Scientists and Journalists Square Off Over Covering Science and ‘Getting it Right’


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Some scientists say they should have the right to review stories in which their work or words are covered prior to publication. Journalists disagree.

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Should journalists allow scientists to review their quotes or text before publication? At first glance, this fundamental journalism question appears to be black and white, but it turns out to have a lot of gray.

The question was posed early last month on Twitter by neuroscientist Kyle Jasmin, an independent research fellow at the University of London’s Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck. After more than 4,600 responses, 79 percent — the majority of them scientists — voted that they should be allowed to review an article before publication. The discussion that erupted in follow-up comments, however, was far more mixed. Many in the press raised the issue of journalistic integrity: A White House reporter, after all, would never allow a politician to review a quote. Scientists countered with tales of being misquoted or maligned by bad reporting.

It is concerning that these two symbiotic disciplines appear to misunderstand each other on such a fundamental issue. But even within each profession, opinions are far from aligned.

Freelance science journalist Erin Biba was outspoken in her response to the poll. She said not showing sources their quotes is a hard rule in journalism, although she admitted there can be rare exceptions. But the onus is on the reporter to get the facts right. “We have to care about the facts, and we have to fact check ourselves, and we have to not be embarrassed to admit if we don’t get it,” Biba told me.

“Sending the story to the source to read it is an easy way out,” she added.

It must be acknowledged, of course, that some journalists do not have time to be as thorough as they would like. And even if the writer does their best, headlines produced by editors can turn a thoughtful, tempered article into a one-sided exaggeration. “These headlines are doing real damage,” Biba said. “There were scientists who said to me during this argument, ‘I’ve stopped speaking to journalists because of the factual inaccuracy of these click-bait headlines.’ And I could not blame them.”

Emily Conover, a writer for Science News, recommended scientists who are wary of the press do their own due diligence on the journalist and outlet before an interview. If past articles seem particularly sensational then perhaps the scientist should decline. For her part, Conover says she has a strict policy about not sharing copy with sources. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to be interviewed.

Veteran science writer Philip Ball was more sympathetic to the scientists. He wrote on his blog that his first priority was to get the science and the story right, and if that meant running quotes or text by sources, he was happy to do so. “Mistakes happen. But they don’t have to, or not so often, if the scientist gets to see the text,” he wrote.

Tellingly, many of the scientists who responded to the Twitter poll, upon being contacted for an interview for this story, either declined or insisted on communicating only via email, citing a mistrust of journalists. Those who did respond acknowledged that journalists should have editorial control over their articles and said they would not insist upon seeing quotes before publication. However, the researchers rightly pointed out that science can be complicated, and a single word can change the meaning or implication of a finding.

“I think in cases where journalists are not well-versed in the domains they’re covering, it’s often a really good idea for them to ask scientists to review what they’ve written for accuracy,” wrote Tal Yarkoni, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Science is hard, and it’s often easy to think that one understands enough about the big picture to avoid making serious mistakes, when in reality the devil really is in the details a huge proportion of the time.”

Matthew Huber, a professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, told me that inaccuracies can slip in when journalists paraphrase rather than quote him. “Even under the best of circumstances it is very easy for two people to misunderstand each other. Therefore, from my point of view it’s in the best interest of everyone to have the opportunity to review the text,” he said. “Do I think scientists should have the opportunity to review it? Yes. Does that mean that I think scientists have to have final authority about what goes out? No.”

Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, pushed back against this view. He pointed out that even when a well-meaning journalist gets something wrong, the damage is being overstated, and that he had never met a scientist whose career had been tanked by a misleading quote or an inaccurate explanation of their research. In this regard, Foley said that many of his fellow scientists were being “shockingly naïve and kind of arrogant.”

“It’s as if scientists are saying, ‘Journalists are too dumb to get the science right, and so I have to check their work,'” Foley said.

This debate is far from new. In 2011, David Kroll raised the issue in a blog post for PLOS about an interview with former Chicago Tribune science writer Trine Tsouderos in which she admitted to showing sources quotes, paragraphs, and even full drafts as a form of fact checking. A thoughtful discussion ensued in the comments section (Kroll said a colleague referred to it as a “master class in science journalism”), with the consensus being that fact checking — preferably through verbal summaries — is acceptable and even encouraged to ensure accuracy, and on rare occasions text can be shared if the topic is particularly tricky, but wresting editorial control is a non-starter.

