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How to write a science news story based on a research paper
Most journalists want to break exclusives, but a lot of what science journalists write is neccesarily based on the latest research findings, published for all the world to see in academic journals. Exclusive they are not. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to write a great news story that takes the contents of a research paper as its starting point. Here are some guidelines.
1. Find a good paper
Thousands of scientific papers are published each week. The majority will not make good news stories. Look for work that is entertaining, fascinating, important or controversial. Ask yourself: will anyone care? Be brutal about this. Move on if the answer is no.
You cannot cover a paper properly without reading it. The abstract will give the barest essentials. You need to read the introduction for context, the discussion and conclusions for take-home messages. Check the methods. Was the experiment well designed? Was it large enough to draw conclusions from? Find weaknesses and flaws. You will probably need help to work out how fatal they are. Spend time on the results. Have the authors omitted key data? Look at odds ratios, error bars, fitted curves and statistical significances. Are the results robust? Do they back up the scientists' conclusions? Remember: nematodes, fruit flies and mice are not humans, and what happens in a Petri dish won't neccesarily happen in a person. Read the supplementary material too. You will find gems.
3. Vested interests
Check for conflicts of interest. These should be declared at the end of the paper, but make your own checks too. Plenty of scientists have financial links with companies. The reader might want to know about them.
4. Get context
Science builds on science. Know the previous studies that matter so you can paint a fuller picture. If your story is about chimps in Guinea using cleavers and anvils, you might mention the different tools that chimps in the Republic of Congo use for termite fishing.
5. Interview the authors
Write from the paper alone and your news story will be dull. Interviews with authors will give you the colour to tell a story. How did the face transplant patient react when they looked in the mirror? What possessed the authors to study spiders on cocaine? How did it feel to unearth the remnants of an ancient hearth, knowing a Neanderthal sat in the same spot 40,000 years ago?
Get them to explain their results and justify their conclusions. What do the results mean in plain English? What do they not mean? Ask your questions in simple language to get answers you can quote. Run phrases you might use past the authors, so they can warn you of howlers. Do not ask multi-part questions: you will not get full answers.
Remember that papers can take months to appear in journals, so find out how the work has moved on since the work was submitted.
Think about whom you want to interview. First authors are generally the graduate students or postdocs who did all the work. Last authors are often senior scientists. On a good day, a senior author will give you the clearest explanation, the perfect quote, and the richest context. On a bad day, they will have no recollection of the paper their name appears on.
6. Get other scientists' opinions
Send the paper to a handful of experts to check. You will find people in the paper's references, or on Google Scholar . Chat about the paper on the phone. Some scientists will email you thick paragraphs of reaction. You might salvage a sentence or two, but email makes for clunky quotes: people do not speak the way they write. Ask your expert if the work looks sound or flakey. What does it add? What is the striking result? Will it be controversial? What fresh questions does it raise? Comments from other scientists will always improve your story. They will also save you from writing a story you wish you had never touched.
7. Find the top line
You've read the paper, interviewed the authors and discussed the work with other experts. Now you need to find the top line. One option is what drew you to the paper in the first place. But there will be others. Go over your interviews. What stood out as most fascinating, alarming, amusing, or important? Does it make for a stronger angle? Bear in mind that the story you should tell your readers might not be the story the authors want you to tell your readers.
8. Remember whom you are writing for
The reader may be clever and curious about the world. But do not assume they are a scientist, or that they have time to read boring, unimportant or incoherent stories. Make your story clear and informed. Science is hard enough, so use simple words. Do not patronise the reader. Respect them and be honest. Make them glad they read you.
9. Be right
Don't write a story that is wrong. This is harder than it sounds. Most scientific papers are wrong, thanks to poor study designs, author biases, small sample sizes and other problems. So don't make things worse by introducing errors of your own. Check everything. Mistakes leave readers confused and misinformed. They will undermine your credibility too. Call a shrew a rodent and your soricid story is ruined.
10. Write well
Reporters often pick the same papers to cover. Why should anyone read you? You must have something to add. Make an effort to get the details that readers want to know. And learn how to write well. Find a clear path through the story and build one paragraph after another in logical order. Stick to one idea for each paragraph. Read Strunk and White until you can hear them tutting as your type. Even the shortest stories can be memorable in the hands of a good writer.
Speak to the authors and get independent comment from scientists in the same field. Get your facts straight.
Patronise your readers. Mistake fruit flies, mice or Petri dishes for people.
Click here to enter the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize , in association with the Guardian and the Observer. The closing date for entries is 11 May 2014
Coming up in this series:
- Science writing prize
- Secrets of good science writing
Black death skeletons reveal pitiful life of 14th-century Londoners
How to avoid common mistakes in science writing
How to create a successful science blog
Dwarf planet discovery hints at a hidden Super Earth in solar system
How to write a science feature
Talk to me! Top tips for conducting interviews with scientists
Children's hyperactivity 'is not a real disease', says US expert
Kidnapped stars, Martian frost and the Rotten Egg Nebula – in pictures
Science Weekly Science Weekly podcast: how to rebuild our world from scratch
Comments (…), most viewed.
Image: Stella Lohnap interviewing a science student at Nasarawa State University, Keffi in Nigeria.
How to write simple science news stories
- Before your start to write simple science news, make sure you understand the information.
- Even the biggest news outlets write simple science news.
- ‘Simple’ means the story can be understood easily.
It can be difficult to write simple science news stories. Complex ideas must be ‘translated’ into plain and simple text. Studies that have taken years to conduct must also be synthesised down into punchy, short sentences. For a science journalist, these can be tricky challenges to navigate.
Simple science tip: Keep your audience in mind
It is important when you write simple science news to keep your audience in mind. Be mindful that most people do not study science after school – or the level at which it is compulsory. So, readers might not be familiar with scientific terms. For those who did study a field of science, they might not be familiar with the technical language of different fields.
Joseph Pulitzer, who is often considered the grandfather of journalism, had simplicity in mind when he said:
“ Put it before them so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light. ”
Simple science tip: Make sure you understand the information
Complexity creeps into science stories when writers are unclear about the science itself. So, before your start to write simple science news, make sure you understand the information.
As we say in the Script course, you can only translate what you have understood . Make sure you have done your background reading and relevant research before starting to write a science story. Talk to scientists to gain knowledge around the subject. Keep asking questions until you understand the issues clearly before ‘translating’ it into news.
Simple science tip: Use a simple outline
To write simple science news stories, it helps to create a simple outline before you start. The oldest and most used structure in news is the inverted pyramid. This is where you start with the most important facts first. Try fitting as many of the who, what, why, when and how in the first sentence or paragraph as possible.
Then follow with the next most important facts, and then the next. Keep going until you have covered the main points of your story but aim to keep the story as short as possible. Most news stories are between 500-800 words.
To learn more about the inverted pyramid , see the Science communication skills for journalists Script course.
Simple science tip: Use simple language
When writing write simple science news it is vital to use simple language. when writing a science news story. In our online Script course , we explain how the goal of a journalist is to collect information from various sources, package it accurately and transmit it to their audience.
The audience receives the information through a medium – a written article, a podcast or a video. They then interpret that information and act upon it. Any barrier along this chain such as complex jargon or technical language acts as a hurdle to this process. It can disrupt clear communication as well as any goals you might have from the story.
Keep in mind that you will be communicating through your story with non-specialists. Avoid using jargon. Replace it with everyday phrases and words. For example, a CNN story used the phrase “remnants of the virus” instead of “RNA fragments”.
Explain technical terms if you must use them. the International Journalists’ Network created this handy list of medical terms that you are likely to come across when reporting on COVID-19. It can help you in interpreting and simplifying the terms.
And finally …
Even the biggest news outlets write simple science news. It might surprise you to learn that many news outlets write to a reading age of around 12. If you are unsure whether your writing is simple enough, use readability checkers like Readable . They give reading age scores that give an indication of how difficult your writing is to read and understand.
And remember that simple does not mean simplistic. As we point out in the Script course, ‘ simple’ means the story can be understood easily . ‘Simplistic’ means it is not thorough. A thorough story can use simple language if it presents information and views from multiple sources, interprets the facts and explains the likely outcomes.
