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Category
Academic Insights

Country
France

By Gaël Fortin, Visiting PhD
at the Constructive Institute,
Doctor in Oncology
& science communicator

Despite sharing a common goal, i.e. sharing knowledge, scientific and journalistic methods have significant differences. To bridge this gap, a deeper knowledge of each other’s role and methods as well as best practice recommendations are required.

How different is the world of lab benches from TV studios? What separates the world of research from news? Find out in this podcast series, From Lab To Headlines, which looks at bridging the gap between science and journalism. The podcast has been produced by Gaël Fortin and Constructive Institute. Scroll down to hear more.

Journalists play a key role in sharing scientific knowledge and discoveries with a broader audience. However, when it comes to working with scientists, it can become challenging. Numerous studies have documented the difficulties for academics and journalists to work together (documented in [1-3] below). Despite sharing a common goal, i.e. sharing knowledge, scientific and journalistic methods have significant differences. To bridge this gap, a deeper knowledge of each other’s role and methods as well as best practice recommendations are required.

In this article, we focus on the seven most important tips for journalists to improve their science communication.

Follow academic sources

Researchers found that academics do not immediately reach out to the media, even when they have made discoveries that are backed up by solid data (documented in [2] below). In addition to the absence of interaction with the media, scientific discoveries are published in specialised journals that are hard to understand for a non-expert audience. Luckily, several scientific initiatives have been started to tackle these issues.

Conversation

The Conversation is a global initiative that unites academics, editors, and journalists to make research results more accessible. Every article published on The Conversation is written by researchers and journalists to provide stories that are at the same time strongly backed up by science. This initiative is supported by universities all around the world, guaranteeing an independent editorial line.

Searching already-published stories can also be a good start to identify relevant stories, as well as academics that may be willing to get in touch with you.

Science bites

Science Bites is an academic initiative that make science research more accessible. Each article tackles only one scientific study and explains the research to a non-specialised audience.

Mastodon and other social platforms

Many scientists are active on social platforms, including Mastodon and X (formerly Twitter). Thus, these places can be a good starting point to contact science experts.


In this episode of From Lab To Headlines, Gaël Fortin speaks to Constructive Institute fellow Amalie Thieden, who is also a journalist at Dagens Medicin, where she writes about the current and future challenges facing the healthcare sector. They discuss how scientists can better share their research so journalists can find them. Listen in here.

Empower your research with AI tools

Navigating between thousands of technical scientific articles is time-consuming, especially when trying to identify a relevant story. Several AI tools have recently been developed to help tackle the issue. While they do not replace proper journalistic searches, they can be a starting point. Keep in mind that new AI tools are constantly being introduced. However, these are some popular ones at the moment.

Consensus

Consensus is is a free web app in which you can ask any scientific question. It searches academic articles for the answer and creates a list of relevant papers as well as a summary of each article related to the question as the output. However, the power of Consensus relies on an option called ‘Synthesize’. Once activated, it will summarize the results from studies and provide a simple answer to your question. In addition, the ‘Consensus Meter’ shows, at a glance, the number of papers supporting the consensus.          

Perplexity

While Consensus will provide you a clear one-sentence answer to your question, Perplexity will output a detailed answer and provide scientific sources for each affirmation. Perplexity also explores non-scientific articles, which could be an advantage or a flaw depending on the context.

Explainpaper

While AI provides powerful tools to get a quick overview of a field, it is also useful in more specific contexts such as understanding scientific papers. Explainpaper will break down a paper in a simpler manner, thereby accelerating your reading and understanding of scientific research.


Find research papers easily (and for free)

Finding references to focus your work on is one thing, but being able to read them is another. While more and more scientific journals offer open access, it is still not a rule. Here is how you can easily retrieve research papers.

Navigate around the paywall on your articles

Even if a paper is under a paywall, it may have been deposited by its authors on a public open database (such as PubMed Central). Extensions such as Unpaywal make this process easy (and legal). Just go on a scientific search engine such as Google Scholar and perform your search. When the article webpage opens, click on the green open padlock (at the right of the webpage) to download the article.

Email the authors

Usually, authors are more than happy to directly send you the paper you are interested in. To maximize your chances of success, reach out to the first person (in the list of authors) and to the corresponding author (generally the last person in the list). Their email addresses are generally specified below this list.


Avoid predatory journals and fraudulent articles

Predatory journals are fraudulent publications that falsify the process of scientific publication: Fake peer-reviewing, copyright violations, misrepresentation of the members on the editorial board, and so on. Scientific results found in predatory journals have a higher risk of being flawed. However, even in well-known journals, fraudulent articles can be found.

Identifying both journals and articles that are fraudulent is not always easy and can require deep investigation. Here are some essential tips to recognize them.