The conclusion fits with the policies of several publications, with some variation over whether text and quotes should be paraphrased or could sometimes be shared verbatim.

Editors at The Washington Post, Discover, and Nature told me that reporters are not allowed to share quotes, text, or drafts with sources before publication. However, all three encourage reporters to fact check their articles to ensure they are representing the science and the source accurately, primarily by summarizing material. Discover also uses official fact checkers for all print magazine stories.

STAT News says it does some general fact checking during the copy editing process, and that in some situations they do read back quotes or share short excerpts to verify accuracy. Undark, meanwhile, has formal fact checkers on staff who, among other things, verify the spirit of quotes — though they discourage writers from sending verbatim quotes and passages directly to sources. Scientific American’s policy was the most lenient. Former editor in chief John Rennie commented in the 2011 debate that the magazine would occasionally show sources copy if there were questions about precision. Current neuroscience editor Gary Stix (for whom I often write) agreed that showing a scientist the text is sometimes the only way to avoid errors in technical descriptions.

For his part, Jasmin wrote me that he “posted the poll after hearing conflicting accounts of what is supposed to happen after an interview. I’d heard experienced scientists say they had always been allowed to look at drafts, and I’d heard from journalists that their professional ethics explicitly forbade this.”

So how do we get the two professions on the same page?

Foley said media training would go a long way toward improving scientists’ view of journalists. A supportive press office at his old university and building personal relationships with reporters helped his understanding and appreciation of the field. On the journalists’ side, Biba said assuring scientists that their research is in good hands can help alleviate concerns. “Scientists just want to know that you give a shit,” she said. “That you respect them and you respect their work and that you’re not just trying to get the clicks.

“We have to remember,” she added, “that this is people’s livelihood.”



Dana Smith is a freelance science writer specializing in brains and bodies. She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Scientific American, Discover, and Fast Company, among others. In a previous life, she earned a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Cambridge. You can find more of her writing at

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

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There is a very interesting discussion happening on this topic on the Undark website, where this article originally appeared.

Here is the link:

Shubashree Desikan

Priyanka I am wholly with you this. I think the errors/clarifications must be carried and TH does of course carry them no? There is a bit of formality and process which makes it appear to be frowned upon... Essentially science stories are different from newsstories in general, in this aspect (pf errors) too...

Priyanka Pulla

Let me clarify. Not talking about any particular publication here. Talking about the industry as a whole, and I have written for several publications since I began. This is a common criticism of the industry.

Priyanka Pulla

Publishing corrections, I meant, not errors!

Priyanka Pulla

@amitabh @Sutirth I think sharing full drafts is never going to happen. And it's not just because I don't want to be edited. Too often, the story is about controversial issues, and the need for an outsider's neutral take is crucial. We need to figure out some other system. Should be okay to check quotes and unclear bits, in my opinion. This could be a good solution for short-deadline stories. Plus, I really do believe news/magazines need to publish errata more often. We need to accept, at an institutional level, that the pace at which newspapers work is bound to lead to errors, especially when rookie journalists are involved. As of now, my perception is that publishing errors is slightly frowned upon. That's not a great way to go about things. There needs to be an acceptance that errors will be made. What do you think @shubha and @rprasad?


@Priyanka Pulla
When the story is about a controversial topic, and the journo is piecing it together with the help of multiple experts, then there is no way for a journo to share the draft. That is completely understood and I do not think that any scientist expects it either. The whole discussion was in the context of the work of a single scientist (pretty often a single recently-published paper).

Your comment about an errata is extremely nice. If newspapers do that regularly, scientists will go a lot more relaxed on these matters. But that is an institutional decision that the publication needs to make, announce and rigorously stick to.


To the science journalists (Prasad, Shubashree and Priyanka) who have taken the time to engage here - many thanks, and I hope you will ask your colleagues also to contribute to this discussion. We will try to see this engagement doesn't end here and leads to more concrete interactions and, hopefully, changes.


