Staff Writer

April 21, 2023 (Updated )

As journalists, we often encounter research papers — but that doesn’t mean we know how to get the best out of them. Science papers and raw research is often seen by readers as dry and uninteresting at best, or incomprehensible at worst.

But, that’s where we come in. When used appropriately, scientific papers can help journalists understand, question, and break down ideas for audiences and are the basis of writing great science stories. So, we spoke to the experts for some guidelines on how to effectively read, research and write stories based on scientific papers.

What Actually Counts As A Scientific Paper?

It sounds simple, but it is vital we know what exactly a scientific paper is — and whether it’s reliable. In journalistic articles, the word “study” is frequently used to support certain claims. However, these so-called studies are often just surveys which, as Miriam Frankel, science editor of The Conversation makes clear, are not the same thing.

Frankel suggests asking: “Is it a survey of 10 people or a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving thousands? That is an important thing to keep in mind when you are writing. Journalists often just say, ‘research says,’ but there is a big difference between research and research, and I think we should be careful in communicating that to the public.”

She also advises checking whether researchers have struggled to replicate findings: “How seriously do you take a finding if four studies before it found something else? It’s good to have that context when you are writing.”

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Journo Resources

Miriam Frankel (L) and Sabrina Weiss (R)

Something else we should approach with caution? Preprints. These are studies which are published without peer review, a process where other experts in the field scrutinise their results and methods. Whilst they “can be a great way to find a scoop,” Frankel says you should be wary that the research hasn’t been published in a scientific journal yet. You should always state this in your article,  as well as ensure you incorporate additional evidence and expert insight.

Freelance science journalist Sabrina Weiss specialises in deeply reported features and has written for publications including WIRED and National Geographic. Weiss recalls several preprint studies published online early on in the pandemic claiming that smokers were less likely to be hospitalised when they had Covid-19, suggesting that nicotine somehow protected them from the virus.

Nothing was declared in the “Competing Interests” section. Although not published in an academic journal, journalists still covered the story, and many headlines emerged quoting what the research had claimed. However, after some digging by investigative journalists, it transpired that those researchers were paid by the tobacco industry.

Good scoops aside, journalists should take appropriate precautions when using preprints. A peer-reviewed scientific paper is much more reliable. Jocelyn Timperley of BBC Future and Future Planet, reiterates: “That means they have been sent to other experts in the field anonymously, and those people have commented on and reviewed the paper and maybe requested changes.”

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“As a journalist writing and looking for stories, you have to be very critical of what you see and how you then say it.”
Miriam Frankel, science editor of The Conversation

In What Order Should I Read Scientific Papers?

If you have put a key term or a question into Google Scholar and there are loads of results, Frankel advises prioritising the newest papers first. These should still mention any older important papers.

Once you have the paper in front of you, Frankel says a good rule of thumb is to turn it upside down. “A scientific paper always starts with pages and pages of background and then goes into the methodology,” she explains.

The results and discussion sections are much smaller but often contain content more relevant to general audiences. Frankel adds: “For background, you might just want to add one sentence, something like, ‘previous research has found x, but now scientists have found y’.”

She says research papers often bury the angles most important to general readers, so consider what they would want to get out of the research. Frankel brings up a scientific article about brain structure and genetic mechanisms underlying the nonlinear association between sleep duration cognition and mental health as an example. Many readers might already have lost track of the topic by the middle of the previous sentence.

Article headline reads 'Sleep: here’s how much you really need for optimal cognition and wellbeing – new research'
How The Conversation covered the piece. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

A more popular science article for more general audiences would therefore be: ‘Here’s how much sleep you really need for optimal cognition and wellbeing’. Frankel also suggests thinking of a possible headline early — if you can summarise what you plan to write in one sentence, you usually have a good story.

Weiss agrees that journalists will likely be most interested in the bottom of the paper. She says it’s also where you might find some of the study’s limitations, which can make a good story if the methods are more interesting than the findings themselves. For instance, a WIRED feature about whether birth control pills affect your mood focuses on why this is such a difficult area of science to study.

After examining the results and discussion, Weiss recommends reading further down to the acknowledgements and competing interest sections. Often, she says, readers will find “information about the funding of a study [which] can make a story a good story in itself, particularly if a study is funded or commissioned by a company or an organisation with a clear agenda.”