You might also like
- How to simplify science: for science journalists
- How to report scientific findings
- How to report from lab visits and field trips
- How to become a star science journalist
- A Publication of the Council of Science Editors
How—and Why—to Write a Science News Release
Researchers write journal articles to share information about what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it. But those articles are only able to impart that information if people read them. The role of a news release, in this context, is to raise awareness of a new discovery via established news media outlets (even if that discovery is a negative result). Put in more practical terms, the role of the news release is to get reporters interested in writing about new research findings, with the resulting news stories letting a much broader potential audience know that the related journal article exists. So, whether you are a journal editor, a researcher whose work is being highlighted, or someone tasked with writing science news releases, it is important to understand how these releases are developed.
Why Science News Releases Matter
Historically, news releases have been written with the primary goal of getting reporters to write about a given subject. A news release about scientific research cannot fully convey all of the details in a journal article, but it can give reporters a concise overview of the work and place it in context. Ideally, this allows reporters to decide whether they want to read the relevant journal article(s), interview researchers and third-party experts, and do all of the other things necessary to write a news story about the work. This makes news releases useful.
One reason this is of particular relevance to the research community is because news coverage of research findings appears to boost citations of the relevant journal article. It is impossible to both issue a news release for a research finding and not issue a news release for a research finding, so it is impossible to generate experimental evidence that news coverage causes an increase in citations. However, there is sufficient evidence of a correlation between media coverage and citation rates to suggest that such a relationship exists. 1,2
News releases are also worth paying attention to because they can shape the way media outlets cover research findings. For example, there is ample evidence that exaggerations in news releases about health-related research findings are reflected in subsequent news stories about those findings—underscoring the importance of accurate news releases that place new findings in the appropriate context. 3,4
Lastly, science news releases are important because a wide variety of media outlets no longer rely on journalism. Rather, these outlets simply compile and republish news releases written by research institutions or other organizations. And many of these media outlets, such as ScienceDaily and Phys.org, are read by millions of people every month. In other words, news releases are no longer read solely by reporters; they are read by a wide audience. This places additional emphasis on the need to portray research findings accurately and in context. In short, you can no longer assume that your news release will serve as the starting point for a well-reported news story; it’s entirely possible that the news release will be the news story.
Now that we know why news releases are worth writing, let’s focus on how to write them.
The first step in writing a science news release is deciding what to write about. Sometimes the person tasked with writing news releases works for a research institution, sometimes they work for a journal. They may have a background in journalism, or the sciences, or both. They may (or may not) have a background in relevant research fields. But regardless of one’s professional background, before you can decide which research findings to write about, you need to know what you are trying to accomplish and who your audience is. There are no hard and fast rules for deciding what to write about—you have to understand what your organization’s goals are and who the organization wants the new release to reach.
For example, if you are writing the news release on behalf of a journal, you may ultimately be trying to reach that journal’s core audience with the goal of getting them to read the relevant article. If you are writing for a research institution, your audience may be funding agencies, peer institutions or the private sector. As the writer, your goals could be anything from highlighting your employer’s position as an innovator, their role as a practical problem solver, or that your employer is a bastion of fundamental science.
Once you have some idea of what you are trying to accomplish, and the audience you need to reach to accomplish it, you can make informed decisions about the research you want to highlight through a news release.
Once you know what you want to write about, you need to read the journal article and talk to the research team. Odds are excellent that the science writer preparing the news release lacks the relevant expertise to understand all of the technical details in the article, but it should at least give you a general overview of what the researchers did, why they did it, and what they learned. However, there is ample opportunity for the person writing the release to misunderstand the work, which is why talking to the research team is crucial.
Regardless of how well you think you understood the paper, ask researchers to explain to you what question or challenge they were setting out to address and why. Ask them what they think the key findings are and why. Ask them whether anything surprised them—and why. You need to walk away from that conversation not only understanding what they learned and how they learned it, but how to place that work in context. What questions did this work answer? What questions does it raise? Does it have any applications? How far removed are those applications from practical use? Was it an observational study, an experimental study, or a study that relied solely on computational models? If it’s related to human health, how far removed is the work from clinical trials? Is it something that would cost a jillion dollars to implement?
In short, as a news release writer, you need to be insatiably curious not only about the work but about how the work fits into the world around us. Don’t stop asking questions until you have a fairly clear idea of what the story you want to tell in the news release will look like.
Writing the Science News Release
The hardest part of writing a news release is usually either writing the headline or writing the first paragraph (also called the “lede”).
The headline should be concise, catchy, and intellectually honest. This is not always easy, but it is worth the effort to come up with a headline that meets those criteria. You cannot mislead people—honesty is essential. But if the headline is boring or unwieldy, the vast majority of people will read no further.
The lede is equally important. Tim Radford, former science editor for The Guardian, once wrote: “There are many ways to begin a story. And finding the right opening line can make writing the rest of the story much easier. Finding the right opening line is also important if you want the reader to keep reading.” 5
The lede must tell readers what’s interesting about the story and why you’re telling them about it now. You do not want to overstate the findings you are writing about, but you also do not have room to include all of the qualifiers that are often associated with research findings. So, for example, you absolutely do not want to say that there was a “cancer breakthrough.” You also wouldn’t want the lede to use terms like “oncogenic pathways” or “lymphotropic virus-1.” Instead, you might say that a study sheds new light on how some viruses interact with their human hosts on a molecular level, and how that can increase the risk of some cancers. It’s not horribly specific, but it lets people know what you’re talking about right away, as well as why they might be interested. The rest of the release will flesh out some of the details.
However, the rest of the release will only flesh out some of the details. A news release is not a thorough recap of the entire journal article itself—that would be both far too long and much too detailed for most of the people reading the release. Instead, the news release should highlight what is interesting and important about the work and place the work in context for the reader. People who want to dive into all of the technical aspects raised in the journal article should read the journal article. (This applies to reporters who may want to cover the work, members of the research community, and anyone else who is curious about the details.)
Here are some of the things you’ll likely want to include in the body of the release:
- an overview of the question or challenge that researchers were setting out to address;
- a concise description of the findings;
- why the findings are important (fleshing out what you wrote in the lede);
- the methods used in the study;
- the study’s limitations (be honest!);
- future directions for the research;
- the names and affiliations of the researchers;
- where the work is published (including a link to journal article); and
- if applicable, who provided funding for the research.
(Note: this list is paraphrased from Shipman. 6 )
In addition, the body of the news release should usually include at least 1 quote from someone on the research team. A quote not only provides insight into the researcher’s perspective, it lets reporters know that the researcher is capable of talking about the work in an accessible way.
A key issue when writing a science news release is that your reader needs to understand what you are saying. This does not mean that you have to avoid using jargon or technical terms. Jargon can be immensely valuable since it often allows you to convey a great deal of information in 1 short word or phrase. However, if you do use jargon, you have to define it. For example, if there’s a technical term for a key concept that you will be referencing repeatedly in the body of the news release, it may be useful to define the term early in the release. It could be as simple as including a sentence in the second or third paragraph that begins “At issue is a phenomenon known as [X], which is…”. Having done that, you can then use the term X in the remainder of the release without confusing your reader.
The last issue I’ll single out here is how long a news release should be. I used to think a news release should not exceed 500 words in length, because the conventional wisdom was that writing for online audiences had to be short. I no longer believe that. In my experience, the length of a piece is less important than what the release has to say. In other words, a news release should be as long as it needs to be—say what you need to say and then stop. If you write 1,000 words that are compelling and keep the reader’s attention, it is not too long. If you write 400 words, but lose the reader’s interest, it is too long.
Review and Editing
Once you’ve completed a first draft of the release, standard practice is to share it with the researchers who did the relevant work. This gives them an opportunity to identify anything that is technically incorrect. It also gives them an opportunity to highlight anything in the release they feel has been placed out of context, over- or under-emphasized and so on. Ultimately, you want the researchers to feel comfortable with how you are presenting them and their work.
However, while it is critical to address any concerns the researchers have, it is also important that the release remain accessible to nonexpert audiences. If the researchers want to rely solely on technical language and inaccessible jargon, then the news release serves no purpose. The goal of the release is to help people get a broad understanding of what is interesting or important about the work. It bears repeating that readers who want all of the technical details can refer to the journal article.