The more I read the comments on this thread, I get an increasing feeling that we are looking at a situation of having to bridge cultures here. Usually, when that happens, it is important for representatives of each culture to try and understand the different backdrops that are shaping expectations and reactions from the two sides. Leaving aside the problem of the scientists who can't communicate effectively and the journalists who do a bad job, lets focus on scientists who are reasonably good communicators and journalists who are good at doing science writing.
1. On the issue of (some) scientists wanting to vet how their work/statements are being represented: as Sutirth has also pointed out in part, I think the problem here is two fold. One, such scientists also see themselves as writers. In fact, the amount of writing scientists do is quite comparable to professional writers. Hence, they probably do not feel that the journalists' professional domain is one in which they, the scientists, lack expertise. Two, in science, being an expert/professional does not exempt one from peer-checking - hence the established procedure of peer-review, both formal and friendly at times. This, I think, is a non-trivial cultural difference between scientists and journalists. If we recognize it, we can the figure out how to deal with it in a mutually acceptable manner.
2. Scientists, I think, don't have a good idea of the self-image of science journalists. Perhaps we conflate them with journalists as a general group. For example, Shubashree's comment about scientific literacy is an important one and I think it is one that most scientists probably don't quite appreciate.
3. On the other hand, i do not feel the problem with scietists here is "possesiveness" so much as a fetish for accuracy and precision (we are all prisoners of our backgrounds and training). Scientists tend to have the same problem with mathematicians that I guess science journalists have with scientists - when it comes to rigour, the mathematicians have a far stronger fetish for it than most scientists and this leads to our being unable to understand why they (i.e. mathematicians) get hung up on certain issues that most scientists would not.

W r t Shubashree's suggestions 1, 2 and 3, I think they are well worth implementing and we shall try to move things in that direction at the Academy end.


@Amitabh Joshi

I agree with your "two-culture" comment. Before participating in this discussion, I certainly did not realize the magnitude of the almost visceral objection that sci-journos have towards sharing their drafts! Incidentally, if I understand this correctly, my hypothesis will be that this trait will be common to all journalists and not sci-journalists alone. Of course, in the case of other journalists, due to the nature of what they write about, there are no obvious "experts" to write back to, and the trait will not be that visible. Hope the journalists on this thread will have something to comment on this matter.

Incidentally, I believe that the possessiveness and the accuracy fetish that scientists often exhibit, are reasonably related to each other and the latter is just a manifestation of the former. Therefore, in my opinion, it is not possible to deal with them separately.

Priyanka Pulla

Hi, a little late to this discussion, but here are my two cents. I accept that science journalism can be extremely problematic sometimes, and this includes the problem of click-bait headlines. I think we, as journalists, need to figure out how to avoid such headlines. Sub-editors ought to be able to check back with journalists - it can't be that hard, but it doesn't happen now. Also, I have nothing against checking quotes and portions of an article with scientists. I do it if I am not entirely sure I got it right. I feel the need to do it more often during short-deadline articles, because I cannot go back and forth and clarify things.

Having said that, I have a problem with scientists who don't even begin to grasp the challenge of science journalism - that is, the need to communicate to lay readers who are easily distracted. Our objective is *to be read*. We aren't writing for our personal diaries, but for lay people to read and understand and appreciate science. And I have had scientists come up with the most pedantic objections to phrasing and language in popular articles. It's incredibly frustrating. All journalism simplifies a little - not a lot, but a little. I am going to use idiomatic language and metaphors, and I am doing it *deliberately*. I am making this choice after having read the scientific paper in its all glory of polysyllabic terms, definitions, disclaimers, and references. Scientists need to understand that it is fair to point out glaring errors, but not fair to nitpick about terminology, just because they wouldn't use such terminology in a scientific paper. This is just naive, and I don't know how to deal with it.

This is also why sharing a draft is a complete no no. If I did it, scientists would attempt to turn it into a scientific paper.

So, to sum up, I think both sides - scientists and science journalists - need to try harder. I think poor science journalism is more common than acceptable, and I believe publications still do not have systems to fix this. But I also think that scientists ought to read more popular science writing, and appreciate what it accomplishes. If they did, they would split hairs a little lesser.


@Priyanka Pulla
I agree with everything that you say and point out the fact that it again comes back to the trust issue. Both sides need to trust each other and until and unless this trust develops, nothing is going to work out. Your insistence that journos should not share drafts is borne out of your experience of dealing with scientists who do not understand popular writing. My insistence that there is no harm in it is because of the experiences that I and my colleagues have faced. If both sides just decide to stick to our respective guns and show no flexibility, nothing is going to improve.

I think the whole exercise has to begin with the admission by both sides that there is scope for improvement. This is a lot more complicated than it seems. Over the last few months, I have met a bunch of science journalists (including some big names) who have flatly told me that the blame for poor science communication in India is squarely with the scientists who have "failed the society" and talk down to the journalists. Similarly, I will not be surprised if all of you have met at least some scientists who have declared that science journos can not be trusted on scientific matters. The truth, as it often happens with slightly complex issues, is somewhere in between and needs to be accepted as such.

