Saturday, 18 August 2012

Where do science writers get their ideas?

I’m a week into a month-long placement in a science journalism office made up of real journalists and me – a research scientist who is rapidly learning a new respect for those who write about science in a professional capacity. In the past, I know I’ve Googled ‘where do science journalists get their ideas’ and ‘how to write about science’ and ‘what does it mean when your tongue goes green’, and this post touches on at least two of the above. Only from the point of view of someone who isn’t a professional journalist and doesn’t fully know what they are talking about. Tomorrow I will be giving advice on how to do brain surgery.

But first on to the results of my knowledge-leech/journalist-stalking behaviour...

So where do science writers get their ideas?
  • Embargoed papers from the big journals which are available a few days before the papers are published. Science, Nature and PNAS are the only ones I've seen so far and a huge majority of the covered papers seem to originate in these journals. Even then, maybe only one per issue will be interesting enough to cover.
  • Daily press releases from Eurekalert and other sources, which are again journalist only resources (I couldn't even register with Eurekalert because I am a working scientist and therefore deemed unworthy/untrustworthy to access embargoed papers). These lists include press releases for papers and important reports and, from what I've seen, contain a lot of dreck as well as the interesting stuff.
  • Keeping an eye on the news for disease outbreaks, natural disasters, pharma company share prices, takeovers, policy info, funding announcements, politicians saying silly things about science, and many other things I am yet to fully grasp. Everyone seems to have their own area of particular interest.
  • Blogs written by scientists or industry insiders can often turn up mentions of new developments in the field, or point out areas that would be worth thinking about. 
  • Conferences can be a good source of soon to be published work and ideas, although some aren't open to journalists. 
  • Then there are the connections journalists build up with scientists or companies, or pet subjects they've been watching for years writing for the right paper to come along. A few times, I've heard someone mention a scientist emailing them in quite a non-scientisty bout of self-promotion.
  • Finally, there's trawling through next tier down journals for recently released papers that didn't send out press releases and have slipped under the radar. This is harder as generally the really world-changing stuff goes into the super-journals but I did manage to find one really interesting paper and was allowed to write a 120-word summary of it, which was cool.

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