Once you’ve incorporated any necessary revisions from the researchers, it’s time to edit the release. Broadly speaking, editing should ensure that the release is highlighting the key points and can be easily understood. In addition, the copyediting process identifies any punctuation or grammatical errors. Ideally, editing would be done by a third party. However, depending on the size of the organization drafting the release, there may not be another writer/editor on staff.
Once the release has been written, revised, and edited, you need to decide how to distribute it.
Generally, whatever organization wrote the release will publish it on the relevant organizational website, such as their newsroom site. The organization will also likely send the release to a mailing list of reporters who have a track record of covering related topics. Professional communicators at the relevant organization may also want to reach out to reporters individually to let them know about the relevant findings and provide a link to the news release in case reporters are interested in learning more. Organizations, or the researchers themselves, can also share the news release with any relevant funding agencies, who may amplify the release by resharing it through their own channels. Lastly, the release can also be posted on a variety of news release distribution sites such as EurekAlert, AlphaGalileo, or Newswise. These news release distribution sites do help organizations reach an audience of reporters. But they also serve as a way to feed research items to news aggregation sites, such as ScienceDaily or Phys.org, which amplify the reach of the news with the general public.
This is a concise overview of how to go about crafting a news release about research findings, but most of the rules here should be viewed more as guidelines. Yes, a news release must be honest and accurate about the research—that is nonnegotiable. On the other points, there is often room to maneuver. For example, you can use more technical language when writing about work that may be of interest almost exclusively to news outlets that focus on discipline-specific audiences. And it is okay to have fun with the subject, as long as the researchers are on board and you keep your target audiences in mind. (I once wrote a headline about forensic research that included the phrase “Hips Don’t Lie,” if that tells you anything.) Ultimately, if done well, news releases are a useful tool for raising the visibility of scientific discovery with all types of people. And in an increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas, there is very real value in that.
References and Links
- Phillips DP, Kanter EJ, Bednarczyk B, et al. Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community. N Engl J Med. 1991;352:1180–1183. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM199110173251620
- Kiernan V. Diffusion of news about research. Sci Comm. 2003;25:3–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547003255297
- Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7015
- Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, et al. Exaggerations and caveats in press releases and health-related science news. PLoS ONE. 2016;11:e0168217. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0168217
- Radford T. A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists. Guardian. 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2011/jan/19/manifesto-simple-scribe-commandments-journalists
- Shipman WM. Handbook for science public information officers. Chicago University Press; 2015.
Matt Shipman is Assistant Director of Research Communications, University Communications, NC State University.
Opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of the Council of Science Editors or the Editorial Board of Science Editor.
- Feb 15, 2022
- 10 min read
How to publish your first science news article (and get paid for it)
As a researcher, we spend a lot of time online.
Whether we’re looking for peer-reviewed papers, updating our LinkedIn or ResearchGate profile or simply browsing through the latest science news – exploring the world wide web is just a click away.
I bet you’ve seen these headlines on a daily basis: “How Minecraft is helping children with autism make new friends”, “Scientists deliberately gave people COVID — here’s what they learnt”.
Deep inside, a lot of us wish we could publish one of those news articles, and we just can’t help but click on it to learn more. Part of it, I think, is the lure of learning something amazing. And in the back of your brain, you’re probably wondering if you could ever write something like that! Maybe, just maybe, about your own research!
But few scientists or PhD students ever dare to venture into the realms of science news publishing.
I am one of those scientists. During my PhD I ventured into the realms of science news writing, and never looked back. Today, 10 years and 400 articles later, I still spend most of my time writing science and health news stories. Long and short, complex and plain. A bit of everything.
Below I share a few pearls of wisdom that I picked along the way.
To write or not to write
When I started writing science news articles, I had one golden rule: I write for money or glory. But early on I discovered that all the top journals and news outlets are the same ones that pay, so you get both glory and dough!
In practice when I started writing, I always aimed for the best news outlets I could find. I would avoid anyone offering me 0.10 cents per word, or $20 for a 1,000-word article. Yes, that’s what some news outlets pay their writers.
Unfortunately, I’m sure many writers agree to these terms. But, you don’t have to. With a bit of work, you can get your story published, and get a decent, well-deserved, rate. In my mind I don’t bother writing for less than 0.50 cents per word, unless it is a major journal or outlet, and they are inviting me to write a cover story (Remember… glory). Here’s a website with some examples of what magazines pay their writers, and here’s another . If you google a bit, I’m sure you’ll find more examples.
There are thousands of science news website, I presume. I don’t know, I haven’t counted them. But, I’m sure there are a lot of them, so there’s a lot to choose from. Not all of them pay well, some target small audiences, some are very niche. In some cases, I’m sure you could easily publish your article. In others, it could take months before your pitch gets accepted. But for me, the most important thing is that you learn something out of the experience.
That’s where writing for a top news outlet is the way to go.
But, as scary as this might look, this is good… this is what you need, this is how you learn…
You need to find the one website, or magazine, that publishes stories on topics you like. Mind you, you don’t need to be an expert on those topics. It’s enough if you like it. As a scientist, you have (or should have) the gift of researching which entails, of course, finding stuff in the web.
Once you found a news website you like, write to the editor. Personally, I always try to find out the name of the Editor in Chief, I find their email somehow, and write to them asking if they work with freelancers. That’s the first step. If they don’t, don’t waste your time.
Once you’ve found a magazine or website on topics you like and confirmed from the editor that they work with freelancers (and pay a fair rate), you have one foot through the door.
Now you need to focus on the next big step: the pitch.
There are pitches and pitches
The pitch is the single most important group of words you will ever write to an editor. The pitch will decide if you are seen as a clever writer, or as too much of a newbie, who is just wasting their time.
OK, so what’s a pitch, anyway?
The pitch is how you sell your story. Assuming you are aiming for a short (under 500 words) news story based on a single research study, a pitch should be around 2-3 paragraphs, and should explain:
What your story is about
Why it is cool (important, relevant, etc)
Why they should publish it NOW
Why you are the best person to write it
If you can’t summarise everything in 2-3 paragraphs, you’ll need to go back and work on your writing skills. If you need some inspiration, have a look at The Open Notebook. This is a great resource for aspiring and current science writers, with everything from a list of 255 pitches , to a myriad of articles on different topics aimed at helping you in your path to science journalism. Fun to read and you may learn something too.
OK, but where do you find ideas?
Click here for your exclusive science news idea
Much like highly coveted treasure, a good story idea is hard to find. Unfortunately, there isn’t a secret website where you can find a list of stories your editor will love. At least not when you’re just getting started.
But, I can say this: it gets easier with time, to the point that you can have a successful pitch with just a 1 line email.
Now I won’t sugarcoat things – this only happens once you are an established writer with that particular magazine and editor. Eventually, the editor may even send YOU ideas… yes, that happens too.
But, for a new freelance science writer, life is tough. You need to find a good piece of research that is published where no one has seen it yet. On top of this, the research must be interesting, with sexy findings that at least some people will care about, and, it must be good science too. Maybe a good place to start is your own research, or that from colleagues. Just be sure to ask first if it is OK to pitch it for a news story. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not.
Avoid these places like the plague (initially)
First off, here’s a list of places where you shouldn’t waste your time searching for story ideas:
1. Most press releases from major institutions.
2. Research articles from Nature, Science, PNAS or any other big shooter.
3. Already published science news stories.
Basically, to get your pitch accepted, you need to beat established science writers, staff science writer and the editor.
Let’s imagine you want to publish a story through New Scientist – one of the world’s biggest outlets of science news. If you are pitching a story for these guys, you should know this:
New Scientist staff work full-time looking for new stories.
They already know about all the big research articles coming up in journals like Science, Nature, PLoS, The Lancet, PNAS, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and many others.
They also receive regular updates from Eureka Alert or Australia’s SciMex ., which contains upcoming and current research papers from a wide range of journals, big and small.
Bear in mind that Eureka Alert and all major journals send so-called ‘embargoed content’ of their top upcoming publications to a long list of journalists. Yes, including the staff at New Scientist.
