 'but', or just omitted, and 'furthermore' can profitably be transformed into 'and'.
The next trick is to look for 'passive' sentences — for example, "It has been shown by Swedish scientists that…".
Passive sentences are notoriously common in science writing, as this is the way most scientists seem to have been
trained to write papers. They slow sentences down, and put a brake on readability. One-way of keeping a check on
them is with the Word grammar checker, which will tell you what percentages of your sentences are passive.
Once a sub-editor has pinned passive sentences culprits down, they need to turn them around to make them active
— "Swedish scientists have shown that…". This reduces the number of words from eight to five — a reduction of 37.5
The next responsibility of the sub-editor is to ensure that everything in an article is accurate. Every word must be
spelt properly, all grammar and punctuation must be correct, and all facts should, in principle, be checked — within
Spelling, grammar and punctuation are important because errors in them can alter the sense the writer intends to
convey. In these matters, you can never, ever, rely on your computer's spellchecker or grammar checker.
A spellchecker will not tell you whether you have spelt the word correctly, merely that a word can be spelt in a
particular way. So it will not discriminate between 'discreet' (prudent, modest, perceptive) and 'discrete' (a common
word in science, meaning 'distinct'). Nor will it tell the difference between 'checker' and 'chequer'.
In addition, the rules of English grammar are relatively flexible, which means that they are not, yet, reliably
susceptible to machine checking. So sub-editors must become masters of their language.
Another reason for getting these things right is that when they are not, they distract the reader. A sub-editor wants the
reader who has read one group of words to go on to the next, not to stop and compose a letter of complaint to the
editor about a grammatical slip.
Factual accuracy is even more important. Inaccurate facts can do quite a lot of damage: distract or mislead the
reader, reduce the reader's trust in everything else, and damage the reputation of the publication. Serious errors may
demand a correction in the next issue, which takes up time and space.
So sub-editors need to check everything they can, especially the names of institutions and people. It's the least they
can do for scientists. After all, it's a tough job — you labour unnoticed in the lab, your family has no idea what you do,
then one day your name appears in print and you have something you can show your mum. So at this point, you
want your name to be spelt correctly!
Numbers are a frequent source of error in writing about science. It's easy to make a slip of the keyboard and end up
with the wrong order of magnitude, or a wrong numeral, which is why sub-editors check numbers for common sense.
The same goes for internal consistency. If a writer says a new grant scheme will spend $500,000 on six disciplines,
and then lists only five disciplines, or gives sub-totals that add up to more than $500,000, then clearly something is
wrong. At this point it is often only the writer who can say exactly which number is wrong, but the sub-editor has
identified a mistake — normally without having to know anything about the subject!
There is much more to sub-editing, of course. When an article leaves the sub-editor, it must be legally sound (whole
books have been written about the criteria that determine libel), its content must be ethical, it must fit, and it has to
have a good headline and alluring captions.
And everything must be in a consistent 'house style' — a standard way of spelling, or writing down numbers, or giving
dates or references, for example — not least to avoid distracting the reader by writing 'bloodstream' in one sentence
and 'blood-stream' in the next. In short, when an article leaves the sub-editor, it must be entirely fit to print.
A last word
Finally, a word of warning to over-ambitious sub-editors. We are not the writers, nor the commissioning editors. It is
not our job to decide what goes into the publication. And it is certainly not our job to put words into the writer's mouth,
so they express views that are ours instead of theirs.
Even if we disagree with the writer, our job is to help them get their ideas over in the best way possible. We don't
change things out of personal prejudice.
This is especially important in science writing, where many of authors are professional scientists first, and amateur
writers second. But it is also true of science journalists. And if you think a writer has got a fact or a spelling wrong,
and can't confirm it yourself, go back to the author for checking. Don't just make a guess.
Ultimately, we need to respect our profession — even if, ironically, the goal of our work is to end up with something
that the writer can still call their own.
