The circumstances in which scientists are science journos

On September 6, 2019, two researchers from Israel uploaded a preprint to the bioRxiv preprint server entitled ‘Can scientists fill the science journalism void? Online public engagement with two science stories authored by scientists’. Two news sites invited scientists to write science articles for them, supported by a short workshop at the start of the programme and then by a group of editors during the ideation and editing process. The two researchers tracked and analysed the results, concluding:

Overall significant differences were not found in the public’s engagement with the different items. Although, on one website there was a significant difference on two out of four engagement types, the second website did not have any difference, e.g., people did not click, like or comment more on items written by organic reporters than on the stories written by scientists. This creates an optimistic starting point for filling the science news void [with] scientists as science reporters.

Setting aside questions about the analysis’s robustness: I don’t understand the point of this study (insofar as it concerns scientists being published in news websites, not blogs), as a matter of principle. When was the optimism in question ever in doubt? And if it was, how does this preprint paper allay it?

The study aims to establish whether articles written by scientists can be just as successful – in terms of drawing traffic or audience engagement – as articles penned by trained journalists working in newsrooms. There are numerous examples that this is the case, and there are numerous other examples that this is not. But by discussing the results of their survey in a scientific paper, the authors seem to want to elevate the possibility that articles authored by scientists can perform well to a well-bounded result – which seems questionable at best, even if it is strongly confined to the Israeli market.

To take a charitable view, the study effectively reaffirms one part of a wider reality.

I strongly doubt there’s a specific underlying principle that suggests a successful outcome, at least beyond the mundane truism that the outcome is a combination of many things. From what I’ve seen in India, for example, the performance of a ‘performant article’ depends on the identity of the platform, the quality of its editors, the publication’s business model and its success, the writer’s sensibilities, the magnitude and direction of the writer’s moral compass, the writer’s fluency in the language and medium of choice, the features of the audience being targeted, and the article’s headline, length, time of publication and packaging.

It’s true that a well-written article will often perform better than average and a poorly written written article will perform worse than average, in spire of all these intervening factors, but these aren’t the only two states in which an article can exist. In this regard, claiming scientists “stand a chance” says nothing about the different factors in play and even less about why some articles won’t do well.

It also minimises editorial contributions. The two authors write in their preprint, “News sites are a competitive environment where scientists’ stories compete for attention with other news stories on hard and soft topics written by professional writers. Do they stand a chance?” This question ignores the publisher’s confounding self-interest: to maximise a story’s impact roughly proportional to the amount of labour expended to produce it, such as with the use of a social media team. More broadly, if there are fewer science journalists, there are also going to be fewer science editors (an event that precipitated the former will most likely precipitate the latter as well), which means there will also be fewer science stories written by anyone in the media.

Another issue here is something I can’t stress enough: science writers, communicators and journalists don’t have a monopoly on writing about science or scientists. The best science journalism has certainly been produced by reporters who have been science journalists for a while, but this is no reason to write off the potential for good journalism – in general – to produce stories that include science, nor to exclude such stories from analyses of how the people get their science news.

A simple example is environmental journalism in India. Thanks to prevalent injustices, many important nuggets of environmental and ecological knowledge appear in articles written by reporters working the social justice and political economics beats. This has an important lesson for science reporters and editors everywhere: not being employed full-time is typically a bitter prospect but your skills don’t have to manifest in stories that appear on pages or sections set aside for science news alone.

It also indicates that replenishing the workforce (even with free labour) won’t stave off the decline of science journalism – such as it is – as much as tackling deeper, potentially extra-scientific, issues such as parochialism and anti-intellectualism, and as a second step convincing both editors and marketers about the need to publish science journalism including and beyond considerations of profit.

Last, the authors further write:

This study examined whether readers reacted differently to science news items written by scientists as compared to news items written by organic reporters published on the same online news media sites. Generally speaking, based on our findings, the answer is no: audiences interacted similarly with both. This finding justifies the time and effort invested by the scientists and the Davidson science communication team to write attractive science stories, and justifies the resources provided by the news sites. Apparently if websites publish it, audiences will consume it.

An editor could have told you this in a heartbeat. Excluding audiences that consume content from niche outlets, and especially including audiences that flock to ‘destination’ sites (i.e. sites that cover nearly everything), authorship rarely ever matters unless the author is prominent or the publication highlights it. But while the Israeli duo has reason to celebrate this user behaviour, as it does, others have seen red.