So, if you’ve found a cool story about the world’s first flying spider, be sure that New Scientist is already working on it. Aim to publish it on the very hour the actual research goes online.
Once you have started publishing news article you can join these services and receive all the cool embargoed content they offer. It’s fun to read. Not very useful for pitching stories, but fun to read.
So, how do I find new ideas to pitch?
OK, back to you and how to find your first good idea (that no one else knows about).
My first tip is to build a research feed. I use a tool called Feedly . All you need to do is find a journal’s RSS feed and copy the link into Feedly. Feedly will then show you any new articles published by that journal. Simple. I have over a thousand journals listed there, and I receive daily updates of any new research.
The truth is that there are thousands of research articles published every week that no one knows about from journals you never knew existed.
Back in the day, some of my favourite journals were on animal behaviour. In journals like “Behavioral Ecology”, I found this little story about a tiny thrip that builds a house out of bits of acacia trees. Or “African Journal of Ecology”, where I found a story about how carnivores also enjoy a midnight snack of sugary flower nectar . Just by looking through my feed every day (several times a day) I found lots of cool little stories like these that went on to become a news article in Science, New Scientist, or other outlets.
My second tip is to find conference websites and look through the poster presentations and talks. Then, I would contact the authors and ask about their research. If you’re lucky, their work is about to get published and is not getting any attention from media officers.
Then, talk to people!
Don’t be shy. Email researchers and ask about their work and any upcoming publications. You never know, and in the process, you’re building your network. By the way, you should start building a network, like on LinkedIn. Connect with researchers, editors from magazines, and some journalists too.
So, you know where to look, but, who is listening?
Now that you have your database of journals, and a bunch of ideas in your mind, you need to think about one very important question:
Who is your target audience?
That’s whoever is going to read your article, hopefully. This could be a scientist, a PhD student, a cook, a lawyer, or anyone really. But, it all depends on the magazine or website you are aiming for. Once you answer this question, you will be more prepared to identify that great idea that will make up an engaging story.
So, if you are hoping to write a story for New Scientist, how do you know who the target audience is? Just read their guidelines!
“In general, we are looking for science and technology stories from around the world that will intrigue, entertain and inform the widest possible audience, be they physicists, biologists or people with no science background at all.”
So, you know where to look, and who is listening, but what ARE you looking for?
OK, so if you are still thinking on pitching for New Scientist, now you need to ask what is it they and their audience are looking for?
If you keep reading their guidelines, you’ll get your answer.
“We cover fascinating bits of pure science with no possible application as well as high-impact stories such as weapons technology and the psychology of terrorism. Besides reporting the latest research, we also try to find interesting scientific or technological angles on major news events.”
If you keep reading, you will find even more details about the types of stories they are looking for, and littles bits of advice. So, read on, and remember what you read. Make a list of the key points, so you ensure you are on the right path.
In my experience, for any science news outlet there are a few topics that editors like and always fare well. Any stories involving sex, chocolate, weird or quirky animals, beer or wine, food, poop, and, did I mention sex? Anything involving weird sexual things animals (or humans) do is a big seller. Of course, nowadays anything COVID would also be a big seller, but beware, everyone else is also looking for COVID stories…
Again, it all depends on your audience and your target website. When I used to pitch for Australian Geographic, I had to find something with a strong Australian angle like a new species of dolphin or whatever animal, or some new cave art found in the outback. But, when I pitched to National Geographic, I had to think globally, like how elephants use their trunk to do some amazing feats , or how some ancient dino poop reveals secrets from the past .
However, if you try to write for The Lancet, or Nature Medicine, you need to get acquainted with their audience, read several of their recent news article and do a lot of homework to find that one topic they haven’t covered which they might find interesting.
That being said, in my experience, I always find it useful to simply ask.
Dear Editor: what’s in your mind?
Whenever I want to write for a new magazine or website, I never EVER just write to whatever email they give and tell you to write. I always write to the Editor in Chief first. I introduce myself, send my portfolio, and ask what sort of stories they’re looking for. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, that’s all I need, and the editor will even propose a topic for a story. But most of the time, the editor will reply with some suggestions of what topics tickle their bone.
That’s a start.
But, go easy on this new contact, don’t start sending ideas like crazy, MULTIPLE times per day. I did that once, and it didn’t end well. Luckily, I had a patient editor who nicely told me to stop sending him 10 pitches per day, to think more carefully about the ideas and work harder on the pitch. All good words of advice. Quality over quantity.
In terms of words of advice, I can add this: build a solid professional relationship with the editors of your target journals, do good work for them and always be on time with your stories.
Once you’ve got your pitch accepted, you did it! You are in! Mostly. Now you just need to write the article.
This is, like they say, “a whole other chimichanga”, and would take a whole other blog post to talk about how to turn your first accepted pitch into a nice article. But, this also depends on the magazine or website you are writing for, AND the length of the story, AND how many experts comments you need, AND what angle you want. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…
My best advice is for you to carefully read previous stories from the websites or magazines you are writing for and try your best to copy their style and format. Then, have someone read your piece before submitting it to the editor. This is really helpful. We are very bad editors of our own work.
Finally, if you are interested in making the jump into science writing, but still have questions, I have created a LinkedIn group , which you are welcome to join!
You can post your ideas, pitches and article drafts and I can provide some quick feedback.
Just quick feedback!
Dr Karl Gruber
Dr Tullio Rossi
Dr Juan Miguel Balbin
7 Reasons Why You Should Write A Media Release For Your New Paper
5 Must-Read Science Communication Books
How to promote your research in the media with a video abstract
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- Int J Sports Phys Ther
- v.7(5); 2012 Oct
HOW TO WRITE A SCIENTIFIC ARTICLE
Barbara j. hoogenboom.
1 Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
Robert C. Manske
2 University of Wichita, Wichita, KS, USA
Successful production of a written product for submission to a peer‐reviewed scientific journal requires substantial effort. Such an effort can be maximized by following a few simple suggestions when composing/creating the product for submission. By following some suggested guidelines and avoiding common errors, the process can be streamlined and success realized for even beginning/novice authors as they negotiate the publication process. The purpose of this invited commentary is to offer practical suggestions for achieving success when writing and submitting manuscripts to The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy and other professional journals.
“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking” Albert Einstein
Conducting scientific and clinical research is only the beginning of the scholarship of discovery. In order for the results of research to be accessible to other professionals and have a potential effect on the greater scientific community, it must be written and published. Most clinical and scientific discovery is published in peer‐reviewed journals, which are those that utilize a process by which an author's peers, or experts in the content area, evaluate the manuscript. Following this review the manuscript is recommended for publication, revision or rejection. It is the rigor of this review process that makes scientific journals the primary source of new information that impacts clinical decision‐making and practice. 1 , 2
The task of writing a scientific paper and submitting it to a journal for publication is a time‐consuming and often daunting task. 3 , 4 Barriers to effective writing include lack of experience, poor writing habits, writing anxiety, unfamiliarity with the requirements of scholarly writing, lack of confidence in writing ability, fear of failure, and resistance to feedback. 5 However, the very process of writing can be a helpful tool for promoting the process of scientific thinking, 6 , 7 and effective writing skills allow professionals to participate in broader scientific conversations. Furthermore, peer review manuscript publication systems requiring these technical writing skills can be developed and improved with practice. 8 Having an understanding of the process and structure used to produce a peer‐reviewed publication will surely improve the likelihood that a submitted manuscript will result in a successful publication.