We then need to think together about the possible ways in which the trust-deficits can be ameliorated. Shubhashree Desikan, in one of the posts on this thread, has suggested some ways for the same. I am hoping that more journalists will come forward to state what their constraints are and what they expect scientists to do about it. Only when we have some back and forth dialogue like this, can we hope to make a difference.

Shubashree Desikan

@Amitabh and Sutirth - I thought about your replies to my comments. I base my suggestions on two ideas: One that the extreme examples you have chosen are, while being ridiculous, quite the outliers, You know where and when these faux pas occur and must keep a register of these. Second, that checking the manuscript with the scientist is a short cut and a quick fix - it neither addresses the real point of science comm/journalism nor teaches the journalist anything, in fact it makes him/her a weak professional. Lastly, science journalism in India is booming so to say - there have never been so many qualified and enthu sci-jours as there are today (in India). But teh culture is new and so teh language needs to evolve - it cannot evolve without hiccups and bruises. That is what we are seeing as such mismatches.
On this premise, let me offer a few suggestions that you may appreciate:
1. That you (I mean scientists in an organised manner - using services of a media cell/volunteers/ whatever) create a dossier of such mistakes/misrepresentations/embarrassments and address them twice a year - you could invite the concerned journalists and gently put it across, if they are doing this ever so often that they are doing no good for either science or the people...
2. Have separate workshops for media people including heads of editorial departments, desk editors etc, by invitation and consultation with editors of the media houses, especially those that keep at these 'mistakes'
3. Hold skill-dev meetings in various cities other than bangalore and update Js.
4. I think it is important for scientists to listen to writers too - to understand who they are writing for - It is not just about clickbaits that hook the lazy reader to look at stuff that's important... It's about getting people who are blocked out of science to appreciate and relate to science... there are many compromises to produce an article that will go beyond the inner circle - So the journalist is not only doing a PR for the scientist, she is interested in scientific literacy too... That is why I repeat that rather than taking it personally, scientists should be less possessive and see this as a growing process for everyone - including the readers,,,


In light of the discussions with the two science journalists (Prasad and Shubhashree) on this thread, I believe a clarification is in order.

There are two kinds of articles that a science journo can write:
1. Reporting a scientist's work.
2. A take on a scientific issue (say GMOs or effects of air pollution) that contains quotes / views expressed by a scientist.

When I have been talking about cross-checking with the scientist, my focus has primarily been on the first category. Such pieces are intimately tied with the achievements of a particular group and the group has a real stake in ensuring that the findings are accurately represented.

My guess is that when the science-journos contest that they should not be expected to revert to the scientists, they primarily have articles of the second category in mind.

Will the science-journos clarify if my hunch is correct? if yes. then I believe it would be easier for the two sides to appreciate when it is desirable to have a cross-check and when it is not.

Shubashree Desikan

@Sutirth I did think about this point of differentiation between reports that communicate research and reports that critique policies etc (the second type) when I wrote that piece. In the case of the second type there is no question of checking with the scientists... that is what journalism is about. I was explicitly talking about the first type of stories for which deep consultation with the scientist is called for, because the journalist is dealing with deep knowledge that s/he knows only superficially. But consultation means checking and clarifying, not exactly showing teh final copy and getting approval. While that may be done when the topic is so finely balanced or whatever... it is not that automatically one has to send back the copy. Having said that I'd like to point out one more thing about science journalism in India in general... It is not a new phenomenon, but as a culture it is somewhat new in India. I think dialogue is certainly called for and will help, but insisting on checking proofs is just a short cut and not the real solution. Even apart from journalistic ethics, just being a professional means you don't need supervision... and that stage you don't reach without making a mistake or two... 🙂


This is in reply to your two comments on which I was tagged (and not the one on which both Amitabh and I were tagged).

1. My entire worry has been about the accuracy of the representation of the science in the journalist's article. If a journalist can ensure that without sending the final copy to the scientist, I would have no problems with that at all. If there is a journalist whom I trust, I am going to be OK with it. But if it is an unknown person, then it is a bit difficult to trust by default. Every body is conditioned by their own experience. You have probably met with lots of excellent science journos who do very good reporting. Unfortunately, when I talk to my colleagues, there is huge variation in terms of what I hear about their experience when dealing with journos.