Peter Wrobel is the managing editor of Nature
How do I become media savvy?
Marina Joubert Southern Science 10 February 2008 | EN
Marina Joubert explains that cooperating with the media is in scientists' interests — and isn't
as scary as you might think.
We all base many of our everyday decisions on what we hear or see in the mass
media, which for the majority of the population has become the only source of scientific
information. The scientific community therefore can no longer afford to dismiss its
Despite this, however, many young scientists complete their studies and embark on a
career in research without any training in public speaking, interviewing or popular writing. It is not surprising, then,
that scientists often shy away from media interviews and public platforms.
"South African scientists are very creative and innovative in their work," says Christina Scott, science reporter at the
SABC, South Africa's public broadcasting company. "They are often highly respected by their peers abroad. But, they
have absolutely no idea how to communicate to a non-scientific audience."
For many, the relationship between scientists and journalists remains difficult, sometimes even hostile. There are
complaints on both sides — scientists doubt the ability of journalists to report accurately and responsibly on their
work, while journalists complain that scientists are bad communicators, hiding behind jargon.
Overcoming the 'us and them' dynamic therefore requires commitment from both parties. However, once achieved, a
relationship based on mutual trust will benefit society in general.
Also, at times in a scientist's career, it can be extremely important, perhaps even critical, to have a good relationship
with a few key journalists.
"Communication is an essential aspect of your work," says Sandy Dacombe, an award-winning science writer based
in Malawi. "Take it seriously."
Why should I care about getting media coverage of my research?
If you are not convinced that communicating with the public is your responsibility and in your own best interest,
consider the following:
Science enriches human life and can improve the lives of many people. Public taxes pay for most scientific projects
and therefore the people have a right to know. Communicating about science has become part of the ethical and
professional responsibility of scientists.
In a democratic society, the public should have a say about science, and should be enabled to make rational
personal choices about scientific issues. But to do so, the people need to be properly informed in a manner that
doesn't patronise. Once this has been achieved, the way is open to a two-way dialogue with the public, one of the
more ambitious aims of science communication.
Scientists who use the media effectively see significant advantages in having a media presence for themselves, their
projects, and their research organisations. It is regarded as an imperfect, but powerful method for reaching end users,
research funders, bureaucrats, and other scientists.
Scientists read newspapers too. For example, The New England Journal of Medicine carried out a survey of its
articles that had been covered in the New York Times and found that papers that did get media coverage had 70 per
cent more citations than those that didn't.
Remember, you are not communicating to the media; you are using them to communicate with a variety of
Strategies for working with the media
The stage of the research and the type of story, both demand different media strategies. Working successfully with
the media takes time, practice and a willingness to understand how journalists work and what they need. To get
started, here are some simple guidelines and practical tips that will help you in the long-term process of achieving
constructive and mutually beneficial collaboration with the media.
Just say "yes!" and make it personal
Many journalists complain that they have difficulty simply getting a scientist to agree to an interview in the first place.
When a journalist contacts you, it is usually you that they want to speak to, not your head of department, not your
partner, not your assistant and definitely not a whole team. The journalist wants to interview the scientist who actually
did the work — the one who was in the bush, lab, and water or wherever the research was done.
Remember, science is about things, but science news is about people. So, when you tell your story, make it personal
and convey your feelings about it. That way, your inherent excitement will come through naturally. Journalists don't
need to speak to the team leader or the world expert in you; they just want you to explain something to ordinary
people. So don't be condescending in your approach, or pretend that you are too busy; speak to them.
When is it news?
If it is the first, oldest, biggest, smallest — any of those superlatives — it can make what journalists call a 'hard' news
story. But too often this information is hidden in a news release.
Make it easy for the news editor or journalist to spot about the heart of the story by lifting it out for them. Hundreds of
stories pass across the desk of a reporter (or news editor) every day. They have only a few seconds to consider
yours before passing rapidly on to the next one. So make sure that your most important point gets to them quickly.
