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.

Ruins of the Sutlej avulsion paper’s coverage

Reporting on the new Indus civilisation study out of IIT-K and Imperial College London was an interesting experience because it afforded an opportunity to discover how the technical fields of sedimentology and hydrodynamics can help understand the different ways in which a civilisation can grow. And also how “fluviodeltaic morphodynamics” just rolls off the tongue.

In my report for The Wire, however, I stuck to the science for the most part because that in itself offered a lot to discover (and because you know I’m biased). For example, how the atomic lattices of quartz and feldspar played an important part in identifying that the Sutlej river had formerly occupied the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel.

Audience response to the reports were also along expected lines:

  • a fifth read it quietly, without much fanfare, asking polite questions (without notifying the authors, however) about various claims made in the article;
  • some two-fifths went to town with it, calling the Hindutva brigade’s search for the Saraswati a lost cause; and
  • another two-fifths also went to town with it, calling out The Wire‘s attempt to ‘disparage’ the Saraswati misguided.

I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

What was not along expected lines, however, was international coverage of the study. The BBC’s and Axios‘s headline on the topic were the following (in order): River departed ‘before Indus civilisation emergence’ and Indus Valley civilization may have arisen without a river. The Axios headline is just wrong. The BBC headline is fine but its article is wrong, stating:

The Indus society came to prominence in what is now northwest India and Pakistan some 5,300 years ago thanks in large part to the sustenance of a long-lost Himalayan river.

Or so it was thought.

New evidence now indicates this great water course had actually changed its path and disappeared before the Indus people had even settled in the region.

That they lacked the resource offered by a big, actively flowing river will come as a surprise to many; the other early urban societies of the time, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, certainly benefitted in this way.

The Daily Mail had an unsurprisingly garbage headlineMysterious Indus Valley Civilisation managed to thrive without a river to provide flowing water 5,300 years ago. Newsweek‘s headline (Long-lost river discovered in the Himalayas may completely change what we know about early civilisations) and article were both sensational. Excerpt:

Scientists have found the ancient remains of the river that prove it did not exist at the same time as the Indus civilization. This means the civilization existed without a major active water source, something archaeologists did not believe was possible.

The common mistake in all these reports is that they either assume or suggest that the Indus valley civilisation was fed by one river – at least in the first half – and that the entire civilisation was centred around that river. On the contrary, the Indus valley civilisation was the largest of its time, over a million sq. km in area, and was fed by the Indus and its dozens of tributaries (only one of which was the Sutlej).

This in turn limits the extent to which claims about civilisations being able to arise without perennial sources of water can be generalised. The prominent Indus valley settlements affected by the Sutlej’s avulsion are two in number (Banawali and Kalibangan) whereas the civilisation overall hosted over 1,000 such sites and, by one estimate, almost five million people. Second: to what extent would the Indus civilisation have been possible (relative to what actually was) if all of its settlements had been fed by gentler monsoonal rivers?

So yes, the study does provide a new perspective – a new possibility, rather – on the question of what resources are necessary to form a conducive natural environment for a proto-urban human settlement. But this is not a “revolutionary” idea, as many reports would have us believe, at least because other researchers have explored it before and at most because there is little data to run with at the moment. What we do know and for sure is that the Sutlej avulsed 8,000 years ago and, about 5,000 years ago, a part of the Indus valley civilisation took root in the abandoned valley.

Further, I’m also concerned the reports might overstate what “ancient Indians” (but for some reason not “ancient Pakistanis”) could have been capable of. This is a topic that the Hindutva brigade has refurbished with alarming levels of success to imply that the world should bow down to India. Archaeological surveys of the Indus valley region could definitely do with staying away from such problems, at least as much as they can afford to, and some of the language in the sites quoted above isn’t helping.

Featured image credit: Usman.pg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ruins of the Sutlej avulsion paper's coverage

Reporting on the new Indus civilisation study out of IIT-K and Imperial College London was an interesting experience because it afforded an opportunity to discover how the technical fields of sedimentology and hydrodynamics can help understand the different ways in which a civilisation can grow. And also how “fluviodeltaic morphodynamics” just rolls off the tongue.

In my report for The Wire, however, I stuck to the science for the most part because that in itself offered a lot to discover (and because you know I’m biased). For example, how the atomic lattices of quartz and feldspar played an important part in identifying that the Sutlej river had formerly occupied the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel.

