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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Style vs substance in science communication: The science writer perspective

I want to address a recent article on science writing: When editors and scientists meet: communicating science without dumbing it down. The author is Alex Ip and the article is a commentary on a panel session about science writing at the ScienceWriters2021 conference held in early October [Editing experts: How to help scientists meet journalism standards].

This workshop is for science writers and journalists interested in editing expert authors. More journalism outlets are inviting scientists to write commentaries, and paying editors to commission and hone drafts. Yet the effort to bring expert analysis to a broader audience can create a clash between scientific and journalistic expertise: researchers often have little experience writing clearly and accurately for the public. In many cases, experts are not used to being edited and are profoundly uncomfortable drawing on personal, relatable experiences or writing in simple, declarative sentences. Too often submissions have unchecked assertions, uncertain relevance, and inaccessible prose.

This panel will show how to apply journalistic craft for narrative, relevance, accuracy, and clarity to make sure readers benefit from expertise in content and communication. Participants will learn from editors who work for independent publications or institutional press offices on expert-authored pieces. Panelists will turn their experiences into case studies, helpful tips, and practical solutions to help non-writers create compelling articles.

I want to preface my comments by making a generalization about science writing and science communication. It is awful. In those fields where I have direct knowledge, the general quality of science writing is far below any standard that scientists would find acceptable. My colleagues in other fields echo these concerns. The worst examples are university press releases where it would be challenging to find one that would get a passing grade in an undergraduate science course.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some high quality exceptions to this generalization but they stand out because they are so exceptional.

Humor me by allowing me to make another generalization. Discussions about good science communication often involve science writers taking among themselves. There’s a strong sense of irony in this because, as I just mentioned, the field of science writing is in really bad shape so it’s not likely that these writers have the solutions to fix the problem on their own. It’s doubly ironic because in these discussions among themselves, science writers tend to blame the scientists and not each other.

As we'll see below, scientists share a lot of the blame because they frequently promote bad science but there's more than enough blame to go around and science writers/editors are not blameless.

Having got that off my chest, let’s look more closely at what Alex Ip wrote on the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) website.

Most scientists are used to publishing research papers for their peers, a process that could take years, allowing them to pore over every word in every sentence. No such luxury exists in writing popular science pieces that have a turnaround time of a few weeks or going to a carnival to speak to eager middle-schoolers. Here’s where science editors and communications specialists step in. Using their journalism expertise, they help scientists prioritize the audience without “dumbing down the science”.

The emphasis here is on fast turnaround times but let’s not forget that there are other kinds of science writing, such as books, that don’t have short deadlines. The turnaround time is a bit of a red herring because it’s not obvious to me that science writers do any better when they have lots of time to think about what they're writing and editing.

The main issue here is whether “journalism expertise” is successful in communicating science without dumbing it down or getting it wrong. The emphasis here is on helping scientists with the writing but this leaves out a very important part of the problem; namely, whether what the scientist wants to say is accurate or not. In my opinion, good science writers should be knowledgeable about the field and skeptical about the motives of the scientist they are interviewing or editing. Their role should not just be to make the scientist’s words sound better but also to put them into context and evaluate their accuracy.

Let’s set that aside for now and deal with the issue of style and editing. Who is right if scientists and science writers disagree about the editing process? Is it just about the “audience”? Do science writers always know who their audience is?

[Tamara] Poles, the community engagement specialist at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., is adamant about scientists understanding what makes their specific audience tick—and what makes themselves tick too. She would usually sit down with them to understand their hobbies and passions. If there are things that experts and the audience can both relate to and get emotionally invested in, it is much easier to develop analogies that explain the science and build trust. "Never talk at the audience, and never assume that they understand your jargon."

This is an interesting example because I happen to know someone (cough! my daughter) who has given science talks at the Moorhead.1 These are usually presentations to a general audience of people, or children, who are interested in science. Those presentations require a high degree of presentation skills and a huge emphasis on style. The substance is important but it’s not a place where you are going to explain complicated subjects like why our genome is full of junk DNA or why the Lab Leak Conspiracy Theory is crazy.

This is a situation where both the scientist and the science writer have a pretty good idea who the audience is. I suspect that someone with years of experience, such as Tamara Poles, could be really helpful in such a situation.

One of the other panelists, Hannah Hoag, asks scientists to give a one sentence summary about why the story matters and then it’s up to the editors to craft a narrative that “serves the current audience.” She didn’t give any examples but I can imagine a scientist telling their press officer that their latest publication overthrows the dogma of junk DNA and then the science writer will turn this into a good story for the press release.

What happens in many cases is that the press release emphasizes the opinions of the scientists and not what's actually in the paper under discussion. There's often a very good reason why the bizarre opinions of the scientist didn't make it past peer review. It's not a good idea for university press officers to overrule the peer review process in order to make the scientist seem more human. That could, and often does, backfire.