Clear communication of the findings of research is essential to the growth and development of science 3 and professional practice. The culmination of the publication process provides not only satisfaction for the researcher and protection of intellectual property, but also the important function of dissemination of research results, new ideas, and alternate thought; which ultimately facilitates scholarly discourse. In short, publication of scientific papers is one way to advance evidence‐based practice in many disciplines, including sports physical therapy. Failure to publish important findings significantly diminishes the potential impact that those findings may have on clinical practice. 9
BASICS OF MANUSCRIPT PREPARATION & GENERAL WRITING TIPS
To begin it might be interesting to learn why reviewers accept manuscripts! Reviewers consider the following five criteria to be the most important in decisions about whether to accept manuscripts for publication: 1) the importance, timeliness, relevance, and prevalence of the problem addressed; 2) the quality of the writing style (i.e., that it is well‐written, clear, straightforward, easy to follow, and logical); 3) the study design applied (i.e., that the design was appropriate, rigorous, and comprehensive); 4) the degree to which the literature review was thoughtful, focused, and up‐to‐date; and 5) the use of a sufficiently large sample. 10 For these statements to be true there are also reasons that reviewers reject manuscripts. The following are the top five reasons for rejecting papers: 1) inappropriate, incomplete, or insufficiently described statistics; 2) over‐interpretation of results; 3) use of inappropriate, suboptimal, or insufficiently described populations or instruments; 4) small or biased samples; and 5) text that is poorly written or difficult to follow. 10 , 11 With these reasons for acceptance or rejection in mind, it is time to review basics and general writing tips to be used when performing manuscript preparation.
“Begin with the end in mind” . When you begin writing about your research, begin with a specific target journal in mind. 12 Every scientific journal should have specific lists of manuscript categories that are preferred for their readership. The IJSPT seeks to provide readership with current information to enhance the practice of sports physical therapy. Therefore the manuscript categories accepted by IJSPT include: Original research; Systematic reviews of literature; Clinical commentary and Current concept reviews; Case reports; Clinical suggestions and unique practice techniques; and Technical notes. Once a decision has been made to write a manuscript, compose an outline that complies with the requirements of the target submission journal and has each of the suggested sections. This means carefully checking the submission criteria and preparing your paper in the exact format of the journal to which you intend to submit. Be thoughtful about the distinction between content (what you are reporting) and structure (where it goes in the manuscript). Poor placement of content confuses the reader (reviewer) and may cause misinterpretation of content. 3 , 5
It may be helpful to follow the IMRaD format for writing scientific manuscripts. This acronym stands for the sections contained within the article: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Each of these areas of the manuscript will be addressed in this commentary.
Many accomplished authors write their results first, followed by an introduction and discussion, in an attempt to “stay true” to their results and not stray into additional areas. Typically the last two portions to be written are the conclusion and the abstract.
The ability to accurately describe ideas, protocols/procedures, and outcomes are the pillars of scientific writing . Accurate and clear expression of your thoughts and research information should be the primary goal of scientific writing. 12 Remember that accuracy and clarity are even more important when trying to get complicated ideas across. Contain your literature review, ideas, and discussions to your topic, theme, model, review, commentary, or case. Avoid vague terminology and too much prose. Use short rather than long sentences. If jargon has to be utilized keep it to a minimum and explain the terms you do use clearly. 13
Write with a measure of formality, using scientific language and avoiding conjunctions, slang, and discipline or regionally specific nomenclature or terms (e.g. exercise nicknames). For example, replace the term “Monster walks” with “closed‐chain hip abduction with elastic resistance around the thighs”. You may later refer to the exercise as “also known as Monster walks” if you desire.
Avoid first person language and instead write using third person language. Some journals do not ascribe to this requirement, and allow first person references, however, IJSPT prefers use of third person. For example, replace “We determined that…” with “The authors determined that….”.
For novice writers, it is really helpful to seek a reading mentor that will help you pre‐read your submission. Problems such as improper use of grammar, tense, and spelling are often a cause of rejection by reviewers. Despite the content of the study these easily fixed errors suggest that the authors created the manuscript with less thought leading reviewers to think that the manuscript may also potentially have erroneous findings as well. A review from a second set of trained eyes will often catch these errors missed by the original authors. If English is not your first language, the editorial staff at IJSPT suggests that you consult with someone with the relevant expertise to give you guidance on English writing conventions, verb tense, and grammar. Excellent writing in English is hard, even for those of us for whom it is our first language!
Use figures and graphics to your advantage . ‐ Consider the use of graphic/figure representation of data and important procedures or exercises. Tables should be able to stand alone and be completely understandable at a quick glance. Understanding a table should not require careful review of the manuscript! Figures dramatically enhance the graphic appeal of a scientific paper. Many formats for graphic presentation are acceptable, including graphs, charts, tables, and pictures or videos. Photographs should be clear, free of clutter or extraneous background distractions and be taken with models wearing simple clothing. Color photographs are preferred. Digital figures (Scans or existing files as well as new photographs) must be at least 300dpi. All photographs should be provided as separate files (jpeg or tif preferred) and not be embedded in the paper. Quality and clarity of figures are essential for reproduction purposes and should be considered before taking images for the manuscript.
A video of an exercise or procedure speaks a thousand words. Please consider using short video clips as descriptive additions to your paper. They will be placed on the IJSPT website and accompany your paper. The video clips must be submitted in MPEG‐1, MPEG‐2, Quicktime (.mov), or Audio/Video Interface (.avi) formats. Maximum cumulative length of videos is 5 minutes. Each video segment may not exceed 50 MB, and each video clip must be saved as a separate file and clearly identified. Formulate descriptive figure/video and Table/chart/graph titles and place them on a figure legend document. Carefully consider placement of, naming of, and location of figures. It makes the job of the editors much easier!
Avoid Plagiarism and inadvertent lack of citations. Finally, use citations to your benefit. Cite frequently in order to avoid any plagiarism. The bottom line: If it is not your original idea, give credit where credit is due . When using direct quotations, provide not only the number of the citation, but the page where the quote was found. All citations should appear in text as a superscripted number followed by punctuation. It is the authors' responsibility to fully ensure all references are cited in completed form, in an accurate location. Please carefully follow the instructions for citations and check that all references in your reference list are cited in the paper and that all citations in the paper appear correctly in the reference list. Please go to IJSPT submission guidelines for full information on the format for citations.
Sometimes written as an afterthought, the abstract is of extreme importance as in many instances this section is what is initially previewed by readership to determine if the remainder of the article is worth reading. This is the authors opportunity to draw the reader into the study and entice them to read the rest of the article. The abstract is a summary of the article or study written in 3 rd person allowing the readers to get a quick glance of what the contents of the article include. Writing an abstract is rather challenging as being brief, accurate and concise are requisite. The headings and structure for an abstract are usually provided in the instructions for authors. In some instances, the abstract may change slightly pending content revisions required during the peer review process. Therefore it often works well to complete this portion of the manuscript last. Remember the abstract should be able to stand alone and should be as succinct as possible. 14
Introduction and Review of Literature
The introduction is one of the more difficult portions of the manuscript to write. Past studies are used to set the stage or provide the reader with information regarding the necessity of the represented project. For an introduction to work properly, the reader must feel that the research question is clear, concise, and worthy of study.
A competent introduction should include at least four key concepts: 1) significance of the topic, 2) the information gap in the available literature associated with the topic, 3) a literature review in support of the key questions, 4) subsequently developed purposes/objectives and hypotheses. 9
When constructing a review of the literature, be attentive to “sticking” or “staying true” to your topic at hand. Don't reach or include too broad of a literature review. For example, do not include extraneous information about performance or prevention if your research does not actually address those things. The literature review of a scientific paper is not an exhaustive review of all available knowledge in a given field of study. That type of thorough review should be left to review articles or textbook chapters. Throughout the introduction (and later in the discussion!) remind yourself that a paper, existing evidence, or results of a paper cannot draw conclusions, demonstrate, describe, or make judgments, only PEOPLE (authors) can. “The evidence demonstrates that” should be stated, “Smith and Jones, demonstrated that….”
Conclude your introduction with a solid statement of your purpose(s) and your hypothesis(es), as appropriate. The purpose and objectives should clearly relate to the information gap associated with the given manuscript topic discussed earlier in the introduction section. This may seem repetitive, but it actually is helpful to ensure the reader clearly sees the evolution, importance, and critical aspects of the study at hand See Table 1 for examples of well‐stated purposes.
Examples of well-stated purposes by submission type.