How To Read A Science Paper
How To Read A Science Paper: A Step-By-Step Guide

Jocelyn Timperly, a journalist at BBC Future and BBC Planet, has a simple five-step guide to reading research papers:

1. Ideally, print out the paper.

2. Begin by reading the abstract, which summarises the paper’s conclusion. This will usually tell you if it’s an interesting story to cover.

3. Skim the introduction. Its last few paragraphs will often give you key context about the paper and also reference other useful papers or findings.

4. Read the conclusion or discussion. These help you understand the concrete outcome of the study and its wider relevance.

5. Check for key figures and graphs. You may even want to reproduce these in your reporting — with permission from the paper’s authors. They can also spark new story ideas.

How To Read A Research Paper Quickly

In journalism, time is often of the essence. With tight deadlines and speedy turnarounds, it can feel difficult to grasp complex concepts quickly.

Timperley says we shouldn’t underestimate the abstract, the very first section of the paper. Although it may seem like a small part of the whole research paper, she says: “You can get a lot of information, and sometimes you don’t need to go further than that. Sometimes the best thing to do is to literally just email one of the authors and ask a few more questions, or set up an interview to ensure that you understand the context of the paper and to fact-check some of your assumptions.”

If time permits, read the whole paper, including the results, method, and discussion sections. The results section provides key information on what researchers found. The methods section describes what they did (this can be quite jargon-y), and the discussion section, which is sometimes given in addition to a conclusion, provides a longer explanation of what the authors think they found and what it means.

Timperley also reminds writers to take care when attributing things to different authors, as scientific papers can often be crowded with references.

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“[Finding] information about the funding of a study can make a good story in itself, particularly if it is funded or commissioned by an organisation with a clear agenda.”
Sabrina Weiss, science journalist

How To Read Science Papers For Free

So, you’ve found the perfect research paper for your piece? But you now need an institutional login or to cough up £200 to access it. We’ve been there.

Weiss advises writing to the lead author if you can’t track down an article for free. Often, the author will be more than happy to share it. “Just shoot [them] an email and tell them that you’re interested in reading it, and they are allowed to share it.”

Frankel suggests setting Google alerts and using social media to find and access studies. She says: “If you follow all the journals on social media, they will normally have alerts for when a new paper comes out. You can subscribe to newsletters from all the journals where they also give you embargoed research papers.” This way, you will have more time to pitch something before the paper comes out.

close up of a page in a dictionary, showing the definition of embargo
There are ways to get your hands on information, even if under embargo. (Image credit: Sandy Millar / Unsplash)

She also advises approaching the journals to introduce yourself as a journalist or a freelancer, and simply asking for access to their embargoed research papers. Following universities and other institutions on social media is also a good way of monitoring when new research papers are published.

Google Scholar is also your best friend! Climate writer Timperley says: “Even outside climate change, it is always really useful to Google keywords and see if something comes up because it can be really useful for evidence.”

Frankel also recommends signing up for databases, and alerts from organisations like the Institute of Physics or the Royal Society. Sites like medRxiv, which distributes unpublished papers about health sciences, are also good, but as preprints, they are not yet established sources of information. She also recommends meta-analyses — research papers that combine the results of multiple scientific studies — and simply asking top researchers in the field what the most important papers are.

The Importance Of Remaining Critical

Finally, Frankel reminds us that science is not immune to bias, prejudice, or conflicts of interest. “We have seen slightly racist and homophobic undertones in the coverage of COVID and monkeypox, respectively. As a journalist writing and looking for stories, you have to be very critical of what you see and how you then say it,” she says.

In new or emerging research areas, there will be less of a consensus view, and we must reflect this in journalistic coverage. Frankel adds: “We often make the mistake of thinking about science as something so reliable.” But science itself is an act done by humans, including their own biases, and constantly involving over time.

As with any story, we must remain vigilant and ask questions.

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines and, in 2018, was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by the SPA.

She was a BBC Sport kick-off reporter in 2019 and had co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021. Alongside her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying for the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.

Header image courtesy of Ricky Kharawala via Unsplash