2. My feeling is that this discussion is centered on one crucial point. When a journo writes about someone's work, then whose reputation is at stake if there are inaccuracies in that description and to what extent? This is not a very simple question to answer, as one can argue that both the scientist and the journo have their skin in the game. Unfortunately, not in the same way, and it is this basic asymmetry, which is leading to this entire disagreement between us. A scientist's entire training is about being as precise as possible, and they do have a stake in whether the readers understand the proper implication of their findings. On the other hand, the sci-journo needs to communicate the finding to the people in a way that they find appealing, and therefore, needs to make suitable "adjustments" to the presentation. Both have a desire to communicate, but their respective training and desire for the outcome compel them to look at the communication differently.

3. Also, it is very easy for a sci-journo, who writes a large number of stories every week, to be dispassionate about any given individual piece. The same is hardly true for a scientist who has spent years of work and tons of money to get to those results, not to mention the months or years of struggle to put it into a journal. The scientist will probably appear in the newspaper once every two years or so. Therefore, it is a little bit more difficult to ask a scientist (a passionate bunch of people to begin with), to be more dispassionate and treat the errors of the sci-journo as part of the latter's learning curve! It would have been great if it could happen that way, but it is unlikely!

4. Without the scientist, the journo has no story; without the journo, the scientist can not hope to make it to the "popular" press. So end of the day, it just boils down to trust. Can the scientist trust that the journo will do a good job in terms of reporting? Can the journo trust that the scientist will not intrude on his/her creative calls in terms of making the story interesting? If the journalists demand the latter, then they need to respect the scientist's demand for the former. Else, the relationship is most likely to break down.

Shubashree Desikan

Okay It is true that that the work belongs to the scientist, whereas the journalist is only writing about it, has invested much less etc - the asymmetry you have mentioned. I am not at all justifying misquoting or mistakes in the writeup... But what I am saying is that we need to get out of this way of seeing science communication - we need to see it as a larger process rooted in the development of society and culture. If you do this, you will see that despite the years invested in the work, the scientist is also an equal participant in this process. And the learning curve I mentioned is not of the journalist, but the system, the society at large... In India, we need to build up the language of science. Just as you wouldn't burden a toddler with running a marathon, you cannot thrust an attitude of precision and complexity on a society that is only now beginning to read popular science in a big way. Therefore (trust of course is key, but ) what I am saying is that the scientist, regardless of how difficult it is, in the interest of the Society's learning process (which of course constitute the tax payers too, who pay for most of the R&D in India) must distance themselves from what is a secondary report - not the parent paper, which entirely belongs to the scientist concerned. This secondary product or report does not entirely belong to the scientist but he or she is a stakeholder in the process. Of course needless to say, I am talking about sincere scientists and journalists and not those who have not thought about these things deeply.
Lastly, I'd also like to say in the context of the picture of the wounded scientist who wishes to 'teach' the journo to be correct (just trying an analogy - no sarcasm intended) It has to be internalised that it is a two-way learning process and scientists need to learn to go beyond I, My work attitude to 'the article as a speck in the social landscape' and accept that s/he has to learn.


Shubashree - I am willing to go along with the notion that its not a "right", but I think it is desirable to have the piece checked once in the interests of accuracy. For example, as scientists if we end up writing a section or chapter in a book largely about someone else's work, very often some of us at least would run it by the original workers just to check for accuracy of our representation. The points about "click bait" headlines etc serving a purpose are well-taken. I think part of the problem here is that while there are conscientious science journalists who go to some lengths to ensure accuracy before writing a piece, there are also others who make fairly bad errors when they write up something after a conversation over email or phone. The fault may lie with the scientist or journalist or both in such cases. One way or another, I think the two communities should figure out some guidelines(?) on how to enhance the accuracy of science reporting without compomising the journalists' preprogatives or indeed the "advertising" aspects like catchy headlines.
Incidentally, one thing that really puts many scientists off is that accompanying photographs are often badly chosen e.g. articles about research on Asian elephants in India have sometimes in newspapers been accompanied by a lovely photograph of African savannah elephants. Often the graphics accompanying evolution related articles show the linear progression of ape to man, which is perpetuating a common distortion/misconception about the nature of evolution.
All in all, I think in India science journalism in the last few years has seriously improved both in quantity and quality. Scientists too have begun to take communication to society (of which science journalists are a crucial part) more seriously. This is therefore the right time when we should be having these discussions. In fact, I would love for science journalists to write for Dialogue or Confluence about what they think we as scientists could do better for more effective communication and science journalism.