The methods section should clearly describe the specific design of the study and provide clear and concise description of the procedures that were performed. The purpose of sufficient detail in the methods section is so that an appropriately trained person would be able to replicate your experiments. 15 There should be complete transparency when describing the study. To assist in writing and manuscript preparation there are several checklists or guidelines that are available on the IJSPT website. The CONSORT guidelines can be used when developing and reporting a randomized controlled trial. 16 The STARD checklist was developed for designing a diagnostic accuracy study. 17 The PRISMA checklist was developed for use when performing a meta‐analyses or systematic review. 18 A clear methods section should contain the following information: 1) the population and equipment used in the study, 2) how the population and equipment were prepared and what was done during the study, 3) the protocol used, 4) the outcomes and how they were measured, 5) the methods used for data analysis. Initially a brief paragraph should explain the overall procedures and study design. Within this first paragraph there is generally a description of inclusion and exclusion criteria which help the reader understand the population used. Paragraphs that follow should describe in more detail the procedures followed for the study. A clear description of how data was gathered is also helpful. For example were data gathered prospectively or retrospectively? Who if anyone was blinded, and where and when was the actual data collected?
Although it is a good idea for the authors to have justification and a rationale for their procedures, these should be saved for inclusion into the discussion section, not to be discussed in the methods section. However, occasionally studies supporting components of the methods section such as reliability of tests, or validation of outcome measures may be included in the methods section.
The final portion of the methods section will include the statistical methods used to analyze the data. 19 This does not mean that the actual results should be discussed in the methods section, as they have an entire section of their own!
Most scientific journals support the need for all projects involving humans or animals to have up‐to‐date documentation of ethical approval. 20 The methods section should include a clear statement that the researchers have obtained approval from an appropriate institutional review board.
Results, Discussion, and Conclusions
In most journals the results section is separate from the discussion section. It is important that you clearly distinguish your results from your discussion. The results section should describe the results only. The discussion section should put those results into a broader context. Report your results neutrally, as you “found them”. Again, be thoughtful about content and structure. Think carefully about where content is placed in the overall structure of your paper. It is not appropriate to bring up additional results, not discussed in the results section, in the discussion. All results must first be described/presented and then discussed. Thus, the discussion should not simply be a repeat of the results section. Carefully discuss where your information is similar or different from other published evidence and why this might be so. What was different in methods or analysis, what was similar?
As previously stated, stick to your topic at hand, and do not overstretch your discussion! One of the major pitfalls in writing the discussion section is overstating the significance of your findings 4 or making very strong statements. For example, it is better to say: “Findings of the current study support….” or “these findings suggest…” than, “Findings of the current study prove that…” or “this means that….”. Maintain a sense of humbleness, as nothing is without question in the outcomes of any type of research, in any discipline! Use words like “possibly”, “likely” or “suggests” to soften findings. 12
Do not discuss extraneous ideas, concepts, or information not covered by your topic/paper/commentary. Be sure to carefully address all relevant results, not just the statistically significant ones or the ones that support your hypotheses. When you must resort to speculation or opinion, be certain to state that up front using phrases such as “we therefore speculate” or “in the authors' opinion”.
Remember, just as in the introduction and literature review, evidence or results cannot draw conclusions, just as previously stated, only people, scientists, researchers, and authors can!
Finish with a concise, 3‐5 sentence conclusion paragraph. This is not just a restatement of your results, rather is comprised of some final, summative statements that reflect the flow and outcomes of the entire paper. Do not include speculative statements or additional material; however, based upon your findings a statement about potential changes in clinical practice or future research opportunities can be provided here.
Writing for publication can be a challenging yet satisfying endeavor. The ability to examine, relate, and interlink evidence, as well as to provide a peer‐reviewed, disseminated product of your research labors can be rewarding. A few suggestions have been offered in this commentary that may assist the novice or the developing writer to attempt, polish, and perfect their approach to scholarly writing.
InterSECT Job Simulations
Interactive Simulation Exercises for Career Transitions
Science Journalism: Writing a General Audience Article
Communicate scientific findings to a general audience on behalf of an organization..
As a science writer in a public relations role, your job is to promote novel and exciting scientific findings on behalf of your employing organization ( e.g. , an academic university, scientific corporation, scientific publishers, granting agencies). A primary goal is to promote the research in question. This differs from science journalism, which objectively interprets and critiques the findings. Good science writing represents the researchers’ work fairly, while also detailing the motivations, complications, and viewpoints of the researchers themselves. Toward this end, a science writer translates newsworthy research conducted at their institution into an article that is interesting and easily digestible for a general audience.
- Keep your ears open for interesting news, though sometimes the researchers themselves will come to you in the hopes of promoting their work. Or, a higher-up in the organization may bring you a story they wish you to write about.
- Interview several people involved in the process, not just the principal investigator. Ask questions that will improve your understanding of the work, the timeline of notable events ( e.g., obstacles and breakthroughs), and how the research fits in the broader context of the field.
- Write the article, with special focus on telling a compelling story, using language suitable for lay-people, and fairly representing the science.
- The article is then typically reviewed by the researchers and an editor before publication.
Find a primary source article that you believe to be newsworthy from your institution or organization, and write a 2-3 paragraph, general audience synopsis. Make sure to promote the work, developing both how it fits into the broader field and its ‘real-world’ applicable value.
For this role, you are a science writer.
Task 1 – Choose a topic
Choose a scientific topic to write about that is close to your own interests, but still appealing to an average person. Pick a particular article about which you would like to write.
Task 2 – Write a hook
Think about how to transform this article into a product suitable for the general public. It is critical to catch readers’ attention immediately. Humans are drawn to stories, so it is often advisable to write in a narrative arc, bolstering the research itself with a behind-the-scenes perspective of different people involved in the project. Think about how to generate readers’ interest by highlighting the implications of the study, noting how the research will affect people and the scientific field, or perhaps by posing a mystery or controversy the research addresses.
For the purpose of this job simulation, it may be unlikely that you have access to the individual’s perspective (unless you want to really go above-and-beyond and contact the researchers directly).
Task 3: Write the article
The approximate length of most science writing publications can range from 600-1500 words, but in the interest of time you should aim for 300-600 words. The article should clearly achieve the following:
- Has a concise, informative, and ideally eye-catching title.
- Grabs readers’ attention early on by setting up the article in an intriguing way. You could do this, for example, by highlighting a controversy the findings speak to, directly relating the work to the reader’s personal life, or offering the promise of a solution to, or avoidance of, a common problem.
- Communicates the work completely yet concisely, in that important details are included and irrelevant details are omitted. Your reader should not be left with begging questions or an inaccurate understanding of the research. However, your article also shouldn’t be so encumbered with details that reading is a chore.
- Is interesting enough to keep your readers until the end of the article, where there should be a satisfying conclusion. Your article should end by tying the work to the bigger picture and making well-grounded (as opposed to overly grandiose) claims. To accomplish this, the ending often (but not always) ties back to the beginning of the article, where you generated interest and highlighted the research’s importance.
The final product should be an abbreviated article that is 2-4 paragraphs; 300-600 words.
General resources to help you get going
- A helpful article about writing to the general public by American Scientist : Tips for Scientists Writing for the General Public .
- Primary sources may need to be accessed through a database with a paid subscription ( e.g., PubMed, PsychInfo, ScienceDirect), so you may have to visit your local library or university.
- For examples of published science writing, find Science and Technology articles published by your organization, such as The Source by Washington University in St. Louis. You may also look to well-known magazines, for instance in the United States, you might look into Wired , American Scientist , or Scientific American .
Skills used to perform this task
- Good eye and ear for newsworthy research.
- Being ‘in-touch’ with your audience. Knowing what interests your audience and how to relate to them.
- Ability to convey complicated concepts simply, without stripping the work of its nuances and implications for both the general public and the scientific community.
- Storytelling skills.
- Knowledge of the mechanics and technical skills of writing (e.g., grammar, syntax).
Skills used in a science writing career
- Balancing the needs and wants of the researchers with those of the organization’s marketing and communications team.
- Having good interpersonal skills and a strong backbone—you may find yourself in situations where you must tell a researcher that their work isn’t actually newsworthy, without burning bridges or injuring egos along the way.
- A passion for science in general, and the ability to understand fields outside your own area of expertise. This simulation allows you to choose your topic; in many cases this is may not be true. As a science writer, you may find yourself writing and learning about topics that you may not care about or understand very well.