Audience response to the reports were also along expected lines:

  • a fifth read it quietly, without much fanfare, asking polite questions (without notifying the authors, however) about various claims made in the article;
  • some two-fifths went to town with it, calling the Hindutva brigade’s search for the Saraswati a lost cause; and
  • another two-fifths also went to town with it, calling out The Wire‘s attempt to ‘disparage’ the Saraswati misguided.

I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

What was not along expected lines, however, was international coverage of the study. The BBC’s and Axios‘s headline on the topic were the following (in order): River departed ‘before Indus civilisation emergence’ and Indus Valley civilization may have arisen without a river. The Axios headline is just wrong. The BBC headline is fine but its article is wrong, stating:

The Indus society came to prominence in what is now northwest India and Pakistan some 5,300 years ago thanks in large part to the sustenance of a long-lost Himalayan river.

Or so it was thought.

New evidence now indicates this great water course had actually changed its path and disappeared before the Indus people had even settled in the region.

That they lacked the resource offered by a big, actively flowing river will come as a surprise to many; the other early urban societies of the time, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, certainly benefitted in this way.

The Daily Mail had an unsurprisingly garbage headlineMysterious Indus Valley Civilisation managed to thrive without a river to provide flowing water 5,300 years ago. Newsweek‘s headline (Long-lost river discovered in the Himalayas may completely change what we know about early civilisations) and article were both sensational. Excerpt:

Scientists have found the ancient remains of the river that prove it did not exist at the same time as the Indus civilization. This means the civilization existed without a major active water source, something archaeologists did not believe was possible.

The common mistake in all these reports is that they either assume or suggest that the Indus valley civilisation was fed by one river – at least in the first half – and that the entire civilisation was centred around that river. On the contrary, the Indus valley civilisation was the largest of its time, over a million sq. km in area, and was fed by the Indus and its dozens of tributaries (only one of which was the Sutlej).

This in turn limits the extent to which claims about civilisations being able to arise without perennial sources of water can be generalised. The prominent Indus valley settlements affected by the Sutlej’s avulsion are two in number (Banawali and Kalibangan) whereas the civilisation overall hosted over 1,000 such sites and, by one estimate, almost five million people. Second: to what extent would the Indus civilisation have been possible (relative to what actually was) if all of its settlements had been fed by gentler monsoonal rivers?

So yes, the study does provide a new perspective – a new possibility, rather – on the question of what resources are necessary to form a conducive natural environment for a proto-urban human settlement. But this is not a “revolutionary” idea, as many reports would have us believe, at least because other researchers have explored it before and at most because there is little data to run with at the moment. What we do know and for sure is that the Sutlej avulsed 8,000 years ago and, about 5,000 years ago, a part of the Indus valley civilisation took root in the abandoned valley.

Further, I’m also concerned the reports might overstate what “ancient Indians” (but for some reason not “ancient Pakistanis”) could have been capable of. This is a topic that the Hindutva brigade has refurbished with alarming levels of success to imply that the world should bow down to India. Archaeological surveys of the Indus valley region could definitely do with staying away from such problems, at least as much as they can afford to, and some of the language in the sites quoted above isn’t helping.

Featured image credit: Usman.pg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

By the way: the Chekhov’s gun and the science article

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” (source)

This is the principle of the Chekhov’s gun: that all items within a narrative must contribute to the overarching narrative itself, and those that don’t should be removed. This is very, very true of the first two Harry Potter books, where J.K. Rowling includes seemingly random bits of information in the first half of each book that, voila, suddenly reappear during the climax in important ways. (Examples: Quirrell’s turban and the Whomping Willow). Thankfully, Rowling’s writing improves significantly from the third book, where the Chekhov’s guns are more subtly introduced, and don’t always stay out of sight before being revived for the grand finale.

However, does the Chekhov’s gun have a place in a science article?

Most writers, editors and readers (I suspect) would reply in the affirmative. The more a bit of science communication stays away from redundancy, the better. Why introduce a term if it’s not going to be reused, or if it won’t contribute to the reader understanding what a writer has set out to explain? This is common-sensical. But my concern is about introducing information deftly embedded in the overarching narrative but which does not play any role in further elucidating the writer’s overall point.

Consider this example: I’m explaining a new research paper that talks about how a bunch of astronomers used a bunch of cool techniques to identify the properties of a distant star. While what is entirely novel about the paper is the set of techniques, I also include two lines about how the telescopes the astronomers used to make their observations operate using a principle called long baseline interferometry. And a third line about why each telescope is equipped with an atomic clock.

