Journalists, editors and science writers – checking with the source

By Grant Jacobs 21/09/2011

A head‘s up to all those interested in science writing or, more widely, editing or journalism: make some time to head over to David Kroll’s blog and read his article Trine Tsouderos on This Week in Virology: When do you fact-check article content with sources? and the especially the extensive commentary in response to it.

The question at hand is checking the facts of an article with the source, in the case of science writing – the scientist. Many established (and notable) science writers have already offered thoughts.

My modest contribution is a passing reference to a passage from Elise Hancock’s ideas into words from page 46. Let me share the full passage with you. She writes that she views science writing as a collaboration of sorts, with scientists presenting material she translates for a wider readership. Moving on to the subject of showing copy she writes,

And finally, consider the vexing issue of showing copy. This issue is always live, and more so for students.

Here again, the notion of collaboration helps you out. I usually say, ’You will have the opportunity to fact-check, because I want it right as much as you do. And of course, I will be delighted to hear any other suggestions you may have about the piece.’ The key word is fact-check. Beyond facts, there is no commitment to let scientists rewrite my words under my byline (as distinct from hearing suggestions), or even to literally show them copy. I do make an absolute commitment to get the material right.

On such a basis, showing copy or iffy parts of the copy can work very well. Do it in person, however. Sit right there, saying things like, ’We’ll say X, then,’ and leave with the amended copy. If you leave it, the scientist will get second thoughts, and you will be in big trouble. For short, straight-forward stuff, read the iffy bits over the phone.

You’ll see that the discussion at David’s blog has a similar focus, but with different views and angles presented.

A number of those commenting at David’s blog have compared the difference of science writing with (say) political reporting. I had similar thoughts on reading David’s article. It struck me that this comment to a blog article about erroneous statements by creationists was also relevant (somewhat bizarrely given the very different topic):

Their goal is political, not academic. Fraud is not permitted in academia, but it is encouraged in politics.

This perhaps points in the direction of why checking political sources might not wash in the way that checking a scientific source might – ?

(This also has echoes of an article I wrote ruminating that a key thing in asking about science is to ask what is known, not opinions.)

Head on over and read what experienced science writers have to say on showing copy to the source.

Other articles on Code for life:

Of use of the active voice by scientists

How did you learn to critique the scientific literature?

Corrections and clarifications

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

Should we teach examples of scientists falling for unscientific practices?

0 Responses to “Journalists, editors and science writers – checking with the source”

  • A number of people in David’s thread seem to think my Hancock quotation contrary to the topic (i.e. being only about PIO/PR work rather than journalism or science writing). It’s rather nice discussion and I find the implication that my words are contrariwise a little upsetting – that certainly wasn’t my intention!

    In fact, I offered the passage as having similar sentiment as others had offered in the thread. It seems to me that a possible point of confusion is that they are reading more into the word ‘collaboration’ than is intended.

    My own reading of the word was simply a way of approaching people to put them at ease that the writer is keen to have the facts correct, not a collaboration over the text of the piece itself. (She makes quite clear the writer is in control of that.) I suspect it would help if I also gave the context prior to the passage I quoted, but my limited time isn’t up to transcribing much more. (You’ll note she write the notion of collaboration; a concept, not literally a collaboration.)

    Certainly Hancock’s book as a whole seems targeted a science writers in the widest sense of the word. That’s not to say that her advice might be coloured by her personal/professional experience, as we all are.

    I suspect another part of the differing opinions expressed in the thread are what type of material the writers are presenting and their skills. Writers who are writing what might be described as ‘translations’ of current science might have less need of the ‘adversarial’ that some writers there suggest journalists ‘must’ have. Likewise, those with stronger backgrounds in the area of science they are covering may feel they have a better judgement of the material that is being presented to them and feel less need to confirm with the source.

    Point being, I suspect there isn’t one rule for all, but that the specifics matter.