Shubashree Desikan

Hi all... do scientists have a right to review articles about their work? I would definitely disagree... in the sense that it is not a matter of rights. In the interest of ascertaining the accuracy or appropriateness of an analogy, the journalist may show a part of the draft or a quote to the scientist, but I don't think the scientist can insist on this. While the onus is on the journalist to think up analogies or provide the context, there are times when an inaccuracy creeps in. I think both parties should see this as a learning experience - a serious one,, but nevertheless part of a journey. A crucial way in which science journalism differs from, say, political reporting is that it involves a body of knowledge. Therefore it becomes in part a way to educate people, educate oneself and so on... Discussing with the journalist should be a two way process for the scientist too - a chance to get out of the cloisters of academia and get in touch with the people who are outside, what interests them, what they know, what they relate to etc. For example, it is easy to say "darned click-bait of a headline" but it is probably that which entices the reader to even spend a few seconds on the story ... Many scientists may grimace at the word "god particle" but it's that catchy phrase that turns heads and now, several years after the phrase has been used, we have the public enthusiastically talking about symmetry breaking and standard model and even string theory... True many journalists and readers don't have the expertise of the scientist but everyone has a native intelligence and intuition and it's the job of the journalist to excite this and provide a bridge... understanding this process, let scientists also be less possessive about their ideas and work and let it fly...


I am going to agree with many things that you say and disagree with some. I agree that phrases like 'god particle' do make the scientist grimace, but I do not think that scientists object to it as a click-baiter. It is pretty clear that in that context, that name is supposed to arouse interest and not really mislead. I think scientists have problems with gross misrepresentations of their work. For example, when the scientist says in the press release (not even the paper)

“We have exploited this natural process by making a compound, called AP39, which slowly delivers very small amounts of this gas [hydrogen sulfide] specifically to the mitochondria. Our results indicate that if stressed cells are treated with AP39, mitochondria are protected and cells stay alive.”

and the reporter says "Can Smelling Farts Cure Cancer? Scientists Say Yes-ish!" (

Closer home, a reporter, without talking/writing to me even once, has claimed that I make flies evolve by passing them through a tube!

I agree that these are bad cases of reporting but, from the scientists perspective, such cases are on the rise. Once they get printed/ published, it is impossible to make any one believe that the scientist did not say or mean it. Once the damage is done, the scientist does not have a way of getting heard because no one will publish a report titled something like "Flies do not evolve when passing through a tube".

This is the reason for which scientists are very, very skeptic about talking to reporters and insist on having a look at what is being published in their name.

Shubashree Desikan

@sutirth - I agree with you that the examples are terrible journalism... But these are "mistakes" when holding them out as examples, you are forgetting the hundreds of other reports that do not make this mistake... And what I feel is that the solution is not to 'approve' each piece, but I have some suggestions which I will post in a separate comment.


Very nice discussion, Prasad and Sutirth. More such discussion is sorely needed. incidentally, I don't think for people outside journalism the distinction between an editor and a journalist registers much - many would consider both of them journalists. I completely agree that scientists need to be able to explain their work and its implications in a reasonably simple manner (understandable by an 8 year old, as Einstein so nicely put it) - some of us try to train students also to be able to do that by asking them "now explain this as if you were explaining this to a ten year old nephew". At the same time, of course, there are also some scientists who are very bad at communication (and patronizing to boot) and some journalists who have very poor comprehension. These subsets should not be allowed to derail better collaboration between scientists and science journalists. Prasad - it would be very nice if you and other science journalists would write about these issues in Dialogue and/or Confluence, and also if we could think of having some kind of meeting/round-table discussion with scientists and science journalists discussing these issues face to face.


Scientists are not trained in being able to communicate their science to general audiences and that is a glaring deficiency. But science journalists are not just meant to fill this deficiency. Scientific journalism might additionally involve creating debates on the ethical, social, economic and political dimensions of the research that is being communicated,. If such mandates are reasonable, then perhaps scientists have no business demanding to check those aspects of journalistic communications. However, it is in the interest of both the scientist and the journalist to ensure that the scientific findings get communicated to the best of both their satisfaction and abilities (it could very well be possible that the scientist herself is not aware of the full import of her findings). Therefore my feeling is that particular aspect of the journalistic communication could be shared with the source.

