Travis’ note: Dave Munger has been a writer and editor for over two decades. He was the coauthor of Cognitive Daily, one of the web’s best-known research psychology blogs. He also co-founded ResearchBlogging.org and ScienceSeeker.org. which collect thousands of science posts from hundreds of blogs in several different languages. He is a columnist for Seedmagazine.com and and 3quarksdaily.com . Here are his thoughts on what to do, and what not to do, when writing a blog post about science.
Scientists and science journalists have all sorts of reasons for writing about science. They may want to share their latest discovery with the world, run a hypothesis by a critical audience, increase their personal profile, or show that they’re cut out for bigger things, like the gossip column.
What I’m going to talk about here is specifically how to write a good research blog post; the kind that might get picked as an Editor’s Selection on ResearchBlogging.org. We typically look for posts that will be interesting to a wider audience than just experts in a field. So it’s important to be clear and engaging, and to give your readers a little help understanding a study that’s probably out of field for them. This post borrows quite heavily from a post I wrote on Cognitive Daily four years ago, so you might want to check that post out too; there are some great tips in the comments section.
1. Find interesting research
This may seem like an obvious step, but there are a couple of problems with the way scientific research is often reported today. First of all, interesting doesn’t necessarily mean new. The major science journals like to make a big splash when their latest issue comes out. After all, the more people hear of them, the more likely they are to subscribe (or ask their library to subscribe). But the general public doesn’t spend every day poring over press releases to find the most up-to-the-second research. What’s interesting to the public is research that’s relevant to their lives — or research that’s just too cool to ignore. This might be a study that was done months or even years ago. If they haven’t heard of it, it’s news to them. The most popular article ever on Cognitive Daily reported on research that was two years old.
2. Make sure you understand it!
Take the time to read the study carefully. If you don’t understand some bit of methods or analysis, find out about it, preferably going beyond just a wikipedia search. This will obviously be easier if you’re in-field, but I often find that writers take some aspects of the research they’re writing about for granted. Question everything! I kept several psychology textbooks handy when I wrote for Cognitive Daily, and I try to verify everything I write on SEED as well with a non-wikipedia source.
I like to underline or highlight key sections of the document I’m writing about, but in general I avoid referring to it as I’m writing, except to verify facts and figures. In this way I’m sure I’m putting everything in my own words.
I also like to put the study aside for at least 30 minutes before writing it up. This helps me clarify my thoughts and come up with a fresh perspective on the material, because the next step requires a writer to approach the article in a new way.
3. Show why it’s interesting first
Don’t write up the article in the same order as the authors! They are constricted by the formal requirements of writing a journal article! Another big mistake can be to assume the only reason a study is interesting is because of its practical applications — there are lots of reasons a research study can be interesting. For example, it might offer insight into place or group that’s very foreign to readers. It might show why an everyday problem is more complicated than most people believe. It might question a common assumption. That’s not to say that research with practical applications isn’t interesting as well, just that there’s no formula for deciding what’s interesting about an article. Often your first instinct about an article is right. Whatever you decide on, that’s where you should begin.
But don’t become with obsessed with making research “seem” interesting:
4. Let the research speak for itself
In nearly every case where I’ve written about science for a wide audience, I’ve been impressed with readers’ hunger for details about the research process. People don’t just want to know the researchers’ conclusions, they want to understand for themselves how the research was done. When you write about a scientific study, avoid the temptation to gloss over details about methods, to omit the data the study produced, or to ignore other relevant studies the authors mention in their introduction. For an example, take a look at this post. where readers asked for even more details than I originally presented.
On the other hand:
5. Don’t include details that are only relevant to scientists
A journal article is written primarily for a scientific audience. It’s designed to be complete enough that other researchers can repeat the identical study and get similar results. Needless to say, most readers won’t be doing that, so you can omit details from your report such as how much the volunteer participants were paid, what solution the slides were prepared in, or the precise geographic range of the animals in the study, unless these things are directly related to the point of the study.
This is closely related to the next point:
6. Don’t use scientific jargon
I can’t emphasize this point enough. Most of your readers are not scientists, and although scientists do like to read popular accounts of scientific work, they are a secondary audience — and they can always read the original article if they want clarification. I try to stay away from even the most basic scientific terms, like hypothesis, confidence interval, stimuli, ANOVA, and the abbreviations that researchers like to pepper through their work: p, r, F, t. and so on. Researchers also like to create their own abbreviations, for use in just one paper! Avoid these at all costs, instead explaining the concept behind the abbreviation (or just spelling out the word!). If you must use a bit of jargon (generally this is only necessary if you’ll be talking about it repeatedly within an article) explain what you’re talking about, and if possible, include a link with more
Although I agree with the spirit of what he’s saying, I’m not sure I buy Carl Zimmer’s idea that there are some words a science writer should always avoid. The main thing is to be aware of your audience so you don’t scare them off with words they don’t understand. Since we’re talking in this case about a general audience, there are very few words on Zimmer’s list I’m comfortable using.