Now, I have absolutely no need to mention the phrases ‘long baseline interferometry’ and ‘atomic clocks’ in the piece. I can make my point just as well without them. However, to me it seems like a good opportunity to communicate to – and not just inform – the reader about interesting technologies, an opportunity I may not get again. But a professional editor (again, I suspect) would argue that if I’m trying to make a point and I know what that point is, I should just make that. That, like a laser pointer, I should keep my arguments focused and coherent.

I’m not sure I would agree. A little bit of divergence is okay, maybe even desirable at times.

Yes, I’m aware that editors working on stories that are going to be printed, and/or are paying per word, would like to keep things as concisely pointy as possible. And yes, I’m aware that including something that needn’t be included risks throwing the reader off, that we ought to minimise risk at all times. Finally, yes, I’m aware that digressing off into rivulets of information also forces the writer to later segue back into the narrative river, and that may not be elegant.

Of these three arguments (that I’ve been able to think of; if you have others, please feel free to let me know), the first one alone has the potential to be non-negotiable. The other two are up to the writer and the editor: if she or they can tuck away little gems of trivia without disrupting the story’s flow, why not? I for one would love to discover them, to find out about connections – scientific, technological or otherwise – in the real world that frequently find expression only with the prefix of a “by the way, did you know…”.

Featured image credit: DariuszSankowski/pixabay.

By the way: the Chekhov's gun and the science article

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” (source)

This is the principle of the Chekhov’s gun: that all items within a narrative must contribute to the overarching narrative itself, and those that don’t should be removed. This is very, very true of the first two Harry Potter books, where J.K. Rowling includes seemingly random bits of information in the first half of each book that, voila, suddenly reappear during the climax in important ways. (Examples: Quirrell’s turban and the Whomping Willow). Thankfully, Rowling’s writing improves significantly from the third book, where the Chekhov’s guns are more subtly introduced, and don’t always stay out of sight before being revived for the grand finale.

However, does the Chekhov’s gun have a place in a science article?

Most writers, editors and readers (I suspect) would reply in the affirmative. The more a bit of science communication stays away from redundancy, the better. Why introduce a term if it’s not going to be reused, or if it won’t contribute to the reader understanding what a writer has set out to explain? This is common-sensical. But my concern is about introducing information deftly embedded in the overarching narrative but which does not play any role in further elucidating the writer’s overall point.

Consider this example: I’m explaining a new research paper that talks about how a bunch of astronomers used a bunch of cool techniques to identify the properties of a distant star. While what is entirely novel about the paper is the set of techniques, I also include two lines about how the telescopes the astronomers used to make their observations operate using a principle called long baseline interferometry. And a third line about why each telescope is equipped with an atomic clock.

Now, I have absolutely no need to mention the phrases ‘long baseline interferometry’ and ‘atomic clocks’ in the piece. I can make my point just as well without them. However, to me it seems like a good opportunity to communicate to – and not just inform – the reader about interesting technologies, an opportunity I may not get again. But a professional editor (again, I suspect) would argue that if I’m trying to make a point and I know what that point is, I should just make that. That, like a laser pointer, I should keep my arguments focused and coherent.

I’m not sure I would agree. A little bit of divergence is okay, maybe even desirable at times.

Yes, I’m aware that editors working on stories that are going to be printed, and/or are paying per word, would like to keep things as concisely pointy as possible. And yes, I’m aware that including something that needn’t be included risks throwing the reader off, that we ought to minimise risk at all times. Finally, yes, I’m aware that digressing off into rivulets of information also forces the writer to later segue back into the narrative river, and that may not be elegant.

Of these three arguments (that I’ve been able to think of; if you have others, please feel free to let me know), the first one alone has the potential to be non-negotiable. The other two are up to the writer and the editor: if she or they can tuck away little gems of trivia without disrupting the story’s flow, why not? I for one would love to discover them, to find out about connections – scientific, technological or otherwise – in the real world that frequently find expression only with the prefix of a “by the way, did you know…”.

Featured image credit: DariuszSankowski/pixabay.

Talking scicomm at NCBS – II

I was invited to speak to the students of the annual science writing workshop conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, for the second year (first year talk’s notes here).

Some interesting things we discussed:

1. Business of journalism: There were more questions from this year’s batch of aspiring science writers about the economics of online journalism, how news websites grow, how much writers can expect to get paid, etc. This is heartening: more journalists at all levels should be aware of, and if possible involved in, how their newsrooms make their money. Because if you retreat from this space, you cede space for a capitalist who doesn’t acknowledge the principles and purpose of journalism to take over. If money has to make its way into the hands of journalists – as it should, for all the work that they’re doing – only journalists can also ensure that it’s clean.