You are viewing a job simulation. To get started, set up SMART Goals to perform this simulation in a reasonable timeline. If you have completed the task, fill out the Self-Reflection Sheet .
Simulation author: Francis T. Anderson, PhD candidate in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
Simulation vetted by professionals from Washington University in St. Louis and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO.
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How science news does science journalism.
Science News has been publishing award-winning science journalism for nearly a century. Our standards and processes are essential to what we do, and we believe they should be as transparent and accessible as the stories we publish.
We created this FAQ to answer your questions about what goes into our journalism. Take a look, and if you have more questions or suggestions, let’s start a conversation. Write to us at [email protected] .
- Covering research in scientific journals
- Editorial processes
- Editorial standards
What does Science News write about?
We write about science, medicine and technology broadly, including new findings and techniques, surprising statistics and the latest science trends.
Who writes for Science News?
- About Science News
- Science News Staff
- Frequently Asked Questions
Most of our writers specialize in a particular area of science. Here are their bios . Our staff combines experience in scientific research — many writers have Ph.D.s or other degrees in areas related to the topics they write about — and in journalism. Those skills help us gather, critically assess and present information. We also work with freelancers who have experience writing about scientific topics.
Where does Science News get ideas for stories?
Story ideas can come from anywhere, but here are a few methods we often use:
- Reading studies in scientific journals, including widely known ones such as Science and Nature and journals focused on specific areas of science
- Attending scientific conferences to learn about new developments
- Exploring the science behind topics of interest to readers and the general public
- Scanning the news for opportunities to explain science related to current events
- Talking with scientists, policy makers and the public
- Monitoring the latest developments in a field of science to spot trends
COVERING RESEARCH IN SCIENTIFIC JOURNALS
How does science news judge the quality of a study appearing in a scientific journal.
We evaluate the size of a study, including the number of participants or the amount of data collected, and assess whether the data presented match the researchers’ interpretations. We typically consult experts who were not involved in the research. When claims of statistical significance are made, we gauge whether what’s statistically true is likely to have any real-world relevance — and, in some cases, verify a paper’s statistical analyses with statisticians. We also interview scientists whose work is referenced in a study to ensure that the work is being represented and interpreted accurately, and consider how many lines of evidence support the conclusions.
When and how does Science News report on research that hasn’t been peer-reviewed?
Research studies are often evaluated by other scientists to determine if they are good enough to be published in a journal. Peer reviewers examine the experimental design, methods and statistics for scientific rigor. Reviewers also evaluate the conclusions to see if data support the claims made. This review is meant to maintain standards in the field and to determine if the scientific claims are sound and novel.
But research may be newsworthy even if it hasn’t yet been scrutinized by peer reviewers. When we cover research that hasn’t been peer-reviewed — such as scientific findings that are presented at a conference or a research paper made available at arXiv.org, bioRxiv.org or on another “preprint” server — we approach it with extra care and might consult more outside experts than we otherwise would.
Often there is little difference, if any, between the paper posted to a preprint site and what appears in a journal after peer review, but sometimes the changes are substantial. When covering work that hasn’t been peer-reviewed, writers may ask researchers what sort of feedback they’ve gotten from others in the community and how much is likely to change in a future peer-review process. When covering research presented at meetings, writers try to gauge how far from publication a finding is and what major questions remain to be answered. Sometimes we don’t write about hot new studies because they are too preliminary. Other times we may write about a preliminary finding because its implications are striking.
Why do Science News stories use words like “could,” “may” and “suggests” when talking about scientific results?
Every scientific finding has caveats, limitations and alternate explanations. Our writers and editors use terms such as “suggests” or “could” when a finding is not yet certain. These terms reflect the fact that scientific research is an ongoing process. Rarely does one single study fully answer a scientific question. Science News writers and editors work hard to place the findings of each new study in context.
How do press embargoes affect our coverage?
The embargo is a mandate that forbids a news organization from publishing a story about a given topic until a certain time. Publishers of scientific journals, PR agencies and institutions use embargoes to control when news is released to journalists and the public. Embargoes explain why you may see many news outlets publish stories on the same research at the same time. Institutions will often send press releases or release scientific papers to journalists a few days in advance under embargo, in hopes that the research will get press coverage. An embargo gives us more time to report on that research and pull together an accurate story.
Who do Science News writers interview for a story?
Our writers look broadly for sources to interview for stories, including authors of scientific papers, experts whose work is cited in a research paper, trusted contacts cultivated over years of reporting, recommendations from other experts and online searches. We also talk to people who aren’t scientists, including policy makers, patients, industry leaders and people whose lives are affected by new developments in science, technology and medicine.
When writing about a scientific study, why does Science News quote people who aren’t involved in the research?
Interviewing outside experts who weren’t involved directly in the research can provide an independent assessment of various aspects of the work. Outside experts can put a study into context, give perspective on a study’s importance and point out potential strengths and weaknesses of the work.
How does Science News evaluate sources?
Our writers try to find subject-matter experts who can provide accurate and up-to-date information. Writers and editors check sources’ institutional affiliations, their publications and sometimes social media. We ask sources about personal biases or financial conflicts that readers should know about and generally avoid sources who might have conflicts of interest.
What’s the editing and production process at science news.
Getting a story ready for publication is an all-staff effort. For shorter news stories, at least one content editor sees a story before publication. Editors work to ensure that the news and context are clear and that important details are included and accurate. The design director and assistant art directors choose and edit photos, videos and infographics to accompany stories, or create those visuals. The web production and social media team craft headlines, put the stories online and come up with posts for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
For longer features, as well as in-depth infographics and videos, the editing process can take weeks to months. The first draft of a feature article is reviewed by multiple editors as well as the design and web production teams, so they can begin planning images or other media to accompany the story.
How does Science News find and evaluate images, videos and other multimedia?
Images, videos and other multimedia powerfully convey scientific concepts. We often use media produced by outside sources, including research institutions, scientific journals, researchers and stock photo agencies. Our design team researches visual options and checks to make sure they are accurate and that we have complied with all licensing requirements, including crediting the source of the image. Our design team also commissions original illustrations, graphics, photography and video – or creates those visuals.
Are all science news stories fact-checked.
Due to time constraints, news stories published online do not regularly go through a distinct fact-checking process. Editors do perform some fact-checking duties, such as checking names, affiliations and numbers for accuracy, along with looking for logical inconsistencies, and writers check their facts as well. Feature stories are fact-checked before they are posted online. And online news stories that later appear in the print magazine are fact-checked before they are published in print.
What is the fact-checking process at Science News?
Science News has two staff members who fact-check content, and we also rely on freelance fact-checkers. Fact-checkers do their best to confirm the accuracy of all parts of a story, including headlines, photo captions and credits, data that appear in graphs or charts and the raw data behind any visualizations or interactives. The fact-checkers use materials provided by the writer, including research papers, websites and interview notes or transcripts; they also perform independent research. Our fact-checkers do not call sources to check the quotes used in a story.
Do people quoted in an article get to see the article and their quotes before publication?
It’s the responsibility of writers to ensure the accuracy of quotes. Writers often return to a source to check facts, but sources are not allowed to review articles prior to publication. This is standard journalistic practice to maintain independence and editorial integrity.
When and how does Science News issue corrections?
We publish corrections for factual errors as well as any misleading or mischaracterizing statements. It is up to the writer and editors to verify a mistake and determine how the story should be changed to correct the error. When an online story is updated, an editor’s note at the end of the story indicates what text has been fixed and for what reason, as well as the date of the change. For a story that has appeared in print, the correction typically appears on the Feedback page of the earliest print issue after the error is identified.
What is editorial independence, and how does science news maintain it.
Editorial independence is the freedom of editors and writers at a news organization to report and write about topics at will, without an external party’s involvement. At Science News, no institution, government body, scientist or other entity, including our publisher, the Society for Science , determines what we write about, nor are we paid to write about (or not write about) certain stories. We publish stories only on what we find newsworthy. You can learn more about our editorial independence on our About page .
How does Science News manage potential conflicts of interest?
We try to avoid conflicts of interest whenever possible. However, when such conflicts are unavoidable, we disclose them to our readers. For example, when we cover the work of a scientist who has a relationship with our parent organization, such as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society for Science , we say so in the story.
