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“Where do you find the ideas for your posts?”

It’s a question I get asked reasonably often, by both colleagues & students. They probably think I bang on a bit in my answer, but it’s not as simple as a straightforward list :-)

One source is the scientific literature. Obviously I can’t read everything, but I do skim the contents pages for Science Nature, & of course PLoS One. Often I’ll see something there that makes me think, Hmmm, that looks like an interesting paper to write about. And I’ll read it, look at the references, weigh up what it’s saying, & try to come up with a way of making it interesting & relevant to my ‘target’ audience. (If I can’t do that last part, then often I’ll pass it over for blogging, although I may well give it to my first-year students to read.) Material from this source has been through the peer-review process, and while this is definitely not perfect, you can at least (usually!) rely on the paper not containing serious flaws.

Related to that is the work of the science blogging community. Many of us use the ResearchBlogging logo to denote posts about published research papers, & that can also tip me off about an interesting paper that I can read & interpret myself. Or – if the original blogger has pretty much said it all! – I can just point you all in that direction :-)

And there are news stories about science - but those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I tend to take these with a grain of salt :) (Just use the word ‘journalism’ to search this blog & you’ll see what I mean.) Stories in the media are going to be framed in such a way as to sell papers (or magazines) or attract viewers/listeners, & this can mean that they don’t necessarily give a completely accurate view of the science involved. So when I read them, one of the things I’m looking for is a reference to the scientists involved (by name) & the journal(s) in which this particular piece of work was published. Then I can go to the original scientific paper & read what was done for myself.

Now, sometimes any differences between the journal article & the story in the popular press can be put down to journalistic license (see Jim McVeagh’s recent post on some work by the Liggins Institute) – or they may be due to the press release put out by the scientists’ institution (sometimes written by the scientists themselves, & sometimes by the organisation’s PR office, based on something that the researchers have sent across). Every now & then a release may be exaggerated a bit, or might add a bit of spin that wasn’t in the original information. Or the science team themselves may do this – after all, it’s a competitive world & you do want to get people to pay attention to what you’ve done. For those reasons I wouldn’t use unsupported press releases as the basis for a story. Again, I want to see the publication based on the original research. If the release (& subsequent media article) don’t point to an actual publication well, that makes me very cautious indeed.

And sometimes, of course, something I’ve done or seen or thought will set me off & voila! we may have a different sort of post altogether :-)

(A while ago I was actually asked if I’d write posts based on press releases – the answer was a resounding ‘No!!’. Not only because of my concerns about framing & spin & the need to see the original research paper, but also because it seemed to me that I’d be losing a certain amount of independence if I went down that route.)