2. Conflicts of interest: The Wire has more to lose through conflicts of interests in a story simply because there are more people out there looking to bring it down. So the cost of slipping up is high. But let’s not disagree that being diligent on this front always makes for a better report.

3. Formulae: There is no formula for a good science story. A story itself is good when it is composed by good writing and when it is a good story in the same way we think of good stories in fiction. They need to entertain without betraying the spirit of their subject, and – unlike in fiction – they need to seek out the truth. That they also need to be in the public interest is something I’m not sure about, although only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the rights of any other actor. This definition is indeed vague but only because the ‘public interest’ is a shape-shifting entity. For example, two scholars having an undignified fight over some issue in the public domain wouldn’t be in the public interest – and I would deem it unfit for publication for just that reason. At the same time, astronomers discovering a weird star billions of lightyears away may not be in the public interest either – but that wouldn’t be enough reason to disqualify the story. In fact, a deeper point: when the inculcation of scientific temper, adherence to the scientific method and financial support for the performance of science are all deemed to not be in the public interest, then covering these aspects of science by the same yardstick will only give rise to meaningless stories.

4. Representation of authority: If two scientists in the same institute are the only two people working on a new idea, and if one of them has published a paper, can you rely on the other’s opinions of it? I wouldn’t – they’re both paid by the same institution, and it is in both their interests to uphold the stature of the institution and all the work that it supports because, as a result, their individual statures are upheld. Thankfully, this situation hasn’t come to be – but something similar has. Most science journalists in the country frequently quote scientists from Bangalorean universities on topics like molecular biology and ecology because they’re the most talkative. However, the price they’re quietly paying for this is by establishing that the only scientists in the country worth talking about apropos these topics are based out of Bangalore. That is an injustice.

5. Content is still king: You can deck up a page with the best visuals, but if the content is crap, then nothing will save the package from flopping. You can also package great content in a lousy-looking page and it will still do well. This came up in the context of a discussion on emulating the likes of Nautilus and Quanta in India. The stories on their pages read so well because they are good stories, not because they’re accompanied by cool illustrations. This said, it’s also important to remember that illustrations cost quite a bit of money, so when the success of a package is mostly the in the hands of the content itself, paying attention to that alone during a cash-crunch may not be a bad idea.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay

Do your bit, broaden your science menu

If you think a story was not covered by the media, it’s quite likely that that story didn’t feature in your limited news menu, and that it was actually covered by an outlet you haven’t discovered yet. In the same vein, saying the entirety of India’s science media is crap is in itself crap. I’ve heard this say from two people today (and some others on Twitter). I’ll concede that the bulk of it is useless but there are still quite a few good players. And not reading what they are writing is a travesty on your part if you consider yourself interested in science news. Why I think so is a long story; to cut it short: given what the prevailing distribution mechanisms as well as business models are, newsrooms can only do so much to ensure they’re visible to the right people. You’ve got to do your bit as well. So if you haven’t found the better players, shame on you. You don’t get to judge the best of us after having read only the worst of us.

And I like to think The Wire is among the best of us (but I can’t be the final judge). Here are some of the others:

  1. The Telegraph – Among the best in the country. They seldom undertake longer pieces but what they publish is crisp and authoritative. Watch out for G.S. Mudur.
  2. Scroll – Doesn’t cover a lot of sciencey science but what they do cover, they tend to get right.
  3. The Hindu – The Big Daddy. Has been covering science for a long time. My only issue with it is that many of its pieces, in an effort to come across as being unafraid of the technicalities, are flush with jargon.
  4. Fountain Ink – Only long-form and does a fab job of the science + society stories.
  5. Reuters India – Plain Jane non-partisan reportage all round.

I’m sure there are other publishers of good science journalism in India. The five I’ve listed here are the ones that came quickest to mind and I just wanted illustrate my point and quickly get this post out.

Note: This is the article the reactions to which prompted this post.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

Talking about science, NCBS

On June 24, I was invited to talk at the NCBS Science Writing Workshop, held every year for 10 days. The following notes are some of my afterthoughts from that talk.

Science journalism online is doing better now than science journalism in print, in India. But before we discuss the many ways in which this statement is true, we need to understand what a science story can be as it is presented in the media. I’ve seen six kinds of science pieces:

1. Scientific information and facts – Reporting new inventions and discoveries, interesting hypotheses, breaking down complex information, providing background information. Examples: first detection of g-waves, Dicty World Race, etc.

