Northern California Science Writers Association

When journalists and scientists clash

By Mary Miller

If only the recent ScienceWriters2021 session “Editing experts: How to help scientists meet journalism standards” had happened earlier in my career, I could have avoided months of stress and angst years ago when I agreed to collaborate with a subject-matter expert on a nearly disastrous book project. The book was published, but not without some epic battles and avoidable mistakes by both parties. Some of the “pet peeves” outlined in the panel were all too familiar, like confronting disagreements on deadlines, style and word choice, but the editors also shared tips on avoiding conflict by creating an environment of respect and communication and shared responsibility to create the best version of a story.

Communicate early and often

Monya Baker, senior world view and comment editor at Nature, explained that it’s important to communicate the nuts and bolts of the editing and publication process. If authors know, for instance, how many times drafts might go back and forth as various editors weigh in, they are better prepared for the time and effort it takes to write for publication. If things start to go off track or a long edit proves necessary, she’ll get back on the phone with the author to explain why changes are needed. Open communication builds trust and helps avoid misunderstandings. “It’s time consuming, but saves time and frustration in the end,” Baker said.

Hannah Hoag, deputy editor at The Conversation Canada, stressed two-way communication and asking about an author’s expectations and previous experience (or lack thereof). “Scientists don’t always do the work to understand the publication and the audience, so I carefully explain it,” Hoag said. “It might be their first time writing [for a general audience]. It’s better to do that before the commission happens rather than backfill later.”

Get it in writing

Signed contracts that detail the expectations and responsibilities of authors, editors and the publisher are a critical guidepost that obligates all parties to a schedule, word count, editing process and compensation. Fenella Saunders, editor-in-chief of American Scientist, said it’s important to let authors know that the contract does not guarantee publication until the article is accepted and the process is complete, including layout, art and captions. I would add from my own experience that letting authors slide on some parts of a contract, like agreed-upon deadlines, can give them license to ignore other parts of the process, like accepting editorial guidance.

When scientists don’t understand their audience

Scientists who are used to writing for their peers will often say they don’t want to “dumb down” their research when communicating to a non-specialist audience. “This drives me crazy,” said Tamara Poles, community engagement specialist at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Poles works with scientists to help them communicate their stories and research to public audiences which, as she points out, are not dumb. Rather, they sometimes need help connecting to the work. “It’s like an architect designing a building—they put in ramps and elevators to make the building accessible to everyone,” Poles said. “If the audience struggles to understand what they’re saying, if you don’t give them a ramp, then they are not entering the building.”

Invoking conversation is often the key to getting a scientist to relate. Michael Lemonick, who recently retired as chief opinion editor at Scientific American, will sometimes ask authors to imagine they are sitting down to dinner and explaining their work to smart non-scientists using their article draft. “If these words came out of your mouth, people would leave the table,” he said. Ouch!

Avoid jargon and insider knowledge

Scientists will often assume knowledge that their audience doesn’t have. Baker once had to explain to a scientist that just referring to the city Rio did not confer knowledge about the United Nations environment summit that happened there in 1992. One way that editors can get a scientist to understand audiences better is to say that words or abbreviations can mean different things to different audiences. For instance, GDP to an economist is not the same thing as the chemical abbreviation of guanosine diphosphate to a biologist.

Make science exciting (or at least relevant)

Such things as nut grafs and conclusions come naturally to writers, but often have to be explained to scientists who think that an article is over when the author stops writing, Saunders said. Readers expect a sense of closure, tying things back to the beginning. Drawing scientists out by asking what excites them—why people should care about their work—can provide critical context (and a nut graf), but some researchers struggle with the question. If the work isn’t exciting or relevant, then it won’t be a good article, said Lemonick: “If a scientist can’t identify why people should care, I do walk away from the author.” 

Mary Miller is a freelance science writer and producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She recently retired from the Exploratorium science museum.

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