Top 5 Tips for Journalists when Dealing with Science and Scientists

Posted by on Oct 28, 2011 in News | No Comments

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How do you find a scientist?

“It’s Dr. Evil, I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called “mister,” thank you very much.”

Dealing with science and scientists has been an important part of my work whilst covering environmental issues over the past few years in China. Virtually every story I have investigated and covered began with reading the research of scientists working on the subject matter and/or in the location I intended to visit. Many scientists have been key to my research and without their input, much of my work wouldn’t of been possible.

I studied science at University, Zoology to be exact, so became quite familiar with many aspects of research and the scientific method. Not all of us studied science however and sometimes dealing with science and/or scientists can seem somewhat daunting. Researching the latest studies and/or news coming from scientific circles however is really one of the first things you should do, to get a thorough grounding of the current level of understanding of the topic you have decided to cover. This applies if you are covering environmental issues, medical or social.

So, to try to help you bridge that gap, here are my top 5 tips for dealing with science and scientists when researching a potential story….

1. Where to Start? So, you have a great story idea, you’ve identified some potential subjects but before you go anywhere you want to learn what the latest scientific research on the matter is. Where to start? Your first stop should be popular scientific magazines such as Nature, Science and Scientific American. These magazines are written for the educated layman and lay out all the latest happenings in the world of science. Do a quick search on their websites and see if anything comes up related to your subject matter.

2. Dig A Little Deeper – So you’ve found an article in one of the science magazines related to the subject matter you are interested in. Great! What next? Let’s dig a little deeper. Perhaps there is a specific piece of research that is quoted in the article that you’d like to know more about. Invariably that research will have come from a scientific paper. This is a document that has been produced by a scientist or group of scientists, outlining their investigation, experiments and findings. To find a specific scientific paper, go to websites such as PubMed, JournalReview.org and eMedicine. This will allow you to search for and locate the papers written by the scientists themselves.

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Create a 'buzz'?!…*tumbleweed*

3. How to Read a Scientific Paper – Opening up a scientific paper for the first time can be a bit daunting. There is normally a vast amount of information. Where to start? First, it’s important to know that the average scientific paper is broken into the following parts: Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results and Discussion. As a rule, start with the abstract. This is normally a paragraph or two highlighting the main hypotheses, methodology and findings of the paper. It’s not like a novel where you have to wait for the end to see ‘who dunnit’. You can read the abstract and get all the main points of the ‘story’. Want to learn more? Next head to the introduction if you are a little unfamiliar with the subject matter. Want even more? Get an in-depth look into the investigation by reading the Results and Discussions. If you want to find out what sized test tubes the scientists were using, finally check the materials and methods.

4. Don’t be Scared to Get in Touch – So, you have found a paper you are interested in, or have found the name of a scientist whose research you would like to learn more about. Get in touch. Normally, it is as easy as a quick Google search. Virtually all scientists are affiliated to a University or research institute that can easily be found on the web. If you have the scientific research paper, the lead author of the paper normally has their email address listed on the paper itself. The majority of scientists I have approached have always been more than happy to talk about their work. If you should want to meet them in person, or conduct an interview, make sure you….see no. 5.

5. Do your Homework – Before you contact the scientist, make sure you do your homework. You do not have to have read every word of every paper they have ever written, but at least be familiar with the major points they have covered and the general consensus of opinion amongst their peers on the subject matter at hand. Prepare your list of questions ahead-of-time and make them relevant. Scientists won’t expect you to be an expert in the field (otherwise you wouldn’t be contacting them) but will expect you to be up to speed to a basic level.

I hope these basic pointers help. Just writing this post has made me think of many more things I’d like to share with you in order to help you when dealing with science and scientists. Watch this space for more posts on this subject matter. Feedback is of course always welcome!

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