How to become a science plagiarist

February 20, 1998

A FIELD GUIDE FOR SCIENCE WRITERS. Edited by Deborah Blume and Mary Knudson. Oxford University Press, 287pp, Pounds 18.99. ISBN 0 19 510068 9

Most of us learn about science at second or third hand, and most of what we learn probably comes from one of the 20th century's new professions, the science writers. So with public understanding of science a perennial worry of governments and scientific institutions, is how do these key actors do their job? This collection, endorsed by the United States National Association of Science Writers, is one place to look for answers. Handbooks for aspiring practitioners are bound to set down a profession's self-image, and this one is no exception. And as all the authors here are journalists, there is the bonus that the 31 short chapters are easy to read, and written by reasonably clear-sighted observers who do their best to be honest.

The picture they paint is one of a group which has changed a good deal in recent decades. It is still a small profession, though it has grown very fast since the second world war. The American National Association had just a dozen founders in 1934; now it has over 1,800 members. In this country, the Association of British Science Writers began with six members just after the war. This year it has 500 members to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It is still only a profession in a fairly loose sense. No special qualification is required, though the writers here make plenty of recommendations.

In practice, the vast majority of American science writers have college degrees in science or journalism, and often in both. Most, but by no means all their British counterparts have studied science, but fewer have studied journalism or science writing, which still tend to be learned on the job. And what of their professional practice?

Academic studies suggest that newspaper science specialists are journalists first, science writers second, although like other specialists they tend to work as members of an informal "club" of competitor-colleagues. But this view is accurate only for a relatively small metropolitan elite of staff correspondents in news organisations. One of the strengths of Deborah Blume and Mary Knudson's book is that it acknowledges the diversity of science writers' jobs - in industry, government agencies and, increasingly, in universities.

Even among the regular journalists, there are many ways of being a science writer. Some, especially in the UK, are still heroically multidisciplinary, writing about all the science which fits the news agenda. They are among the few people on the planet who possess the elusive "scientific literacy" often discussed wistfully in public understanding of science circles. Increasingly, though, career science writers are specialists in one or a few, related disciplines. The time and effort needed to do the job really well is pretty high by journalists' standards. After all, most people fall into journalism because they discover a small talent which requires little effort to nurture (I speak from experience). However, the writers here are clear that professionals need to know their stuff, and their prescriptions are pretty exacting. Sandra Blakeslee, for example, suggests that useful preparation for reporting on contemporary neuroscience includes study of brain anatomy, brain chemistry, cell biology, immunology, neural networks and fuzzy logic. She helpfully recommends a couple of textbooks to get you started. But actual writing demands serious research. "In writing about consciousness recently, I interviewed 15 scientists and read four books, simply to prepare for the story. I asked every source for reprints or articles on their contribution to the subject. Then, I digested it all and outlined the story. Had I written it at that point, it would have been 20,000 words long." Every story a master's thesis, in other words.

Few American, let alone British science writers have the luxury of this kind of groundwork, unless they write for secondary scientific journals and offer a few newspaper pieces on the side. Similarly, few have the resources for investigative journalism, although one of the changes is that this is now seen as a meaningful term in science. The pioneer science writers were mostly celebrants of science, and plenty still approach it in that vein. But today there are more who temper their enthusiasm for science and scientists with scepticism about science in practice and recognition that science and technology can create problems as well as offering solutions.

Investigative reporting gets a chapter to itself here by the redoubtable Blume. By her account, it is prodigiously time-consuming and depends heavily on the US Freedom of Information Act. If the Blair administration ever gets round to fulfiling its election pledge on freedom of information, the scope for similar work here will be wide, to say the least. Just think of BSE, organophosphate poisoning, or the weapons research which sustains Britain's ever-prosperous arms trade. But as with the neuroscience specialist, a private income may come in handy. The days when British newspaper editors would cheerfully assign someone to a story for a year are long gone, although some TV production companies still do.

The book covers all this and more, and has useful appendices on information sources, internships and courses, though only for the US. Its strengths and weaknesses reflect the advantages and limitations of journalism. There is little that is systematic here - most of the advice is boiled down into tips, rules of thumb and war stories. The emphasis is firmly on craft skill allied with conscientious effort to keep abreast of technicalities. The message is that these, along with general journalistic nous about people and institutions are what the budding science writer needs. That, of course, is enough to keep most of the band busy. After all, there is an awful lot of science to get excited about, to reinforce the conviction expressed here by Victor McElheny that "we are the ones who tell the world what is truly new".

This is obviously immense fun, as paying jobs go, and many science writers recognise the privileges they enjoy - the right to spend their time as "intellectual plagiarists, raiding the minds of those who are to busy to tell the world about their discoveries", as the British writer Matt Ridley once put it.

Yet, reflective as many of them are, it still seems that few science writers are well equipped to ponder broader issues about how science gets done, or how to evaluate decision-making about research and its applications. This is, of course, to place additional demands on a group already hard pressed by the technicalities of their chosen subjects. But science writers, like scientists, can fall in love with the technicalities, or allow them to obscure other matters. As this quintessentially 20th-century profession prepares to deal with the 21st century, there is little here to help them cope with such demands.

Jon Turney is senior lecturer in science communication, University College London.

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