It really is now or never
Journalists work to incredibly tight deadlines. The nature of journalism demands that they juggle several stories at the
same time, and can seldom wait to phone you back the next day, or even an hour later. You must be willing to give
priority to a media interview, and to drop other commitments if necessary. Remember that you're not doing the
journalist a favour; you are using the media as a tool to reach thousands of readers, listeners or viewers. See it as an
opportunity, not an intrusion.
The competition is tough
Getting science stories into the mass media is no easy task. In many countries, editors are often locked into believing
that newsworthy items can only be disasters, politics or sport. Faced with such obstacles, the only way to get your
science story covered is often to 'spin it', highlighting an angle of relevance and excitement that will grab and hold the
attention of the reporter, his or her editor, and the sub-editor who will be responsible for seeing it into print.
Prepare, and practice
It takes time to come up with an interesting angle to your scientific story. The abstract of your scientific paper is not
going to do the trick! Before you take the initiative to contact a journalist, or return their call, think carefully about the
story you want to tell and how you can make it come alive. Think about comparisons, analogies and metaphors that
will help explain your work.
If you are going to do a prepared interview, get a friend — not another scientist — to listen to your story. Other
essential aspects of preparing for a media interview include finding out information about the specific programme or
newspaper, and also checking in advance how the interview will be conducted.
You can be in control
If you are prepared and enthusiastic about your topic, and clear in your own mind about what you want to get across,
you can keep the interview on course. Don't stray into irrelevant areas, and don't be a slave to irrelevant questions.
Make sure that you stick to the main points that you want to get across. Before the interview, it may help to jot these
down on a piece of paper. This will help you remember what you wanted to say, and keeping to the salient points
could help the journalist to report the story accurately. If you get distracted and sidetracked, it increases the chances
that the journalist will lose interest, or write a totally different story.
Focus on the angle and messages you want to get across. Make sure you have the relevant supporting information
and visuals on hand. Focus on what you have found — remember, the method of your research is only interesting to
the journalist (and the reader) if it involves something really unusual. Also, give the journalist your business card to
make sure they get your name, institution and department right.
Everything is on record
Many journalists will honour an 'off the record' statement — providing that you have said this before, and not after, the
statement in question, and ensure that the journalist has accepted it.
However some may fail to respect such commitment. If you are uncertain, or have reasons not to trust the journalist
in question, you should proceed on the basis that as soon as you sit down for an interview, or pick up the phone,
every word you say is on the record. Do not put yourself into a situation where you later have reason to regret
anything you have said in an interview.
Keep it short
For a specific interview, choose three to four main points that you would like to get across. This is not the time to
attempt to explain the entire spectrum of your research. You can use different angles on what you do for different
interviews. But each article or interview has to be short and focused.
Look them in the eye
Keep eye contact with a television reporter throughout the interview. If others ask a question — for example, when
you are the member of a panel — look at them too. Don't look up — or down — for inspiration. Looking from side to
side will make you look shifty. Finally, an obvious, but sometimes-overlooked point: don't wear sunglasses on TV.
A picture is still worth a thousand words
Striking images virtually guarantee good media coverage. Television thrives on action, movement and noise. In a
newspaper, an unusual full-colour photograph with a caption will grab more readers than stories that use text alone,
no matter how interesting. If you have images in different formats — print, film, video and electronic versions — that
is even better for you. For radio interviews, you have to 'speak in pictures' to help the listener visualise what you are
Keep it simple, exciting and relevant
Journalists have to report complex issues to lay audiences, and they need your help. If you are being interviewed on
radio or television, it is likely that the viewers or listeners are busy with several other things while listening to you. You
have to seduce them into paying attention to what you are saying. Finding the right words is part of the trick; when
asked to describe coronal mass ejections that disrupt magnetic fields, John Dudeny of the British Antarctic Survey
said, "Well, it's a bit like the sun belching".
