Three Years A (Professional) Science Writer

When do you become a real science journalist? When you start advocating for your readers.

AsianScientist (Mar. 3, 2017) – I became a ‘professional’ science writer on this very date three years ago, when I started my first day of work at Asian Scientist Magazine. To be honest with you, I sometimes still feel slightly uncomfortable with the term (hence the scare quotes), preferring to say that I work at a science publishing company.

Perhaps the reason for my unease is that in my past life as a scientist, it was much clearer exactly when you get to take up the mantle of ‘scientist’—at the point where you pass your thesis defense. In contrast, my experience as a science writer up till that point was running a small student publication, and of course writing my thesis and a few journal articles. Was that enough to qualify me as a science journalist?

Of writers and readers

Science writers have the challenging and important task of taking difficult scientific concepts and making them both interesting and accessible to readers. We are hybrid individuals who must sympathize with the two worlds we are trying to bridge: scientists whispering the exacting language of academe behind paywalled journals; and the media shouting headlines at the speed of thought over Facebook and Twitter. It’s a little schizophrenic, I’ll admit.

Most science writers approach the job from either sphere, first training as scientists before switching over to writing as I did, or training as a journalist before specializing in the science beat.

When I first started out, I used to err on the side of the scientist, going into exhaustive detail about the methodology and minutiae of every study. While those things still matter to me, I believe that over time I have developed a better sense of what matters to the reader as well: Why is this research important and why should I care?

It’s important to point out that moving towards the needs of the readers is not to compromise the interests of the scientists, one big reason why many scientists shy away from speaking to the media. Rather than thinking of scientists and the media as two diametrically opposed poles, I find it more helpful to think of each group as having differing priorities: the scientists want to be represented accurately, while the media wants stories that are newsworthy. Both priorities can be addressed if a writer is sensitive to them.

This is where writing for the reader comes in. As a science writer, I believe that my primary responsibility is to the reader; not the scientist, lest the piece becomes little more than a press release, and not the media, which can sometimes be hungry for clickbait.

Science writers need to advocate for their readers, questioning the scientists (who are often publicly funded) to explain exactly why their research is worth doing. But at the same time, we also need to respect our readers, trusting that we will not need to resort to deceptive, sensationalist headlines to get eyeballs.

Who is a science writer?

Though I still think I have a long way to go, this belief has served me well in the short span of my career thus far. Looking back, I can see how the principle of writing for the reader has helped me face Nobel Prize winners and university chancellors alike. No matter how intelligent they may be, or how accomplished they are, it is my job as a science writer to hold them accountable to you, the reader.

And at the end of the day, that’s what makes me a science writer.

This article is from a monthly column called From The Editor’s Desk(top). Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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