Prasad Ravindranath

Dr. Dey, when I wondered why scientists are unable to explain their work in a simple language, I meant explain their work to a JOURNALIST. I did NOT mean write scientific papers in a simple language.
And I did NOT mean scientists writing articles about their work but explain their work ORALLY.
Please read the article on thermoelectric posted online today in The Hindu. The original journal paper by the JNCASR team is very technical, but the scientist was able to explain it in a simple language to me over phone. And I was able to ask him relevant questions which helped me understand the significance of the work. This helped write it in a simple language without compromising on facts. Request you to kindly read the article and then refer to the original paper to know what I mean.


Just replace writing with teaching in my earlier reply, and there is your answer!! In fact, most scientists teach even less than they write, and have a far less selection pressure on teaching. When it comes to oral communication with their peers in scientific meetings, you are really frowned upon if you appear "condescending"!! Again, not an excuse, just how things are!

Himender Bharti

Well in a country like ours this is an issue which requires significant attention. We ought to reduce the gap between scientists and journalists. Journalists are undoubtedly the connecting link between science and society. How the facts are presented to common people matters the most, since scientists rarely interact with society. Most often as I experienced either the scientific facts are twisted or inappropriate use of words make the reporting messy. Probably we need more coverage on scientific reports especially in vernacular dailies or channels which hit the masses more as compared to sophisticated stuff. If you happen to visit villages, there is no dearth of talent but unfortunately the people are not exposed to such knowledge. Its an utmost responsibility of scientific community, as well as of journalists to reach out to such unattended public, but in a cooperative, responsible and cohesive manner.


ANother huge problem some of us have faced is with science journalists doing a story, getting it reasonably right, and then publishing it with some totally inappropriate image. Some years ago, science journalists did a piece on the importance of whole-organism (as opposed to molecular) biology, which was quite well rendered, but then accompanied by an image (that they never told us about contemplating that showed a young lady in a "space-suite"using a micropipette in a fume hood.

Prasad Ravindranath

It is time all newspaper readers including scientists understand that the heading of a news item, strapline or blurb (the second smaller headline that appears below the main headline, choice of photos, and caption are given by people working in the desk, who are called sub-editors. Journalists have not role in this. Journalists can only suggest headlines and strapline.
SO the next time when you see a good headline, photo accompanying the article or caption, please credit the sub-editor. And when you are unhappy with the heading, photo used or caption please do not blame the journalists.


When a reader reads an item in the newspaper. then is he/she expected to make that fine distinction between the journo's contribution and the sub-editor's contribution? To use an analogy: when a policy is criticized, are people expected to figure out which part of the policy was made by the minister and which part was contributed by a bureaucrat?

The effects of a news item or a policy is a sum-total of all its components. Therefore, when things go right, the person to whom it is attributed, gets all the kudos and vice-versa.

The power of the words (printed or digital) is undeniable. If the breakdown of communication between the journalists and the sub-editor is creating an issue (whose blame is going to the journalist), then this needs to be sorted out internally by the publication house. There is not much point in "educating" the reader/scientist here in my opinion.

Prasad Ravindranath

As a scientist, you must be aware how peer-reviewing works and how the manuscript can become very different (in the wrong sense) from the one originally submitted, right? As science journalists we understand the many issues that scientists face. Can scientists say the same thing about journalism? Even when I try to explain how the system works in ALL newspaper across the world, I don't see the willingness by many scientists to understand it. This is exactly why the gulf between the scientific community (read SENIOR scientists) and science journalists continues. There is no point to discussing further till both parties are willing to listen and understand how the system works.


I completely agree that scientists do not have a clue about the various constraints that science journalists face. I also agree that knowing these constraints and the best practices would lead to a much better cooperation among the scientists and the journos. But why is it that science journos are not willing to speak / write on this topic? All science journos seem to have the same complaints. But when I request them to write about it, tell us about what issues they face vis-a-vis their jobs and talking to scientists, I get no response. I have even requested science journos to simply give me a wish-list of how they would want things to happen and .... no response.

There is no blame-game going here about whose responsibility it is to write a nice article, it is evidently (at least to me) of both parties. I am making the point that the sci-journos need to do a better job of cooperating with the scientists .

My simple point is that the scientific community has no clue about your world. It will continue in this state of inertia, till you tell it what are your constraints and what you expect of the scientists. Only when such a dialogue starts, can there be a hope of mutual respect developing and a change happening.