The result is often a press release that is scientifically inaccurate and misrepresents what actually got published. Is this a case where the science writer is too eager to craft a narrative at the expense of scientific accuracy?

The fact that the knowledgeable members of the audience will mock the press release apparently isn’t relevant because the wider audience, who doesn’t know any better, will come away with the impression that your university is at leading edge of knowledge in this field.

What’s the proper audience in this case? I maintain that it’s the scientifically literate readers who know something about the topic. If they aren’t onside then the rest of the audience doesn’t matter. This is why I say that the top three criteria in science communication are accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. I get the impression that for press officers the top three criteria are publicity, publicity, and publicity.

Press officers should know to not always believe their scientist, especially if the sceintist is obviously hyping their results. Do your homework. Stick to what's actually in the scientific paper that was published.

The decline of Scientific American

Now we get to one of the most interesting comments in the article—it concerns the magazine Scientific American. I started my subscription to Scientific American when I was about twelve years old and I kept it until I graduated from college. I had no trouble understanding the articles even though they contained a fair amount of scientific jargon and concepts and ideas that were new to me. I vividly remember learning about the genetic code from Marshall Nirenberg [THE GENETIC CODE II] and Francis Crick [THE GENETIC CODE III] and learning about gene regulation from Mark Ptashne and Walter Gilbert [Genetic Repressors].

I also remember articles by Seymour Benzer [The Fine Structure of the Gene and an excellent and exciting article on VIRUSES AND GENES by François Jacob and Elie L. Wollman. That last article was the beginning of my desire to work on bacteria and bacteriophage when I grew up. I had no idea that I would eventually get to meet all those famous scientists.

Later on, I read Mootoo Kimura’s article on The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution and that helped solidify my understanding of Neutral Theory.

I’m adding a couple of figures from some of those articles to show you the level that was considered appropriate for high school and college students who were interested in science.

I can assure you from personal experience that some editors might consider figures like that to be too advanced for a book on what’s in your genome and the new editors of Scientific American would probably agree since that magazine has been dumbed down to the point where us old fogies don’t even recognize it.

Here’s what one of the panelists had to say about that.

Michael Lemonick, the recently retired Chief Opinion Editor of Scientific American, pointed out that Scientific American has transitioned over time from a highly technical publication to one with a significant online presence that has focused on popular science, controversies, and the sociology of science. That means resetting the expectations of scientists that may have grown up reading the magazine in print. One way he does it is to provide a marked-up copy of the draft back to scientists and explain the edits to them, not being afraid to challenge the experts in the field. “We are experts at what we do [too]. This is not a problem for us.”

What’s changed is the perceived audience. Back in the 1960s, the audience was expected to be interested in science and willing to learn new things and new jargon. They were expected to be intelligent. From the point of view of science writers, today’s target audience is very different. Science writers now think that today’s audience can’t handle the “highly technical” level that I easily coped with when I was in high school.

You can get a good impression of how low Scientific American has sunk by comparing a 1972 cover with one from this year.

I think the science writers are wrong. I think that the people who should be reading their articles and buying their books are the same ones who used to read Scientific American and bought The Molecular Biology of the Gene back in the 1960s. They also bought and read Chance and Necessity in 1972. They are people who are interested in science and are scientifically literate. They are willing to learn new things so they're not afraid of articles containing new information that they've never heard before. This audience is NOT the people who read the latest novels on the New York Times best sellers list.2

Science writers have abandoned that audience and scientific literacy has suffered. When is the last time you read Scientific American?

The intended audience

Let's be clear about the possible roles of science editors. Editors can be really helpful in recommending stylistic changes that make an article or book read better. That’s a given. But problems arise when an editor wants to change the content (substance) in order to address a perceived audience. That’s when the scientist can balk.

Here’s another panelist who talks about the intended audience.

Like Lemonick, Fenella Saunders, the Editor-in-Chief of American Scientist (not related to Scientific American), would politely and determinedly explain to scientists she works with how stylistic edits would make it clearer for the audience. In addition, she would ask experts to carefully read through captions and scale bars to make sure that they are accurate and presentable. To grease the wheels, she would further complete an author agreement that lays out the timeline and expectations. Publication is not guaranteed upon acceptance of a draft at American Scientist unless scientists put in the work to reframe their work that resonates with their intended audience.

In my experience, it’s the definition of “intended audience” that’s at issue. Many editors are convinced that they know more about the intended audience than the scientists and I don’t think that’s true. As I pointed out above, the expectation of the intended audience has declined considerably over the past 50 years so there's been increasing pressure on scientists to dumb down their writing to meet these lowered expectations. Maybe the scientists want to write for a different audience? What if "dumbing down" has gone too far? Why don’t we try to elevate the level of science communication and raise our expectations? Maybe it will lead to increased science literacy.3

I think American Scientist (published by Sigma Xi) is another example of a popular magazine whose level of scientific accuracy and sophistication has dropped over the past few decades.

