Editorial Guidelines for Science Journalism

The following is a (lightly edited) excerpt from Wikitribune’s editorial guidelines for science stories, written by myself an others over the past few months. You can read the original here. If anyone wants to use or adapt this for journalism education, feel free to contact me.

Choosing a Topic

Good types of studies to report on include:

  • Large secondary studies (e.g. systematic literature reviews, meta-analyses, systematic mapping studies), which summarize what is known about a topic and the strength of evidence for different claims.
  • New, exciting breakthroughs. For these, avoid over-hyping claims and pay close attention to limitations (see Part 2). Scientists avoid making strong recommendations based on a single study.
  • Old, interesting studies that never received the attention they deserved, or have new relevance due to current events. For example, this 1995 article showed that protein rich foods are not actually more filling than carbohydrate-rich foods, debunking the premise of the Atkins diet, but received little media attention.
  • Studies from fields that get less media attention including chemistry, criminology, engineering (except robotics and aerospace), geography, linguistics, management, social work and sociology.

Suggestions for Researching the Story

  • Read the entire paper, not just the abstract.
  • Contact the author(s). Give them a chance to let you know if you have correctly interpreted the study results.
  • Get a second (and third, and fourth) opinion on the significance of the paper from one or more experts in the area who do not have a conflict of interest with the author(s); for instance, co-authoring a paper or working at the same university.
  • Look for how the study fits into existing research. Is this part of a larger body of research? Is a consensus emerging, or are findings mixed?
  • Avoid using non-peer-reviewed journals where possible. Predatory journals are known to publish misleading information.

Suggestions for Writing the Story (Editorial Guidelines) 

  1. Always link to the official version of the publication (typically on the publisher’s website).
  2. If the publication is behind a paywall, link to an unofficial preprint if available. Good sources of preprints including: the author’s website, arXiv.org, ResearchGate, Academia.edu and the author’s university’s preprint server.
  3. If the study’s data is publicly available, link to the data.
  4. Refer to the author(s) by name. Do not say “researchers at Harvard…”
  5. Report the limitations listed in the study and any additional limitations suggested by other experts you contact for the story.
  6. Consider methodology and report on it if possible. A mathematical hypothesis or animal testing, vs an in-depth meta-analysis changes the story considerably.
  7. Report who funded the study. If the study was funded by a corporation with an interest in the outcome, reporting the funder is critical. If the study was funded by a research council (e.g. the National Science Foundation in the United States) or internally by a university, reporting the funder is good practice but not critical.
  8. Give due weight to competing claims. Global warming denialism does not need to be given attention in a scientific article.
  9. If possible, discuss implications for the everyday life of the reader. However, avoid drawing far-reaching implications that are not supported by the study.
  10. Consider the subconscious effects of images. For example, a picture of a crying baby or a huge needle on a vaccination story subconsciously supports the anti-vax movement. Pictures of fighter jets glorify a military story, while pictures of a soldier’s funeral are sobering. In a story about artificial intelligence, pictures of The Terminator or Commander Data (from Star Trek) imply very different futures.
  11. Avoid the following words:
    1. Prove, Disprove and Proof (unless you are referring to a breakthrough in mathematics) – empirical science neither proves nor disproves anything. Science “supports,” “indicates”, “demonstrates” and “evidences” or “refutes,” “rejects,” “undermines,” and “questions”.
    2. Theory, Hypothesis, Law, Paradigm – these words have different meanings in different scientific communities, and tend to confuse laypersons. Refer instead to a model; e.g., “Prof. Smith’s climate model shows that…”, “Prof. Li modelled the behavior of junior software engineers…”
    3. Unscientific language including miracle, holy grail, missing link and God particle.
  12. Take care when using words that have different meanings in science and everyday life, as exemplified in the following table.

Before creating your story, remember to check out our how-to guide, style guidelines, and a list of sources most trusted by the WikiTribune staff.

Suggested Resources

Sources of Open-Access Journals:
Directory of Open Access Journals
Wiley Open Access
PubMed Central – search all open access articles in the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine database
PubMed – results are individually annotated as to open access availability

Sources of Preprints (and sometimes official versions)
Research Gate

Organisations that produce science related reports (free access):
The Cochrane Library – search for systematic literature reviews on health and medicine
Food and Agriculture Organization

Websites with good scientific articles:
New Scientist
Psychology Today
Science Mag
Science Focus

Paywall/Student access depending on journal and university:
ACS Publications (limited number of free journals)
JSTOR (limited number of free journals)
Nature (limited number of free journals)
Science Direct (limited number of free journals)