2. Processes in science – Discussing opinions and debates, analysing how complex or uncertain issues are going to be resolved, unravelling investigations and experiments. Examples: second detection of g-waves, using CRISPR, etc.

3. Science policy – Questioning/analysing the administration of scientific work, funding, HR, women in STEM, short- and long-term research strategies, etc. Examples: analysing DST budgets, UGC’s API, etc.

4. People of science – Interviewing people, discussing choices and individual decisions, investigating the impact of modern scientific research on those who practice it. **Examples**: interviewing women in STEM, our Kip Thorne piece, etc.

5. Auxiliary science – Reporting on the impact of scientific processes/choices on other fields (typically closer to our daily lives), discussing the economic/sociological/political issues surrounding science but from an economic/sociological/political PoV. Examples: perovskite in solar cells, laying plastic roads, etc.

6. History and philosophy of science – Analysing historical and/or philosophical components of science. Examples: some of Mint on Sunday’s pieces, our columns by Aswin Seshasayee and Sunil Laxman, etc.

Some points:

1. Occasionally, a longform piece will combine all five types – but you shouldn’t force such a piece without an underlying story.

2. The most common type of science story is 5 – auxiliary science – because it is the easiest to sell. In these cases, the science itself plays second fiddle to the main issue.

3. Not all stories cleanly fall into one or the other bin. The best science pieces can’t always be said to be falling in this or that bin, but the worst pieces get 1 and 2 wrong, are misguided about 4 (but usually because they get 1 and 2 wrong) or misrepresent the science in 5.

4. Journalism is different from writing in that journalism has a responsibility to expose and present the truth. At the same time, 1, 2 and 6 stories – presenting facts in a simpler way, discussing processes, and discussing the history and philosophy of science – can be as much journalism as writing because they increase awareness of the character of science.

5. Despite the different ways in which we’ve tried to game the metrics, one thing has held true: content is king. A well-written piece with a good story at its heart may or may not do well – but a well-packaged piece that is either badly written or has a weak story at its centre (or both) will surely flop.

6. You can always control the goodness of your story by doing due diligence, but if you’re pitching your story to a publisher on the web, you’ve to pitch it to the right publisher. This is because those who do better on the web only do better by becoming a niche publication. If a publication wants to please everyone, it has to operate at a very large scale (>500 stories/day). On the other hand, a niche publication will have clearly identified its audience and will only serve that segment. Consequently, only some kinds of science stories – as identified by those niche publications’ preferences in science journalism – will be popular on the web. So know what editors are looking for.

On the way to the results. Credit: jurvetson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Stenograph the science down

A piece in Zee News, headlined ISRO to test next reusable launch vehicle after studying data of May 23 flight, begins thus:

The Indian Space Research Organisation has successfully launched it’s first ever ‘Made-in-India’ space shuttle RLV-Technology Demonstrator on May 23, 2016. After the launch, the Indian space agency will now test the next reusable launch vehicle test after studying May 23 flight data. A senior official in the Indian space agency says that India will test the next set of space technologies relating to the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) after studying the data collected from the May 23 flight of RLV-Technology Demonstrator. “We will have to study the data generated from the May 23 flight. Then we have to decide on the next set of technologies to be tested on the next flight. We have not finalised the time frame for the next RLV flight,” K Sivan, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) said on Wednesday.

Apart from presenting very little new information with each passing sentence, the piece also buries an important quote, and what could well have been the piece’s real peg, more than half the way down:

As per data the RLV-TD landed softly in Bay of Bengal. As per our calculations it would have disintegrated at the speed at which it touched the sea,” Sivan said.

It sounds like Sivan is admitting to a mistake in the calculations. There should have been a follow-up question at this point – asking him to elaborate on the mismatch – because this is valuable new information. Instead, the piece marches on as if Sivan had just commented on the weather. And in hindsight, the piece’s first few paragraphs present information that is blatantly obvious: of course results from the first test are going to inform the design of the second test. What new information are we to glean from such a statement?

Or is it that we’re paying no attention to the science and instead reproducing Sivan’s words line by line because they’re made of gold?

A tangential comment: The piece’s second, third and fourth sentences say the same thing. Sandwiching one meaty sentence between layers of faff is a symptom of writing for newspapers – where there is some space to fill for the sake of there being some attention to grab. At the same time, such writing is unthinkingly carried to the web because many publishers believe that staking a claim to ‘publishing on the web’ only means making podcasts and interactive graphics. What about concision?