Good science writing helps make good science

More than most will admit, scientists today depend on good science writing. What they read is coming from other scientists, from bloggers and students, and from traditional journalists embedded in a range of publication models.

Most of us abandon our textbooks long before earning our Ph.D., digging deeper and deeper into the narrow research tracks that will support a career on the cutting edge. Merely reading research in that narrow field is not enough. We have to master it – knowing the methods and results with such detail that we can take them up or find their flaws. It takes me days to really digest an important piece of science.

Who loves science more than those who have devoted careers to it? We’re far from the majority of consumers of mainstream science magazines (as pointed out by Ed Yong). But we consume them above our weight because good reporting fills an important need. Scientists are teachers, we interact with the public and many of us conduct research with importance to a broad audience. To do those things well, our knowledge must have equal breadth. Reading abstracts and conclusions is hardly enough, we need context. Some of that context comes from our training, but most of us rely on good science writing to bring us information outside our narrow specialties.

Science writing emerges today from an ecosystem that includes traditional, “mainstream” publications, online news outlets and blogs. Many people have commented on the ways these information sources have converged as traditional science writers have come to depend on blogs, while bloggers link and comment on news and perspective pieces, and bring expert criticism to many scientific papers. Individually, these actors aren’t doing anything very new, but collectively they have connected storytelling and critique in a way that can be instantly telegraphed to influential readers and a broader public.

ScienceOnline2011 was a great meeting of many of the trailblazers in this new ecosystem. The halls were packed with people jazzed about science. A lot of the participants were working journalists, many aspiring science writers, and a good proportion of working scientists – like the melba toasts in a bowl of Chex Mix.

This melba is here to tell you how essential the ecosystem has become to working scientists. I read blogs, write a blog, read broadly across science. I want to know the story behind the research, and I want to know what critics think – especially the ones who have done other work I like. I can’t read every new paper outside my area, but if I’m interested enough to follow up, I want immediate links to the originals.

I need the ecosystem. It enables me to be a publicly engaged scientist and an effective teacher. Besides that, this community helps with my research. Working at the borderline between genetics and paleontology isn’t easy, and I find that many important insights come from even farther afield. The ecosystem lets me stretch my antennae across a much bigger cross-section of today’s science.

I may be an outlier in my engagement with blogs and social media, but I know my colleagues. Many in human genetics have learned essentially everything they know about modern human origins from reading the press. Especially the postdocs and grad students coming in from other fields, who may never have taken an anthropology course. Likewise, many paleoanthropologists only know the genetics that they’ve heard at conferences or read in the news. That’s why it has been so essential for us engaged in the field to educate and engage with science journalists. Without accurate coverage of human evolution, we can hardly keep interdisciplinary research going. Like biological ecosystems, the science writing ecosystem provides us services that are often unpaid and unrecognized.

Some readers may think I’m exaggerating the value of science writing. Surely I’m glossing over its many problems. Surely scientists should be getting their information from peer-reviewed research, not second-hand accounts.

I’m no Pollyanna about these problems, but they’re hardly new. Universities have always overinflated their press releases, and know-nothing writers have always embellished them. Sensationalism, even outright misleading headlines or stories, are still out there attracting eyes, but then they always were. There have always been scientists who failed even to read abstracts of papers, much less working to understand their methods.

What’s new is the diversity of reporting, along with a growing number of people in a position to – as David Dobbs says – “call bullshit” on bad writing. Blogs, mainstream science reporting, emerging writers, podcasts – all provide overlapping channels of information at multiple levels to overlapping audiences. The resulting community is much smaller than the pooled readership of its printed or online output, but vastly larger than the combined Rolodexes of top science journalists 10 years ago.

I don’t need to recount the way blogs have changed reporting, but I hope to highlight how they make science better. Reporting and commentary are not pre-publication peer review, but no firewall separates these functions. Both require honesty and candor about science’s methods and limits. Our ecosystem today accords less privilege to “top” journals, and more to the scientists and writers who take initiative.