For example, in December 2018, the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal published a paper by an Oxford University physicist named Jamie Farnes advancing a fanciful solution to the dark matter and dark energy problems. The paper was eventually widely debunked by scientists and science journalists alike but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of people were taken by an article in The Conversation that seemed to support the paper’s conclusions. What many of them – including some scientists – didn’t realise was that The Conversation often features scientists writing articles about their own work, and didn’t know the problem article had been written by Farnes himself.

So even if the preprint study skipped articles written by scientists about their own work, the duos’s “build it and they will come” inference is not generalisable, especially if – for another example – someone else from Oxford University had written favourably about Farnes’s paper. I regularly field questions from young scientist-writers baffled as to why I won’t publish articles that quote ‘independent’ scientists commenting on a study they didn’t participate in but which was funded, in part or fully, by the independent scientists’ employer(s).

I was hoping to neatly tie my observations together in a conclusion but some other work has come up, so I hope you won’t mind the abrupt ending as well as that, in the absence of a concluding portion, you won’t fall prey to the recency effect.

A metallic sculpture of a set of large orbs connected by slender rods, resembling a cube.

Good writing is an atom

The act of writing well is like an atom, or the universe. There is matter but it is thinly distributed, with lots of empty space in between. Removing this seeming nothingness won’t help, however. Its presence is necessary for things to remain the way they are and work just as well. Similarly, writing is not simply the deployment of words. There is often the need to stop mid-word and take stock of what you have composed thus far and what the best way to proceed could be, even as you remain mindful of the elegance of the sentence you are currently constructing and its appropriate situation in the overarching narrative. In the end, there will be lots of words to show for your effort but you will have spent even more time thinking about what you were doing and how you were doing it. Good writing, like the internal configuration of a set of protons, neutrons and electrons, is – physically speaking – very little about the labels attached to describe them. And good writing, like the vacuum energy of empty space, acquires its breadth and timelessness because it encompasses a lot of things that one cannot directly see.

Were you looking for the full picture? Credit: ISRO + Snorpey

An award that isn’t

ISRO just put out a call for a one-time space journalism award, named for Vikram Sarabhai, with a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh. Here’s the doc with all the details. Pay attention to (4), where it says submissions will be judged on the basis of “articles/success stories”:

In other words (and especially in the absence of organised information about ISRO’s missions to work with), this is a call for articles that make ISRO look good, even if it hasn’t been good in many ways in the last 18-24 months. For example, ISRO’s official Twitter handle recently wished Akshay Kumar, Bollywood actor and unabashed Hindutva supporter, for the release of his upcoming film ‘Mission Mangal’. Its trailer has already been lampooned for its unabashed absurdity. For another, since early 2018, there has been a marked decline in the level of access journalists have had to ISRO insiders, and the spokesperson has also been becoming more unresponsive; others have also complained about ISRO’s newsletters being suspended without any notice.

Now, ISRO has invited applicants for what is really the Vikram Sarabhai Obsequious Space Journalism Award.

Two things further get my goat via-à-vis the award.

First: India’s media landscape is really fragmented right now, and many parts of it are either brazenly sucking up to the government or are deferring to the government’s might and publishing only decidedly optimistic stories (even to the point of contrivance). As a result, a media boycott – which in other circumstances would have been compelling – is out of the question. ISRO will have no shortage of applications for its award, and some journalists who are really stenographers of government-issue press releases are going to walk away with Rs 6 lakh.

Second: the name of ‘Vikram Sarabhai’ has always been earmarked for use by the Department of Space. But by attaching it to an award that doesn’t celebrate the goodness of good journalism but its antithesis, it feels like ISRO has acted against what the name has stood for: integrity. Sarabhai’s legacy is not ISRO as much as ISRO’s famous working culture; to use the words of a former employee, the org. has always doled out “promotions … based on performance instead of seniority and/or vacancy”. But on this occasion, the award – at least according to the phrasing in the doc – is set to promote not performance but servility.

