Science can easily be misreported, especially for the wilder headline seeking claims. How can a good science article be structured? Can “good science” be rendered bad from poor reporting or, more seriously, can “bad science” be presented as credible through poor reporting? The answer is yes — especially with the latter as countless articles claiming to have found the cure for cancer or encouraging people to eat a probiotic yogurt or munch on pomegranate seeds in order to cure all manner of ills would testify.
One problem with science is its often slow progress, incremental findings, and occasional contradictions. As science blogger David Berreby has written recently, a concern with science is “there are many experiments, some of which contradict each other, some of which don't reproduce or are reinterpreted to mean something other than what their originators intended. With three steps forward and two back and one sideways, usually, with serious people saying we're marching in the wrong direction, science moves along.”
Taking this into account, there are three main types of science story:
With these issues in mind, it’s still possible to write about science in a meaningful and engaging way.
My top tips for good science writing are:
1. Be skeptical of things that claim to be “new.” Things that are “new” are either not so new since there are other studies having covered similar ground; or the research really is so new that no one else has attempted it and the results are therefore not reproducible.
2. Avoid, if possible, research that has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Papers submitted to conferences are the only exception since these will subject to rigorous debate.
3. Always cite the original science paper. Press releases, even research briefs, are full of headline-grabbing stuff but they are often produced by universities or government bodies, seeking to get the story to a media outlet. Sometimes they exaggerate the scientific findings and sometimes they misrepresent it. A key reason being is they are often written by PR people and not the authors of the paper.
4. If there’s a chance for a primary source, like a direct quote from a researcher, then take it – it helps put the findings into context.
5. Look out for related news and parallel studies; that adds an extra interest to the research being reported and shows its wider application. This can help, given the true significance of most research won’t often be known for several years.
6. If you are writing about science and you think the results or findings (or the interpretation) is questionable, then say so. Don’t simply reproduce “poor science” in an unquestioning way.
7. See if there were any vested interests with the research, such as who funded it. Sometimes this can ‘influence’ the direction of the research.
8. Treat the reader with respect.
In terms of where to go, some general news websites are better for science coverage than others and are better at presenting science stories in a more factually accurate way. Examples include BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, Scientific America, New Scientist and Wired.
To add to this, science journalism is not only about the "latest science," it can also be about “bad science” or scientific fraud. One good writer is Ed Yong, who runs investigative reports in the magazine Science.
There are also, occasionally, science scams. Sometimes this is the case of "Chinese whispers," where one journalist misinterprets a story and others repeat it; another way is when false information is put out to see how many journalists run with it. Here caution is required.
One classic example is with an invented material called "boimate." The foodstuff was said to be a mix of tomatoes and beef, put out as a joke by New Scientist. The story about the food was run by several reputable periodicals. Another scam is with fake journals, with slightly misspelled names.
A more recent example was the hoax that chocolate was good for your health. This was invented by John Bohannon, who set up a fake open access journal and website. The aim was to see how many websites and magazines ran with the story, without critically appraising it. Incidentally, Digital Journal didn't fall for the trick and we wrote our own review of what had taken place.
In terms of approaching a science article, try to:
1. Summarize what the research is about early on.
2. Avoid jargon where possible – science has a conspicuously compact and jargon-laden language. If technical terms are required, attempt to define them otherwise the reader’s interest will be lost.
3. Then go into detail about the research – what method was used. Use occasional metaphors and analogies, if this helps.
4. Then explain the significance of the research, without this the research won’t mean much to the reader and it becomes an article about ‘science research for science’s sake.’ Here it is important to try to bridge the gap between scientific research and people’s everyday lives.
5. If there is more than one point of view, to represent this were applicable.
6. Discuss any future applications, including where the research may go next.
7. Link to the research paper or conference proceedings.
8. Mention any related research likely to be of interest to the reader.
One question that is useful to keep in the forefront is "How can I sum up this topic in just one or two sentences that will make audiences want to read more?"
If you haven’t written a science article and want to try it, hopefully, these tips and ideas will be of benefit.
Writing about a key scientific discovery (e.g. a bionic fingertip);
A story an intriguing or controversial scientist (like James Watson);
A scientific subject or concept that can be shown in process (e.g. fighting cancer with nanoparticles).
1. Summarize what the research is about early on.