When I was a student in college, our biology department subscribed to American Scientist and I read every issue when it came out. The articles were at the level expected for students in university. Now all the articles have to be hyped to try and attract extra readers.

Let’s look at an example. The figure below is taken from an article published in 1969 by a famous scientist, Robert Sinsheimer [THE PROSPECT FOR DESIGNED GENETIC CHANGE]. You can read the article yourself but all you have to do is look at the figure below to see that this is a level that no modern science editors would accept. They think that today’s audience is much too stupid to understand anything this complicated no matter how well it’s explained by the scientist author.

Fast forward to 2021 and this is the kind of article that’s published in American Scientist: Turning Junk into Us: How Genes Are Born. In this case it’s a collaboration between a science writer, Emily Mortola, and a scientist, Manyuan Long. Here’s a quotation from the article.

Close to 99 percent of our genome has been historically classified as noncoding, useless “junk” DNA. Consequently, these sequences were rarely studied.

Now, that may make for easy reading and clarity but it’s just BS. Everything in those two sentences is wrong. Substance was sacrificed for style. If you want more information you can read my blog post from last May [More misinformation about junk DNA: this time it's in American Scientist].

I don’t know what kind of audience American Scientist is targeting but it certainly isn’t any of the undergraduates who took my courses. They would recognize right away that the article totally misrepresents the field. The authors even get the Central Dogma wrong. (They’re in good company, many scientists also get it wrong.) I'm pretty sure that an article as bad as that would never have gotten published in the 1960s because those articles were written by experts in their field. (It would be interesting to know whether the editors of those magazines made significant changes to the drafts submitted by Francis Crick, Seymour Benzer, or Robert Sinsheimer. You probably know the answer if you know these men!)

Science editors want to help

I'm certain that the editors on the panel are genuinely interested in helping scientists communicate with the general public but they really need to examine their own house before preaching to scientists. Tamara Poles is quoted as saying that she often sends outstanding examples of science writing to scientists in order help them learn the best engagement practices. I’d be interested in seeing some of these "outstanding" examples in biochemistry, molecular biology, or evolution.

The article closes with advocating the lofty goal of editors and scientists working together to find common ground with their audience.

There is no reason why the wonders and obstacles of science can’t be understood by more people if the effort is put in.

That’s a good idea in principle but it's not working in practice. These editors first have to come to grips with the fact that they have not been very successful so far. For example, I’m writing a book that includes a chapter on the ENCODE publicity campaign of 2012—a campaign that illustrates just how easy it was to dupe science writers into spreading false information. There are plenty of other examples.

Here’s some advice from a scientist to science writers and editors.

  • You need to be knowledgeable about your subject. There are plenty of scientists out there who are interested in spreading false information and it’s your job to be skeptical and confirm that you’ve got the facts straight. Substance first, style later. Fact checking is the new reality.

  • Make sure you understand the real audience—not the one you have been trained to imagine. I suggest that the real audience is a lot more intelligent than you give them credit for. They can handle scientific terms and some jargon. Let’s incease the level of science writing to address a more sophisticated audience instead of dumbing it down to the level of an audience that’s never going to read your articles.

  • If the main purpose of writing press releases if to get publicity by spreading your copy to media outlets then you are not a science writer. You are a publicist.

  • Some science is complicated. I’m thinking of evolution, genomes, and biochemistry, but I’m sure this applies to geology, physics, and chemistry as well. It certainly applies to climate change. There will be times when your editorial preferences conflict with the wishes of the scientist who wants to explain some difficult concepts. Be prepared to sacrifice a bit of style in order to get the substance right.

  • The wonders and obstacles of science—with all it’s complexities and limitations—can be understood by more people but only if you understand it yourself and are willing to collaborate on the science as well as the writing.


1. I even attended one of her talks and I can say, without a hint of bias, that they were brilliant!

2. I concede that in an ideal world you could sell a million copies of a science book by appealing to the wider audience but those kind of books are often ones that sacrifice substance for style and some of us can’t lower ourselves to write those kind of books.

3. I'm sure the question of sales and profit will come up in the comments. We can discuss it there.

3 comments :

  1. Agreed on SciAm. Back in the 80s it was often challenging to read. By 2000 it was like Discover, and barely worth opening.

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  2. I'm afraid that many of the scientists being interviewed by science journalists are just as complicit in dumbing down, hyping, and sensationalizing their work as the journalists and their editors.

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    1. Yes, that’s very true. My point is that science writers are complicit, and gullible. They need to wake up to the fact that they are being duped. They need to recognize that they have a professional responsibility to be more than just publicists, especially if they are going to promote themselves as the experts in communicating science to the general public.

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