As a blogger who often quotes scientific experts and references scientific studies, I thought that I ought to research some of the best-practices of other science bloggers and science journalists.
Here are 8 ideas about blogging about science that I thought I should share. ( This is by no means the definitive guide on how to properly blog about science, but maybe a good start. )
Find Good Sources of Information
When writing about science, the most important thing is that you are writing about good science. In other words, you need to find trustworthy sources of information. Here are a few ways that you can do that:
1. Read Studies with Citations from High-Impact Journals
Before you start blogging about a scientific article, you first want to ensure that it is a reputable article. Step one is to make sure it comes from a trusted, peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Journals like Nature have rigorous peer-reviewing processes, which means that everything that is submitted for publishing is intensely cross-examined and probed by a team of experts.
If the submission does not pass the team’s rigorous standards, then it will not be published in the journal. In 2017, only 7.6% of submissions passed the grade to be published in Nature.
You can judge a journal by how comprehensive and exhaustive its peer-reviewing processes are, or more simply, you can judge a journal by its impact factor compared to other alike journals.
And if you are wondering, the impact factor of a journal is a measure of how often scientific articles from the journal are cited by other scientific articles. You can read more about it here, and you can read about some of the ways scientists want to rethink the system here.
Once you have judged the scientific article’s journal is reputable, you can also look at how many times the scientific article itself has been cited.
If the article is a few years old and it has never been cited by other scientific articles, then you know that it probably hasn’t impressed other experts. This being said, a low number of citations could also be due to the fact that the research is incredibly niche. Another thing to keep in mind is even good articles don’t have that many citations. For example, the average 2017 article in the Nature Astrology Journal only has 11.5 citations.
2. Even Better: Look for Well-Cited Meta-Analysis from High-Impact Journals
A meta-analysis is a study of other studies. Essentially, researchers conducting a meta-analysis will look at all the studies surrounding a certain body of research and hopefully create a broader, more-accurate conclusion based on combining all the results.
The reason this is important is because all types of studies come with different drawbacks and biases. First, there are the limitations of the scientist, and then there are the limitations of the study architecture.
For instance, double-blind, correlative, randomized controlled trials, cohort, qualitative, twin, and the like are all valid types of studies, however, they all have their own flaws.
The trick of a meta-analysis is that it averages the results from so many studies that it helps iron out the flaws. That being said, there can still be issues with meta-analysis themselves.
To protect yourself from these issues, just treat a meta-analysis like you would a scientific article; make sure the meta-analysis has a few citations and that it is from a reputable peer-reviewed journal.
3. Look for Expert and Institutional Quotes
If you can quote a trusted expert talking about their domain of expertise, that is great blog content. If you can quote an institution like the American Cancer Society, that’s even better.
However, don’t just quote any expert or institution. If they are an expert trying to sell you something, or if they are a non-reputable or fraudulent institution, perhaps do a little more digging before you quote them in your blog.
Copy the Best-Practices of Science journalists
4. The Title of Your Article is Extremely Important
To cut through all of the noise, the title, or headline, of an article must be enticing and relevant. In fact, titles are so important that fifty-nine percent of people share online articles based on titles alone (Dewey, 2016, para. 3).
Consequently, in order to attract as many readers as possible, science bloggers and journalists use well named, and if possible, tested titles for their articles.
There are many general rules for creating titles, which can easily be found online. For instance, if an article was about a new anti-aging medicine, the title could be: “New Anti-Aging Medicine”, or “How-to Live an Extra Ten Years!”, or “Dr.Jones Claims New, Anti-Aging Medicine is the Biggest Thing Since the Model-T”.
The three above titles, the “say-it-straight title”, the “how-to title”, and the ‘testimonial title”, are examples of industry-standard titles that are proven to work well in most situations (Rieck, 2009).
However, since every article is unique, it is impossible to know which title format will get the most clicks. You can either try your best or if you have the time and resources, you can A/B test a few different titles.
5. Write a ‘Lead’ Intro
When the subject matter is relevant and the title is catchy, people will start reading the article. Unfortunately, online readers have an almost non-existent attention span. Most online articles only have an average reading time of 15 seconds or less (Haile, 2014, para. 1).
For this reason, science journalists, like traditional bloggers, focus on creating captivating introductions that hook readers into their article.
In the industry, these introductions are called the “lead,” and they are nothing like the traditional introductions of scientific studies (Pechenik, 2018).
In fact, the lead in science articles is essentially the same as the conclusions of scientific journal articles. Generally, the content of a lead is the main take-home message, or claim, of a science journal article, and the rest of the article serves to substantiate it.
Four classic styles for writing the lead are, the “narrative lead”, the “bullet lead”, the “simple statement”, and the “surprise or paradox lead”.
If you would like to see these leads properly describe, please reference Dr. Pechenik’s article, “Writing for a General Audience: Science Journalism” (Pechenik, 2018).
6. Describe Scientific Methodologies & Use Metaphors and Analogies
After the lead in a science article, where journalists and bloggers generally express the main claim of the article, there is the body of the article where the article’s main claim is substantiated.
According to researchers Annie Louis and Ani Nenkova, articles with more descriptions of scientific methodologies and principles are more likely to win journalism awards (Louis & Nenkova, 2013).
Yet, science journalists and bloggers cannot simply copy-paste texts from scientific studies and expect to win journalism awards; they still have to re-write the information from scientific studies so that ordinary, non-scientific readers can understand.