"Scientists often find it difficult to speak simple language because they're so immersed in their own jargon," Jeanne
Viall, a feature writer for the South African newspaper the Cape Argus explains.
"So please be willing to explain, explain, explain. As a journalist working for a newspaper, I know my audience, and I
know that if I'm not clear about a concept or issue, neither will they be. My job is to take sometimes difficult ideas and
present them clearly."
Sometimes it is hard to step back and simplify your work.
"Pretend you are speaking to a bright nine-year old child. Make it interesting, varied and easy to grasp. Stick to broad
overviews, avoid painstaking detail," is the advice from writer Sandy Dacombe.
"The journalist has limited time and need[s] clean, clear facts to build their story."
Tell them why it is "cool"
When you are interviewed as a scientist, you are representing not only your discipline, but the entire field of science.
For those few seconds, it is your responsibility to not only tell your story, but also to present science as something
worthwhile, exciting, interesting and inspiring.
Use visual language and imagery to fire up the imaginations of your audience. An energetic and enthusiastic
interviewee will quickly win over not only his/her audience, but also the journalist doing the interview. This is your
opportunity to show that science is worth investing in, and that it offers great career possibilities.
It's a lot to fit into twenty seconds, that's why it takes some practice. Show some passion and learn to use short,
Use the news hooks of the day
If an issue or topic is already in the press, that's a good time to seize the opportunity and immediately contact the
media if you are doing research that is relevant (even remotely) to the news of the day.
Get to know and understand the media, and respect the journalist
Talk to journalists about their work to get an understanding of the constraints under which they operate. These
include tight deadlines, the need for simplicity and speed, the influence of sub-editors on the final story, and the role
of editors in deciding whether the story makes it at all.
All this will help you to anticipate some of their needs and approaches, and to build a better relationship with
individual reporters. You know your subject, but the journalist knows the audience — you have to find common
ground and respect each other's expertise.
Beware of statistics
Too many numbers, or numbers that are difficult to comprehend, doesn't further your cause. Your chances of being
misquoted increase dramatically once you start giving complicated statistical or numeric information. And remember
that even if the journalist gets the numbers right, his or her readers or audience may still have difficulty interpreting
the data. So try to explain 'around' the numbers if you can. Say "one out of four people" instead of "25 per cent of the
population", or even "most" rather than "the majority of". Use comparisons to explain how small, big or rare something
Follow up, but think twice before asking to see the final article
You have the right to ask to check the facts once a story has been written. Not all journalists will agree to do so, but
the more responsible ones will realise that it is in their interests, as well as yours, to ensure that the facts are correct.
You may also ask to see the full article, although it is up to the journalist to decide whether to show it to you. Some
journalists hate being asked to send an article to a person who has been interviewed prior to publication, because
they know from experience that scientists (and others) often want to change more than the facts.
They may refuse and probably, will not interview you again if you protest too vigorously. Rather, ask them to read
back any facts and figures to you so that you can check accuracy. Also, offer to make yourself available for any
follow-up questions the reporter may have while finalising the article or while editing the broadcast segment.
If the journalist agrees to send you the article prior to publication, you can complain if you feel that you have been
misquoted, but you must resist the temptation to interfere with their interpretation, opinion or style. It might be worth
remembering that the journalist may be interviewing several people about a specific issue or topic, and your view is
just one side to their story.
Think of the broader picture and impact
It is best to learn to live with minor differences of interpretation, as long as the essence of the story is correct. Don't
look at the story only from your own, narrow perspective; rather try to judge its general impact on the audience you
are trying to reach. Scientists with very little experience of the media tend to distrust them because they think the
media trivialises and distorts science. But they often base this judgement on harsh critical scrutiny that can lose sight
of the broader message that the journalist is seeking to get across.
Some more tips
For radio or TV, don't use phrases like "as I said earlier"; that piece may well have been edited out.
Many acronyms and jargon will sabotage your efforts, and the resulting interview will probably be dumped.