How does Science News cover controversial aspects of science?
We focus on data and facts, and we note when there are limitations or caveats in research findings. If we publish opinion or commentary, we label it clearly.
Science News doesn’t present “both sides” of an issue when there is a clear scientific consensus. For issues such as the age of the Earth, the process of evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines and the dangers of human-caused climate change, for example, Science News will report well-established science, regardless of disagreements in popular opinion.
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How to write a press release
A press release is a short summary of your research. Journalists often use press releases when deciding to write a news article on recent scientific research. Although some science journalists are scientists, they are unlikely to be experts in every area that they cover. Therefore, a press release should be clear, concise, engaging and — most importantly — accurate.
The press release should be accessible to nonexpert readers. Try looking through published press releases for inspiration — archived press releases can be found at news services such as EurekAlert and AlphaGalileo or on institutions’ and journals’ websites.
Below are the key elements of a press release.
Keep it short and enticing and use the active voice. Avoid including too much scientific detail in the title. For example, “Cancer cells communicate through a new molecular messenger” is a better option than “Microvesicle-derived microRNAs are important for intercellular signaling in tumorigenesis.”
This three–four sentence paragraph should include who (the authors), what (the main finding), when (journal and date of publication), and why (relevance). Again, use the active voice and avoid scientific jargon. The first paragraph should be a stand-alone snapshot of the research.
The rest of the press release should contextualize and provide additional information about the finding. Why is it exciting or unexpected? Nitty-gritty experimental details should be left out in favor of describing how the finding advances scientific knowledge, reinforces a key idea or provides a new method. Importantly, however, the finding must not be overhyped or oversold. A brief quotation from a researcher involved in the work or from a colleague familiar with the importance of the finding also can be included, but be sure that they agree to be quoted.
Remember to include contact information for the corresponding author, including their name, email, phone number and institution. Provide information for accessing the original paper, such as a URL or DOI.
If the press release will be sent while the paper is under embargo, note the date and time that the embargo will be lifted.
Go ahead, brag a little
Learn how to work with your institution’s communicators and with reporters to tell the world about your research.
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- Press Releases
- Photonics Focus
10 Simple Steps to Writing a Scientific Paper
At any given time, Andrea Armani ’s lab at the University of Southern California has up to 15 PhD students, a couple of postdocs, nine undergrads, and an occasional high school student, all busy developing new materials for diagnostic and telecommunications devices.
When conducting scientific research, Armani believes it’s important to test a hypothesis—not prove it. She recruits students who are willing to adopt that “testing” mentality, and are excited to explore the unknown. “I want them to push themselves a little bit, push the field a little bit, and not be afraid to fail,” she says. “And, know that even if they fail, they can still learn something from it.”
Armani often coaches students through the process of writing their first scientific paper. Her 10-step formula for writing a scientific paper could be useful to anyone who has concluded a study and feels the dread of the blank page looming.
1. Write a Vision Statement
What is the key message of your paper? Be able to articulate it in one sentence, because it's a sentence you'll come back to a few times throughout the paper. Think of your paper as a press release: what would the subhead be? If you can't articulate the key discovery or accomplishment in a single sentence, then you're not ready to write a paper.
The vision statement should guide your next important decision: where are you submitting? Every journal has a different style and ordering of sections. Making this decision before you write a single word will save you a lot of time later on. Once you choose a journal, check the website for requirements with regards to formatting, length limits, and figures.
2. Don't Start at the Beginning
Logically, it makes sense to start a paper with the abstract, or, at least, the introduction. Don't. You often end up telling a completely different story than the one you thought you were going to tell. If you start with the introduction, by the time everything else is written, you will likely have to rewrite both sections.
3. Storyboard the Figures
Figures are the best place to start, because they form the backbone of your paper. Unlike you, the reader hasn't been living this research for a year or more. So, the first figure should inspire them to want to learn about your discovery.
A classic organizational approach used by writers is "storyboarding" where all figures are laid out on boards. This can be done using software like PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote. One approach is to put the vision statement on the first slide, and all of your results on subsequent slides. To start, simply include all data, without concern for order or importance. Subsequent passes can evaluate consolidation of data sets (e.g., forming panel figures) and relative importance (e.g., main text vs. supplement). The figures should be arranged in a logical order to support your hypothesis statement. Notably, this order may or may not be the order in which you took the data. If you're missing data, it should become obvious at this point.
4. Write the Methods Section
Of all the sections, the methods section is simultaneously the easiest and the most important section to write accurately. Any results in your paper should be replicable based on the methods section, so if you've developed an entirely new experimental method, write it out in excruciating detail, including setup, controls, and protocols, also manufacturers and part numbers, if appropriate. If you're building on a previous study, there's no need to repeat all of those details; that's what references are for.
One common mistake when writing a methods section is the inclusion of results. The methods section is simply a record of what you did.
The methods section is one example of where knowing the journal is important. Some journals integrate the methods section in between the introduction and the results; other journals place the methods section at the end of the article. Depending on the location of the methods section, the contents of the results and discussion section may vary slightly.
5. Write the Results and Discussion Section
In a few journals, results and discussion are separate sections. However, the trend is to merge these two sections. This section should form the bulk of your paper-by storyboarding your figures, you already have an outline!
A good place to start is to write a few paragraphs about each figure, explaining: 1. the result (this should be void of interpretation), 2. the relevance of the result to your hypothesis statement (interpretation is beginning to appear), and 3. the relevance to the field (this is completely your opinion). Whenever possible, you should be quantitative and specific, especially when comparing to prior work. Additionally, any experimental errors should be calculated and error bars should be included on experimental results along with replicate analysis.
You can use this section to help readers understand how your research fits in the context of other ongoing work and explain how your study adds to the body of knowledge. This section should smoothly transition into the conclusion.
6. Write the Conclusion
In the conclusion, summarize everything you have already written. Emphasize the most important findings from your study and restate why they matter. State what you learned and end with the most important thing you want the reader to take away from the paper-again, your vision statement. From the conclusion, a reader should be able to understand the gist of your whole study, including your results and their significance.
7. Now Write the Introduction
The introduction sets the stage for your article. If it was a fictional story, the introduction would be the exposition, where the characters, setting, time period, and main conflict are introduced.
Scientific papers follow a similar formula. The introduction gives a view of your research from 30,000 feet: it defines the problem in the context of a larger field; it reviews what other research groups have done to move forward on the problem (the literature review); and it lays out your hypothesis, which may include your expectations about what the study will contribute to the body of knowledge. The majority of your references will be located in the introduction.
8. Assemble References
The first thing that any new writer should do is pick a good electronic reference manager. There are many free ones available, but often research groups (or PIs) have a favorite one. Editing will be easier if everyone is using the same manager.
References serve multiple roles in a manuscript:
1) To enable a reader to get more detailed information on a topic that has been previously published. For example: "The device was fabricated using a standard method." You need to reference that method. One common mistake is to reference a paper that doesn't contain the protocol, resulting in readers being sent down a virtual rabbit hole in search of the protocol.
2) To support statements that are not common knowledge or may be contentious. For example: "Previous work has shown that vanilla is better than chocolate." You need a reference here. Frequently, there are several papers that could be used, and it is up to you to choose.
3) To recognize others working in the field, such as those who came before you and laid the groundwork for your work as well as more recent discoveries. The selection of these papers is where you need to be particularly conscientious. Don't get in the habit of citing the same couple of papers from the same couple of groups. New papers are published every day-literally. You need to make sure that your references include both foundational papers as well as recent works.
9. Write the Abstract
The abstract is the elevator pitch for your article. Most abstracts are 150–300 words, which translates to approximately 10–20 sentences. Like any good pitch, it should describe the importance of the field, the challenge that your research addresses, how your research solves the challenge, and its potential future impact. It should include any key quantitative metrics. It is important to remember that abstracts are included in search engine results.
10. The Title Comes Last
The title should capture the essence of the paper. If someone was interested in your topic, what phrase or keywords would they type into a search engine? Make sure those words are included in your title.
Andrea Martin Armani is an SPIE Fellow and the Ray Irani Chair in Engineering and Materials Science and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.