7. Tell a story
Although many researchers are excellent writers, they are bound by a formulaic approach to reporting on their research. In nearly every scientific field, journal articles start with a literature review, then provide methods, results, and a discussion (not necessarily in that order). If a study contains four separate experiments, these sections are repeated four times. Scientists often are required to state a hypothesis at the beginning of their report, then restate it at the end and indicate whether the data support the hypothesis. You are not subject to those limitations. What you want to do is grab your readers’ interest, then lead them through the research in a way that satisfies their curiosity. You might start off with an anecdote. but you might just show a picture of one of the stimuli from the study, or even do as researchers must do and review some of the relevant research. The trick is to start off with something interesting, but leave a few questions unanswered, so that the reader wants to follow along with you all the way to the end. Sometimes that may mean omitting some of the research reported in the article you’re writing about. You might skip whole experiments, or report only part of the results. As long as you’re reporting accurately, there’s no rule saying you have to summarize the entire article you’re discussing.
8. Don’t leave your work open for misinterpretation, especially at the start
Assume most of your readers won’t get past the headline. Assume most of the rest won’t get past the opening paragraph. In this column from last year, I didn’t follow my own advice, and even though I was trying to debunk the idea of a “tormented genius,” I didn’t debunk it soon enough in the piece, and many readers erroneously thought I was saying more intelligent people were more likely to commit suicide (for more on this issue, see my follow-up column ).
Remember, your readers are under no obligation to finish your article, so try to make sure that if they stop reading at any point along the way, they won’t come away with the wrong impression.
9. Visuals need the same treatment as words
Visuals can go a long way toward making a complex subject understandable, but you need to be careful with them: remember, just like the words in a scientific article, the images were created for other scientists. Consider this graph from a journal article we reported on in CogDaily:
Seems straightforward enough (I cropped off a second graph which included the vertical axis label, “observer ratings”). Observers are rating emotions portrayed by actors. The question the graph addresses is whether viewers can recognize the intended emotion when the image is displayed upside-down. But there are some problems with this figure. First of all, how can an “emotion portrayed” be either “portrayed” or “non-portrayed”? The text in the article makes it clear that observers rate each video for each emotion, whether or not that’s what the actor intended. But the x-axis label here confuses that. I fixed it in the version I used in the article:
I also removed the error bars (this is controversial even among CogDaily readers) to simplify the graph even more, and added color in case I need to discuss the graph in detail (“red” and “yellow” are clearer in a discussion than “dark hashmarks” and “dotted hashmarks”). Then I explain the figure in the text:
This time, the results were less consistent: While viewers were still able to recognize anger, joy, sadness, and love, the two other emotions — fear and disgust — were rated as highly for other emotions as they were for the intended emotions.
Explaining your figures is crucial — you have to not only show the image, but show readers why it’s important.
Equally important — don’t use images that don’t help tell your story. There’s no need to ornament your story with pictures just to make it “look pretty.” Don’t include a picture of a rat just because the study discusses rat behavior. But a photo of a rat using the experimental apparatus might be helpful.
10. Keep it concise
Your report on scientific research should be significantly shorter than the original. I tried to keep CogDaily articles under 1,000 words, and my columns are generally 750 to 1,250 words as well. If a journal article is especially complex, consider giving it two parts. or omitting some of the results (as long as you’re not distorting the bigger picture). Equally important is keeping your language concise. Don’t use a bigger word when a smaller one will do. The research itself is complicated enough without making your language complicated, too.
11. Cite your sources
Give a full citation of the original source at the end of your report (I can’t tell you how aggravating it is that the mainstream media doesn’t do this). Link to any other resources you include in your post. If you borrow an image, link to the source for that. And obviously, don’t plagiarize. If you borrow someone’s words, put them in quotes, and let readers know where they came from.
12. Get it right! Get it right! Get it right!
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I see it so often in science reporting that it bears repeating: Make sure you get the science right. Don’t mistake correlation for causation. Don’t overgeneralize results. You can take the lead from the way the researchers themselves qualify their own work. That said, don’t make it boring. You can express more controversial possibilities by posing them as questions, or by qualifying them with “might” or “may.” Even so, be careful. An article titled “Researchers discover a new cure for cancer?” is still misleading.
Also, make sure you’re reporting on work that has been peer-reviewed. Conference presentations usually aren’t reviewed, and sometimes researchers will post unreviewed research on their web sites. If you’re not sure, check the policies of the journal or site where the research was published.
13. Have fun!