If you use a scientific term, try to explain it immediately as simply as possible.
Never correct a presenter on air — you are not speaking to a student. You can diplomatically work the correct
information into your response.
If you plan to host a press conference or invite a journalist for an interview, schedule it for the morning. Journalists,
particularly those working on daily newspapers, tend to gather information the mornings and write in the afternoons. If
you don't want anyone to turn up, schedule your event for late afternoon.
Less is more. Journalists deal in information — preferably information their competitors don't know about. Don't be
dismayed if you can get only one journalist interested in a story. Others are bound to call once you've appeared in
the media as an 'exclusive'.
Read, listen and watch
Research the media — read newspapers, watch television, and listen to the radio. Decide then which branch of the
media is best suited to carry your specific message. Do more research. Find out which journalist is most in sympathy
with your way of thinking. Get to know a journalist through his/her work — that way you will be able to target your
story according to his/her audience and style.
You'll get better at it
Very few scientists are born communicators. But you can and will get better at it the more you do it. Media training
and attending courses in communication and presentation skills could make all the difference.
At times in your career, it can be extremely important, even critical, to have a good relationship with a few key
journalists. Once you have established yourself as a credible and interesting source of information, you can expect
more calls from the media.
"I have a list of experts in different fields that I will phone over and over again, because I know they give the kind of
comment that I can use in my newspaper," says Laurice Taitz, science writer for the South African Sunday Times.
"They understand what I need to make a story work for our readers."
Getting help on the Internet
There are several sources of advice for scientists on media strategy. Most are published by science organisations in
developed countries, but they contain useful advice for scientists in developing countries.
The Natural Environmental Research Council, based in the United Kingdom, has a user-friendly and useful section on
its website about communicating research.
The National Association of Science Writers in the United States has produced this guide for scientists, doctors and
public information officers. http://www.nasw.org/resource/pios/csn/index.htm
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has advice for scientists on how to communicate their
science to the general public. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/support/communicate/Welcome.html
The Economic and Social Research Council, based in Britain, provides a toolkit on all aspects of communicating
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada gives useful information on how to communicate
science to the public. http://www.nserc.ca/seng/how1en.htm
A report from the Wellcome Trust offers on "The role of scientists in public debate" can be found at:
http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/doc%5Fwtd003429.html (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to view).
Marina Joubert, is a science communication consultant at Southern Science in South Africa and coordinator of SciDev.Net's science
communication topic gateway
How do I write a press release?
Natasha Martineau The Environment Agency 9 February 2008 | EN
Natasha Martineau explains the dos and don'ts of writing and sending a press release — and
getting your news to make a splash.
A press release is a short summary of a piece of news, which you can use to publicise
the key elements of your story to journalists. Its most important feature is that it needs
to be topical — it should make clear what's new. You can also use press releases as
part of a marketing strategy to publicise a forthcoming event.
What should a press release contain?
The most effective press releases are written to a standard and simple formula:
Write in the active voice;
• Use everyday language and avoid (or explain) all jargon, technical terms and acronyms;
• Put the most interesting things at the start; and
• Results and conclusions go before the background, method and so on (i.e. the opposite way round to a
scientific research paper).
Title Needs to be brief, contain major key words, and say exactly what the story is about.
The five Ws The opening paragraph should answer the following questions:
• Who (is involved/did the research)?
• What (is new)?
• Where (is the research / publication)?
• When (does it take place/get published)?
• Why (is it new)?
For example: "Police [who] used tear gas to disperse protesters ripping down posters [what] in Indian-controlled
Kashmir [where] yesterday [when] as tensions increased before next week's state election [why]."
Body of the release Should contain further information about your story and set it in a familiar context. Stick to key
points that support your message, and don't get too technical.
Quotes Include a brief quote from someone directly involved with the story. It should sound like something someone
could say, not what he or she might have written.
Contacts It is crucial to provide in and out of hours (international) telephone and email information for the press
office and other individuals involved with the story (with their agreement).