Diversifying into other beats

I delivered my annual talk AMA at the NCBS science writing workshop yesterday. While the questions the students asked were mostly the same as last year (and the year before that), I also took the opportunity to request them to consider diversifying into other subjects. Most, if not all, journalists entering India’s science journalism space every year want to compose stories about the life sciences and/or ecology. As a result, however, while there are numerous journalists to write about issues in these areas, there are fewer than a handful to deal with developments in all the other ones – from theoretical particle physics to computer science to chemical engineering.

This gives the impression to the consumers of journalism that research in these areas isn’t worth writing about or, more perniciously, that developments in these areas aren’t to be discussed (and debated, if need be) in the public domain. And this in turn contributes to a vicious cycle, where “there no stories about physics” and “there is no interest in publishing stories about physics” successively keep readers/editors and the journalists, resp., at bay.

However, from an editor’s perspective, the problem has an eminently simple solution: induct and then publish reporters producing work on research on these subjects. This doesn’t always have to be of newly minted producers but could also benefit from existing ones actively diversifying into beats other than their first choices over the course of a few years.

This sort of diversification doesn’t happen regularly but if it does, it could also benefit younger journalists who are looking to make their presence felt. For example, it’s easier to stand out from the crowd writing about, say, semiconductor fabrication than about ecological research (although this isn’t to say one is more important than the other). When more such writing is produced, editors also stand to gain because they can offer readers a more even coverage of research in the country instead of painting a lopsided picture.

One might argue that there needs to be demand from readers as well, but the relationship between editors and readers isn’t a straightforward demand-supply contest. If that were the case, the news would have become synonymous with populist drivel a long time ago. Instead, it’s more about progressively creating newer interests in the longer run that are a combination of informative and interesting. Put one way, this means the editor should be able to bypass the ‘interestedness indicator’ once in a while to publish stories that readers didn’t know they needed (such as The Wire‘s piece on quantum biology earlier this month).

Such a thing obviously wouldn’t be possible without journalists pitching stories other than what they usually do, and of course editors who have signalled that they are willing to take such risks.

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

We don't have a problem with the West, we're just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

To watch ‘The Post’

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

§

Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

To watch 'The Post'

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

§

Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

Limitations of the Finkbeiner test

This post was republished on The Wire on January 8, 2018.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It’s a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you’re going to write the piece because the subject’s a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for choosing to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. As a result, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information.

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at the higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? I’d think not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, I’ve learned from several The Life of Science profiles that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists with faculty-level positions were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre in IISER Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Two notes at this point. First: Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they shouldn’t be characterised as. In such cases, the journalist must and will respect their choice. Second: To be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. At the same time, this caveat could come off as short-sighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it’s possible to expect meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other countries, the test could be altered such that,

  1. A discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other – This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers don’t take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good, and
  2. Profiles of male scientists include questions about what they’re doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.

Featured image credit: bones64/pixabay.

Happy new year!

2017 was a blast. Lots of things happened. The world became a shittier place in many ways and better in a few. Mostly, Earth just went around the Sun once more, and from what we know, it’s going to be doing that for a while. But here’s to a roaring 2018 anyway!

As of January 2018, this blog is nine years old. Thanks for staying with me on this (often meandering) journey, even when its name changed a billion times in the middle of 2017. The interest many of you have been nice enough to express vocally is what has kept me going. I published 113 blog posts this year, up a 100% from 2016. I also had 70 articles published in The Wire. I’m quite happy with that total of 183.

I think I will continue writing more on my blog than for The Wire through the first half of 2018 because editing freelancers’ submissions will continue to take up most of my time.

This is a consequence of two things I tried to do differently last year: publish more reported stories and get more writers. So given the limited monthly budget, and the fact that opinions are cheaper than reports, the published story count (3901) was lower than that in 2016 – but the stories themselves were great, and we also got almost twice as many science writers to write them.

In 2018, I hope to expand the science journalism team at The Wire. We’ve also been planning a new-look section with a more diverse content offering. I’ll keep you all posted on how that goes. (If you wish to work with us, apply for a suitable position here.)

Personally, 2017 was full of ups and downs but since it ended mostly on the up, that’s how I’m going to remember the year. I did little to quell my anxieties and got back on antidepressants – but then I also moved to Chennai and started playing Dungeons & Dragons. Life’s good.

I’ll see you on the other side soon.

1. This excludes reports syndicated from publications The Wire has a content-sharing agreement with, republished content and agency copies.

Featured image credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.