Use Consensus

We already talked about Consensus earlier. Often, it also has information about the reliability of journals to help you avoid predatory journals.

Verify the number of citations

Although the number of citations cannot on its own tell if a given article was published in a predatory journal or is a fake scientific paper, it can still ring a bell. Scientific articles are generally cited several times after a few years of publication. Did you find an article that was published in a unknown journal several years ago and has not been cited even a single time? Then it should alert you to perform a deeper investigation about its veracity.

Check for reported abnormalities

PubPeer allows you to report potential errors in a study and ask the author for an explanation.
Many concerns that rise are often due to unintentional mistakes. However, consensus also exists on many papers that have been well documented for being a scam.

The PubPeer extension will alert you if any comments and concerns have been made. You can then take a call on whether the article is trustworthy or not.


Highlight the scientific method

The scientific method is the core of any research. However, while it has major impacts on the quality and relevance of the findings, scientists agree that journalists do not discuss enough about the methodology used in studies (documented in [3] and [4] below). Moreover, the strongest forms of scientific evidence, i.e. systemic reviews, are less reported by the media than weaker studies (documented in [1] below). A better understanding of the scientific method is thus essential.

Navigate through the different types of studies

As a general rule, expert opinions are the weakest evidence while systemic reviews of wide scale are the strongest scientific studies. The following scheme recapitulates the level of confidence associated to each study type.

Convey the (un)certainty

While science is never black or white, we often tend to oversimplify it. However, conveying these nuances and the uncertainty of scientific results is essential. When writing a story, highlight the level of confidence of a given result, and insist on the uncertainty that may exist.

Be aware of conflicts of interest

Research can be founded by a private company or organization, leading sometimes to a conflict of interest. This is especially the case for some fields like drug development or AI (among many others). Whenever it is the case, this conflict of interest is specified in the ‘Acknowledgments’ or the ‘Conflicts of Interest’ sections of a paper. While this does not mean that the research conducted is not reliable, the conclusions should be treated cautiously and your audience should be aware of it.

In this episode of From Lab To Headlines, we feature Hannu Tikkala, a journalist who has been working for The Finnish Broadcasting Company for nine years. Gaël Fortin and he discuss how science and facts can be the foundation of the public debate.

Find the right scientists

From a non-specialist point of view, it is often hard to determine whether a given scientist is actually an expert about the question you are asking.

If your story originates from a scientific article, then starting with one of its authors is probably the best thing to do. Make sure the scientist you are going to interview is an expert of the topic. If not, you can always ask them for other more suitable names for your story.

Finding a second scientist, not involved in the study you are talking about, is a good practice to bring in more nuances.

In this episode of From Lab To Headlines, Constructive Institute fellow Pia Thordsen tells Gaël Fortin about finding the right scientists and working with them for TV interviews.

Detail your journalistic process to scientists

Just as journalists are not experts in scientific method, scientists have a limited knowledge of the journalistic method. This lack of knowledge leads to misconceptions.

Explain your method

Detail the journalistic process you follow to scientists before working with them. Also, academics often work with deadlines in months or years and can be flexible about them. If you have a hard deadline, make sure they are aware of it.

Define your audience

It’s helpful to tell researchers who your target audience is and what their level of knowledge about the field of interest is. This will help scientists be able to use the correct language.

Let scientists read your story

Scientists are generally afraid that what they will say will be twisted. Letting researchers read your story before you publish it will reduce their fear. This does not mean that they should be able to comment and modify your story but just verify that the message conveyed is reviewed and accurate.

In this episode of From Lab To Headlines, Gaël Fortin speaks to Karen Hjulmand, a fellow at Constructive Institute. As someone covering climate change for 30 years, she talks about how scientists and journalists can cooperate on multiple levels to share knowledge with their audience.

With these tips, you are now more ready than ever to work with scientists and share their discoveries!


Sources:

[1] G. Dempster, “The communication of scientific research in news media: Contemporary challenges and opportunities,” JCOM, vol. 19, no. 03, p. C06, Jun. 2020, doi: 10.22323/2.19030306.

[2] A. Dijkstra, M. M. Roefs, and C. H. C. Drossaert, “The science-media interaction in biomedical research in the Netherlands. Opinions of scientists and journalists on the science-media relationship,” JCOM, vol. 14, no. 02, p. A03, May 2015, doi: 10.22323/2.14020203.

[3] M.-È. Maillé, J. Saint-Charles, and M. Lucotte, “The gap between scientists and journalists: the case of mercury science in Québec’s press,” Public Underst Sci, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 70–79, Jan. 2010, doi: 10.1177/0963662509102690.

[4] E. Singer, “A Question of Accuracy: How Journalists and Scientists Report Research on Hazards,” Journal of Communication, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 102–16, 1990.

This article was last updated on October 30, 2023.