Notes to editors Include brief factual biographical information about the people or organisations involved with the
Photo/filming/recording opportunities/pictures Advertising these opportunities to journalists may increase the
chance of your story being covered if it is linked to something visual happening, or involves a celebrity. Journalists
may bring their own photographers/cameramen. Include clear date, time and location details.
Web references Give the specific URL of further information on a website.
Keywords News release services are likely to require keywords to help identify/search for the story.
Embargoes These outline a time and date before which a story cannot be published, giving journalists extra time in
advance to research and prepare a story. An embargo ensures that the story breaks when you want it to. Make it
clearly visible at the top of the first page (for example 00.01 GMT). Your embargo should match those placed by any
publication associated with your story. Journalists who break embargoes should be removed from your press
Distributing a press release
Deciding on whom you are targeting will help you decide on how you want to send out your release. Journalists often
receive far more press releases than they have space or time to cover, so sending out your release intelligently is as
important as writing it in the first place.
Before you send it out
Always make sure all parties mentioned in the press release agree to it (especially for quotes and contact details).
Inform any interested parties, people or organisations about your release before you send it out to journalists.
Whom should I send it to?
Identify a named journalist (on a relevant news desk — science/news/local/national), and send your release straight
to them. Your choice of journalist should be informed by the message you want to get across.
When should I send it?
Depends on the source of the story, and also which journalists you want to cover it. Think about embargoes (you will
need to keep to deadlines of any associated journal). Some days of the week (for example towards the beginning)
are better than others (for example when competing stories come out).
Some countries may have politically 'quiet' times of the year, which may leave more space for other stories. Avoid
competing against significant national or international events unless your story has relevance to them.
How should I send it?
Obvious channels of communication include post, fax, e-mail and websites. Make sure all letters and faxes are clearly
addressed to a named journalist; maybe follow up with a phone call (mornings better).
Put a brief title in the email subject line of that summarises the story; include the release in the body of the message
not as an attachment.
Putting your release on your own website is a good reference point (you will need to tell journalists it's there) and
enables links to relevant sources of further information and pictures. You can also post on other web-based news
services regularly visited by journalists (for example AlphaGalileo and EurekAlert).
When distributing pictures, always include a caption and photo credit; put it on a website and include a direct link to
the page in an email (do not send as an attachment). Make sure any hard copies are good quality.
Following up your press release
After the release is released:
• Ensure that you (or an informed colleague) are available for interview, or to provide further background
information and explanation once your release reaches a journalist.
• Familiarise yourself with how journalists work and what information they will need; be prepared for any
question or approach.
• Provide prompt and informative answers; equip yourself with basic facts and figures.
• Be aware that journalists from abroad may approach you out of hours.
• Leave reliable contact details with your colleagues.
• Sort out organisational logistics and permission for photographic, sound recording or filming opportunities in
• Evaluate your experience: note down questions you find hard to answer.
• Keep a record of the press coverage you generate, and inform colleagues, press offices, bosses, funders
etc of what you have achieved.
• If you don't like the coverage you receive, think about how you could have presented your work in a different
way to communicate the message you wanted to get across.
• Note the names and contacts of journalists you enjoyed working with, and keep in touch.
• Make an archive of your news releases available on your website.
If your story is likely to be contentious or involves several key players with different angles, consider holding a press
• Find a venue accessible for journalists; aim for it to last for less than one hour; hold towards the start of the
• Use a press release and national press association to advertise the conference.
• Ensure that speakers are well briefed; encourage short, punchy descriptions of their opinions or outline of
their story; limit history or methodology; ask them to identify themselves clearly and speak for 5–10
minutes; do a trial run.
• Provide copies of the press release, including speakers' full details and contact details.
• Find a chair for the conference who understands both the story and the needs of the media.
• Allow time for the journalists to ask questions (prepare speakers with likely questions).
