Matt Shipman is a public information officer at North Carolina State University, where he writes about everything from forensic entomology to computer malware. He previously worked as a reporter and editor in the Washington, D.C. area for Inside EPA, Water Policy Report and Risk Policy Report, where he covered the nexus of science, politics and policy. He blogs about NC State research at The Abstract, and you can follow him on Twitter where he is @ShipLives.
On March 13, the Royal Institution held a debate about the coverage of science in the media, asking whether scientists and journalists need different things from science. You can read the nature.com Communities team write-up and Storify of the tweets about the event here. While the event took place in London, it was followed online by a large (and vocal) group of scientists, science writers and others interested in how science is communicated. One of the questions that came up was whether reporters should read the scientific papers related to the story that they are covering.
The vast majority of responses can be summed up thus: “Yes.”
I agree that it would be great if reporters read all the papers they wrote about. However, I also think it is both wildly optimistic and very unrealistic to expect most journalists to do so. After all, the odds are excellent that the journalist would not be able to understand what they’re reading anyway.
To be clear: I’m not writing this to defend the practice of not reading papers. I am also not advocating that reporters should avoid reading papers. Rather, I’m hoping to explain why many reporters will either not read a paper, or will read a paper but not understand it (or worse, misunderstand it).
There are some reporters who are able to make a living writing about a specific field of study, whether it’s astrophysics or paleontology. But for most reporters, making a living means writing about whatever subject your editor assigns to you. Or, for freelancers, whatever story you can sell. That could mean writing about astrophysics and paleontology. And materials science. And entomology. And that’s just this week.
Researchers spend years learning the ins and outs of their fields, mastering a jargon that is beyond the ken of those outside their specific fields of study. Most reporters do not have that luxury.
This is where most scientists – and many science writers – chime in: “Stop!” you say. “We didn’t say it was easy. But how can you write about a paper you haven’t even read? That makes no sense. You’d just be making stuff up! You MUST rely on the primary literature.”
To which I say: Yes, it would be better if all journalists could read and understand every paper they write about. But, since they can’t, should we give up hope?
I don’t think so.
Full disclosure (and this will not shock you): I am not a scientist, I was not a science major, and while I try to read journal articles, I often don’t understand what I’m reading. It may be clear prose to you, but it’s a shibboleth to me (and if you don’t know what a shibboleth is, you’ll know how I feel when I read phrases like “rectification using multiheterojunction”).
Still, somehow, I’ve made a living writing about science (directly or indirectly) for 14 years. And I’ve never had to run a correction related to the scientific content I’ve written about. How is that possible, if I don’t understand the papers? Easy. I ask questions. A lot of questions. “What questions were you trying to answer with this research? Why? What was your methodology? What were the key findings? What new questions did this research this raise?” And every time I don’t understand the answer, I ask them to explain it.
In a sense, the researchers act as translators, walking me through the paper step by step. This sort of dialogue is essential for any non-expert (like me) who wants to write about a paper. It allows me to understand the content and context of the research in the paper, even though I don’t understand the lexicon used in the paper itself.
All that said, I do think reporters should try to read the papers they’re writing about. Once in a while, they’re actually written in prose that is accessible to the lay reader (or at least the abstract is). This is true for institutional science writers/public information officers (PIOs) too.
For example, a friend of mine is a PIO at a well-regarded university who writes research-oriented news releases (and, no, this is not a thinly-veiled reference to myself). A while back he was reading a paper and noticed that at least one of the statements in the “discussion” section of a paper was at odds with the data itself. When he mentioned it to the researchers, he found that he was right – and the mistake had somehow been missed by the authors, reviewers and journal editors.
When he was telling me this, he said, “This is another reason why [PIOs] should always read – and make sure they understand – studies” that they write about. I’ll meet him halfway. I think science writers – reporters and PIOs – should always understand the studies they write about. I just don’t think reading the paper always helps that much.