Incidentally, just to prove my point, you are the only journo who is engaging with me on this point right now. Of course it is possible that other science journos in India have not seen this post, but somehow my hunch is that is not true. It is their job to track things like these, right!


I totally fail to understand why any journalist would feel that they do not have to get back to someone (not necessarily a scientist) to check what is being attributed to them. this is just professional arrogance of a high level. Science journalists (with a few exceptions) often do not get things right. SOme of them are actually very good about checking back with the source, some are not. In India, I have rarely seen a science journalist who didn't bother to check, and got it wrong, ever bothering to apologize/retract afterwards. I have, in India, interacted with multiple science journalists who do bother to check and re-check, though.

Prasad Ravindranath

It's unfair to blame the journalists alone for all the wrong reporting. Ever wondered if the problem arises as scientists are not often good communicators? This, even when scientists are discussing about their own work? If scientists are able to articulate their work in a simple, accessible way, I think most of the problems of wrong reporting will be solved. At least when "science journalists" are reporting the news. And by science journalists, I mean those who ONLY cover science and not those who also write about science besides crime, civic issues etc.


I appreciate the distinction between science journo and "generalist" journo. However, scientists typically do not have any choice in terms of which journo they are working with, they just talk to whoever contacts them.

I also completely appreciate that many scientists are not good communicators and can not write about their work in a way that can be understood by non-specialists. However, is that not one of the reasons that the profession of science journalism exists? Is it not a division of labour in a news item such that scientists ensure that the science is represented fairly and the professional "writers" take care that it is communicated properly? In my view, the problem happens when either side refuses to view it as a partnership, which is pretty much the take-home message from the article. When a scientist requests to have a look at the copy before it is published, he/she is ensuring that his/her part is played properly. That is why, refusing to show the copy pre-publication, makes no sense to many scientists.

Prasad Ravindranath

As a science journalist, I know many scientists doing great or good work from numerous institutions/govt labs. But how many in the scientific community can tell the names of "Science journalists" in India. BTW, there are very few science journalists in India.
The problem arises when scientists talk to reporters who do NOT cover science regularly and expect them to do a fantastic job. Why is it that scientists cannot do that legwork to identify and engage with science journalists instead of talking to any reporter who calls them up?
When I said communicating, I meant the ability to explain the work done by the researcher. Why is it so difficult to explain one's work in a simple language? I am sure every scientist would agree that many journal papers are becoming increasingly difficult to understand even by scientists from a different discipline? That being the case, should scientists not take the effort to explain it to journalists in a simple language? Let’s face it, scientific community in India is only now slowly opening up and willing to interact with the media. They have much to learn from their counterparts in other developed countries, particularly the U.S.
There is so much work that goes into writing a news item that engages the readers while not compromising on content or significance of the work or hyping up the work. And I am not asking scientists to do that part. Blaming the journalists alone is not going to help.


On your point "Why is it so difficult to explain one’s work in a simple language?"
1. Well, you need to appreciate that a scientific paper needs to be written for a scientific audience. Arguments need to be air-tight there and implications need to be precise. That is one of the reasons for which scientific language has evolved to be the kind of dry stuff that it is.
2. On top of that is the extreme severity of the reviewers and the editors for anything that they think is "frivolous" in terms of language,
3. Unlike journos, most scientists have not taken courses on writing and often fail to distinguish between jargon and plain-speak, simply because of their lack of familiarity with the latter.
4. Scientists simply have less practice in writing the kind of prose that goes in newspapers than journos do, for obvious reasons.
5. Finally, a journo who can not write well, ceases to be a journo. Same is not true for a scientist. This implies that there is a much lesser selection pressure on a scientist than a journo for writing well.

None of these points are justifications or excuses for a scientist to write badly. In spite of them, many scientists do write beautiful prose. They are simply statements of how things are for the majority.


I am a scientist, and I know how sensational reporting can completely mangle your work. Therefore, while I have complete sympathy with reporters in terms of their timelines and lack-of-expertise, I am also a firm believer in having a look at the copy before it is published. At the very minimum, then there will be an email record that I disagreed with the stuff before it was published, even if it is attributed in my name. As pointed out in this article: "Scientists just want to know that you give a shit....That you respect them and you respect their work and that you’re not just trying to get the clicks .... We have to remember, that this is people’s livelihood.” I am a bit sorry to say that at least with some journos (and definitely not with others), I fail to get this feeling of security.