Natasha Martineau is the manager of science interpretation at The Environment Agency, United Kingdom
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become
this practical guide.
How do I write a scientific paper?
6 February 2008 | EN SciDev.Net
Tips on how to present the results of a study, and give it the best chance of
Adapted with permission from a text developed by the Applied Ecology Research Group at
the University of Canberra Australia, and prepared with the aid of 'How to Write and Publish
a Scientific Paper' by Robert Day (ISI Press, Philadelphia, 1979).
A scientific paper is a written report describing original research results whose format
has been defined by centuries of developing tradition, editorial practice, scientific ethics
and the interplay with printing and publishing services. The result of this process is that virtually every scientific paper
has a title, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion.
It should, however, be noted that most publications have rules about a paper's format: some divide papers into these
or some of these sections, others do not, and the order may be different in different publications. So be prepared to
revise your paper in to a publication's format when you are ready to submit.
One general point to remember is the need to avoid jargon and acronyms as much as possible. A second is the fact
that some journals like papers to be written in the active voice - i.e. "we carried out a test to..." rather than " test was
carried out to..." — but that this is not always the case.
A title should be the fewest possible words that accurately describe the content of the paper. Omit all waste words
such as "A study of ...", "Investigations of ...", "Observations on ...", etc. Indexing and abstracting services depend on
the accuracy of the title, extracting from it keywords useful in cross-referencing and computer searching.
An improperly titled paper may never reach the audience for which it was intended, so be specific. If the study is of a
particular species or chemical, name it in the title. If the study has been limited to a particular region or system, and
the inferences it contains are similarly limited, then name the region or system in the title.
The keyword list provides the opportunity to add keywords, used by the indexing and abstracting services, in addition
to those already present in the title. Judicious use of keywords may increase the ease with which interested parties
can locate your article.
A well-prepared abstract enables the reader to identify the basic content of a document quickly and accurately, to
determine its relevance to their interests, and thus to decide whether to read the document in its entirety. The
abstract concisely states the principal objectives and scope of the investigation where these are not obvious from the
title. More important, it concisely summarises the results and principal conclusions. Do not include details of the
methods used unless the study is methodological, i.e. primarily concerned with methods.
The abstract must be concise; most journals specify a length, typically not exceeding 250 words. If you can convey
the essential details of the paper in 100 words, do not use 200. Do not repeat information contained in the title. The
abstract, together with the title, must be self-contained as it is published separately from the paper in abstracting
services such as Biological Abstracts or Current Contents. Omit all references to the literature and to tables or
figures, and omit obscure abbreviations and acronyms even though they may be defined in main body of the paper.
The introduction begins by introducing the reader to the pertinent literature. A common mistake is to introduce
authors and their areas of study in general terms without mention of their major findings. For example: "Parmenter
(1976) and Chessman (1978) studied the diet of Chelodina longicollis at various latitudes and Legler (1978) and
Chessman (1983) conducted a similar study on Chelodina expansa" compares poorly with: "Within the confines of
carnivory, Chelodina expansa is a selective and specialised predator feeding upon highly motile prey such as
decapod crustaceans, aquatic bugs and small fish (Legler, 1978; Chessman, 1984), whereas C. longicollis is reported
to have a diverse and opportunistic diet (Parmenter, 1976; Chessman, 1984)". The latter is a far more informative
lead-in to the literature, but more importantly it will enable the reader to clearly place the current work in the context of
what is already known.
Try to introduce references so they do not interfere with the flow of your argument: first write the text without
references so that it reads smoothly, then add in the references at the end of sentences or phrases so they do not
interrupt your flow. Note that not all journals use author's names in references some use numbers in the text with a
list of citations at the end of the article. Check the publication's style when you are ready to submit your paper.
An important function of the introduction is to establish the significance of your current work: Why was there a need to
conduct the study? Having introduced the pertinent literature and demonstrated the need for the current study, you
should state clearly the scope and objectives.