One effective way of accomplishing this is by leveraging analogies and metaphors. For instance, in the article “The Gene Hackers,” by esteemed science journalist Michael Specter, both analogies and metaphors are used to describe the revolutionary new CRISPR technique.
When describing CRISPR, Specter writes, “CRISPR is the Model T of genetics” (Specter, 2015, para. 13), which is a great analogy for how game-changing the new technology is.
When describing the accuracy of old techniques for manipulating genetics, Specter writes “those initial tools were more hatchet than scalpel” (Specter, 2015, para. 14).
7. Use Simple Language
In addition to using metaphors and analogies to explain scientific phenomenons, it is important to write in plain language, avoid using unexplained science terms, and write in short sentences with short words (Conti, 2015).
To accomplish this, first, read it aloud and judge it for yourself. Second, use the Hemingway Editor to identify confusing sentences, an overly passive voice, and the overuse of adverbs.
Third, there are a number of different websites that can parse writing and assign readability scores. For the best results, the Nielsen Norman Group recommends a grade 6 to 8 readability score for science articles (Nielsen, 2005).
8. Use Stories and Visual Language
Although great science articles have many, easy-to-read descriptions of scientific methodologies and principles, an article without any other type of content would be difficult to digest.
Instead, science journalists break up the technical descriptions with personal perspectives and stories, highly-visual language, and other fun-to-read content.
Henriette Löwisch, director of the Environmental and Natural Resource Journalism graduate program at the University of Montana, tells her students to “discover the human side of scientific research” (Tiffany, 2014, para. 2).
Michael Specter does this expertly. “The Gene Hackers” article focuses on a young scientist named Feng Zhang and uses entertaining stories from his past to convey the implications of the new CRISPR Technique.
For example, Michael Specter writes the following while interviewing Zhang about his education, ““They showed us ‘Jurassic Park,” he said, his voice moving up a register. “And it was amazing to me. The teacher explained the different scientific concepts in the movie, and they all seemed completely feasible.”” (Specter, 2015, para. 20). This passage does well to explain some of the implications of genetic engineering, and it is enjoyable to read.
Another way science journalists engage their readers is by leveraging highly visual writing. According to the Louis and Nenkova study mentioned previously, readers find highly visual writing entertaining and they are more likely to share articles that have it (Louis & Nenkova, 2013). For instance, the following scene from “Gene Hackers” where Specter visits Zhang’s laboratory:
” One afternoon in Zhang’s laboratory, Winston Yan offered to walk me through the mechanics of using CRISPR to edit a gene. “We need to be able to break DNA in a very precise place in the genome,” he said as I watched him at work. He swivelled in his chair and pointed to a row of vials that contained DNA samples to be analyzed and edited. Yan, a thin, bespectacled man, wore black laboratory gloves and a white Apple Watch; he clapped his hands and shrugged, as if to suggest that the work was simple.” (Specter, 2015, para. 22)
In conclusion, to properly blog about science, or practice science journalism, you should ensure you have good sources of information, a great title, a catchy lead, lots of easy-to-read science descriptions, personable content, and highly visual writing.
If you have any other tips to add to the article, please leave them down in the comments.
All the best,
- Bauer, Martin W. and Howard, Susan and Romo Ramos, Yulye Jessica and Massarani , Luisa and
- Amorim, Luis (2013) Global science journalism report: working conditions & practices, professional ethos and future expectations. Our learning series , Science and Development Network, London, UK.
- Conti, G. (2015). Plain Language: How to Simplify Content for a Better Reader Experience.
- [online] Zapier. Available at: https://zapier.com/blog/plain-language/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2018].
- Dewey, C. (2016). 6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study says. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/06/16/six-in-10-of-you-will-share-this-link-without-reading-it-according-to-a-new-and-depressing-study/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.82bc50566d06 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].
- Haile, T. (2014). What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong. [online] Time. Available at:
- http://time.com/12933/what-you-think-you-know-about-the-web-is-wrong/ [Accessed 3 Nov. 2018].
- Louis, A., & Nenkova, A. (2013). What Makes Writing Great? First Experiments on Article
- Quality Prediction in the Science Journalism Domain. Transactions Of The Association For Computational Linguistics, 1, 341-352. Retrieved from https://www.transacl.org/ojs/index.php/tacl/article/view/76/22
- Nielsen, J. (2005). Lower-Literacy Users: Writing for a Broad Consumer Audience. [online]
- Nielsen Norman Group. Available at: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/writing-for-lower-literacy-users/ [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
- Pechenik, D. (2018). Writing for a General Audience: Science Journalism. [online]
- Ase.tufts.edu. Available at: http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/labs/pechenik/documents/scienceJournalism.pdf [Accessed 14 Nov. 2018].
- Rieck, D. (2009). 9 Proven Headline Formulas That Sell Like Crazy. [online] Copyblogger.
- Available at: https://www.copyblogger.com/proven-headline-formulas/ [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018].
- Specter, M. (2015). The Gene Hackers. The New Yorker. Available at:
- https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/16/the-gene-hackers [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018].
- Tiffany, L. (2014). 20 Science Journalism Tips, Myths, Rules, Tools & Sources of Inspiration.
- [online] College Media Matters. Available at: http://www.collegemediamatters.com/2014/12/29/20-science-journalism-tips-myths-rules-tools-sources-of-inspiration/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
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