Avoid a list of points or bullets; use prose.
The introduction can finish with the statement of objectives or, as some people prefer, with a brief statement of the
principal findings. Either way, the reader must have an idea of where the paper is heading to follow the development
of the evidence.
Materials and methods
The main purpose of the 'Materials and Methods' section is to provide enough detail for a competent worker to repeat
your study and reproduce the results. The scientific method requires that your results be reproducible, and you must
provide a basis for repetition of the study by others.
Equipment and materials available off the shelf should be described exactly (e.g. Licor underwater quantum sensor,
Model LI 192SB) and sources of materials should be given if there is variation in quality among supplies.
Modifications to equipment or equipment constructed specifically for the study should be carefully described in detail.
The method used to prepare reagents, fixatives, and stains should be stated exactly, though often reference to
standard recipes in other works will suffice.
The usual order of presentation of methods is chronological. However, related methods may need to be described
together and strict chronological order cannot always be followed. If your methods are new (i.e. unpublished), you
must provide all the detail required to repeat them. However, if a method has been previously published, only the
name of the method and a literature reference need be given.
Be precise in describing measurements and include errors of measurement. Ordinary statistical methods should be
used without comment; advanced or unusual methods may require a literature citation. Show your materials and
methods section to a colleague. Ask if they would have difficulty in repeating your study.
In the results section you present your findings: display items (figures and tables) are central in this section. Present
the data, digested and condensed, with important trends extracted and described. Because the results comprise the
new knowledge that you are contributing to the world, it is important that your findings be clearly and simply stated.
The results should be short and sweet. Do not say "It is clearly evident from Fig. 1 that bird species richness
increased with habitat complexity". Say instead "Bird species richness increased with habitat complexity (Fig. 1)".
However, don't be too concise. Readers cannot be expected to extract important trends from the data unaided. Few
will bother. Combine the use of text, tables and figures to condense data and highlight trends. In doing so be sure to
refer to the guidelines for preparing tables and figures below.
In the discussion you should discuss what principles have been established or reinforced; what generalisations can
be drawn; how your findings compare to the findings of others or to expectations based on previous work; and
whether there are any theoretical/practical implications of your work.
When you address these questions, it is crucial that your discussion rests firmly on the evidence presented in the
results section. Refer briefly to your results to support your discussion statements. Do not extend your conclusions
beyond those that are directly supported by your results.
A brief paragraph of speculation about what your results may mean in a general sense is usually acceptable, but
should not form the bulk of the discussion. Be sure to address the objectives of the study in the discussion and to
discuss the significance of the results. Don't leave the reader thinking "So what?" End the discussion with a short
summary or conclusion regarding the significance of the work.
Whenever you draw upon information contained in another paper, you must acknowledge the source. All references
to the literature must be followed immediately by an indication of the source of the information that is referenced, for
example, "A drop in dissolved oxygen under similar conditions has been demonstrated before (Norris, l986)."
If two authors are involved, include both surnames in this reference. However if more authors are involved, you may
use 'et al', an abbreviation of Latin meaning 'and others'. In general you should not use the abbreviation in the full
reference at the end of the article, although some journals permit this. If two more articles written by the same author
in the same year are cited, most journals ask you to add suffixes 'a', 'b' etc in both the text and the reference list.
If you include in your report phrases, sentences or paragraphs repeated verbatim from the literature, it is not sufficient
to simply cite the source. You must include the material in quotes and you must give the number of the page from
which the quote was lifted. For example: "Day (l979: 3l) reports a result where '33.3% of the mice used in this
experiment were cured by the test drug; 33.3% of the test population were unaffected by the drug and remained in a
moribund condition; the third mouse got away'".
A list of references ordered alphabetically by author's surname, or by number, depending on the publication, must be
provided at the end of your paper. The reference list should contain all references cited in the text but no more.
Include with each reference details of the author, year of publication, title of article, name of journal or book and place
of publication of books, volume and page numbers.