Statistics in Science Journalism

Humans are not naturally statistical thinkers. Although we bumble through life in a probabilistic universe, a lot of our decisions are informed by our own biases, our peers and what we’ve done in the past. Time and again, researchers have demonstrated the human inability to behave rationally or weigh up risks accurately.

Science journalists are people too, and we struggle with statistics as much as anyone. But, unfortunately, we cannot escape having to grapple with the subject. Part of our job – perhaps our duty – is to understand, engage with and translate these tricky, abstract concepts.

The Statistics in Science Journalism session at UKCSJ 2014 was a head-on collision between passionate journalists and the confusing monstrosity that is statistics. Deborah Cohen, the BMJ's investigations editor, produced this session to help us understand how not to get things wrong.

Ivan Oransky, vice president of MedPage Today and co-founder of the excellent Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch blogs, led proceedings by taking us on a slide-by-slide journey through a realm of shoddy studies and equally shoddy reporting. With righteous vigour, like the George Costanza of statistics, Oransky demolished the failures in reporting. He showed us how the journalists in question could have written better, balanced coverage just by probing a little deeper, remaining sceptical and – what you think would be an obvious step – reading the study carefully.

“I think it’s journalistic malpractice to not have the full study in front of you when you’re reporting,” Oransky said. Academic articles can be awful beasts but we must not fear tackling them. There are resources out there to help us along. Jennifer Raff, for one, has written a wonderful guide to reading scientific papers.

Oransky advised us to ask "dumb questions" so we don't end up with notebooks full of jargon, and warning us that "if you don't ask the questions you think are dumb, you'll look dumb to your readers."

Throughout the session, we accumulated a long list of 'dos', don'ts' and caveats for reporting on studies. Oranksy promised his presentation would soon appear on SlideShare.

Of the many very important points raised, I want to touch on one: the difference between statistical significance and clinical significance. Just because a drug passes some statistical tests doesn’t mean it passes muster in the real world. We should be mindful of whether a treatment has an actual effect on people’s lives.

As journalists, we are not expected to be experts but we must make sure we ask the people who are experts in order to understand these difficult, wayward concepts. Oransky suggested we keep a biostatistician among our key contacts and treat them to lunch from time to time.

Cohen and Oransky covered a glut of topics, each worthy of their own session, if not their own conference. To name just a few: medicalisation and 'disease-mongering' (Oransky: "I challenge anyone in this room to not have social phobia"); clinical trial design; the cost of new treatments and why that information is so hard to find; the politics and personal biases of medical researchers; should journalists debunk or just ignore bad studies?

This session made it clear that science journalists must not be afraid to grapple with the jargon of statistics.

Statistics is hard and strange and requires constant vigilance to not muck things up. But, in a week where David Spiegelhalter was knighted for 'services to statistics', even the Queen thinks it's important.

Successful Freelancing

Becoming a freelance science writer is a scary step into a world of flexibility and insecurity. You are now the head of your own business and only you can control whether you succeed or fail. Fortunately UKCSJ brought together a panel of accomplished freelancers ready to impart the wisdom they have learned over their years of experience.

How to build contacts

The first step, explained Angela Saini, is to build up a bank of contacts. During her last year at the BBC she got to know the science team, as well as contacting magazines and journals that she hoped to write for as a freelancer. If you're entering a new field people might not trust you initially, so it's important to get your name out into the editorial consciousness.

Richard Vize, Guardian columnist and public policy expert, described himself as a relentless networker. He recommended getting to know three or four additional contacts at every institution you work with and helping them with problems to immerse yourself as a vital part of the team, rather than someone who works for them every now and again.

Thankfully for the more naturally introverted in the audience, global health writer Priya Shetty's advice was that you don't have to schmooze to build contacts. Start conversations with people whose work you are naturally interested in, whether face-to-face or using social media. This innate alignment means contacts will think of you when new opportunities arise.

Building your portfolio

The great thing about freelancing is the huge variety of subjects you can cover. You're free to be as generalist or specialist as you like, although Angela's advice was to build up your portfolio in a small niche initially, especially if you have a science background. By starting with minor publications, you can build up a collection of clippings to accompany your later pitches to big outlets.

Where should you go for stories? "Ditch the press releases," Angela urged. Spend your time meeting researchers, either at conferences or through university press offices.  Universities' PR teams will be keen to introduce journalists to scientists to raise their profile, so set up a meeting with researchers who haven't yet published to find interesting alternative stories.

Negotiating money

It's best for everyone involved to decide on your payment in advance. Talking about money shouldn't be embarrassing, said Priya, so don't be afraid to ask for more. Richard urged the group to keep their mouths shut until the client makes an offer. The most frustrating thing about freelancing, he said, is having your initial offer immediately accepted, as you know you've undersold your work!

Should you work for free when first starting out? Priya's opinion was that if you're getting exposure in a big outlet, like the BBC, then it's alright to do the occasional unpaid article, but be aware that free doesn't turn into a viable career and subconsciously you might produce work of a lower quality than you otherwise would have.

Angela was not happy about anyone working for free; you'll be undercutting everyone else trying to make a living and you're saying to editors that they don't need to pay for copy. The panellists all agreed that working for free is a difficult rut to get out of, but instead of producing unpaid content a new freelancer should focus on obtaining paid work.

Trust your gut

As a freelancer, you'll almost always come out worse if things go wrong. You might be overworked, underpaid or sometimes not paid at all. It's hard to know who to trust at first, said Priya, but do try and listen to your gut feeling. Some warning signs to look out for are an unclear brief, an unrealistic workload for the time or money, and poorly defined deadlines.

If you don't want to take on a task, don't do it. As a freelancer, the only power you have is to decide who to work with, when you work and what work you want to take. Exercise your right to choose.

A great job

Richard half-jokingly warned the audience that freelancing will make you virtually unemployable because you're so used to the creativity and flexibility of running your own business, but that's such a huge benefit of the job. It can be hard if work's quiet or things go wrong, but ultimately Richard believes going freelance is the best decision he's ever made.

Writing Books: How to go about it

How should you go about writing science books? How do readers respond to this genre? Should you dumb down the idea while writing for a wide audience? What if someone else starts writing a book on the very topic that you are working on? These were just some of the questions discussed by the panel of science authors, agents and editors at the ‘Writing Books’ session conducted at the UK Conference of Science Journalists, 2014.

Jo Merchant, an award winning science journalist and author, currently working on her third book, stressed the need to be able to engage readers who generally do not read science books or articles. “The interview technique for gathering information for a book is different from doing the same for an article”, said Jo. She personally feels that pushing an interviewee hard to get more information rather than just the facts is essential to give a shape to the story.

A book should not cater to just a niche group, but should be able to hold the attention of all kinds of readers throughout. Giving an example, agent Karolina Sutton spoke about how the bestselling book by David Adams, 'The Man who could not stop' was both about the science of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), as well as someone's personal experience. It is important for one to think well about how he or she intends to tell the story. "There isn't a subject that cannot be presented", said Karolina.

But, how does one really go about writing a science book? According to Karolina, it is essential to have a clear idea of what would be presented in the book. It could be a good idea to contact an agent at an early stage, as many publishers will not respond to unsolicited approaches by authors. Equally, a good idea is to perhaps contact an agent when you have done some research and a skeleton of the book has been prepared. “There is no need to dumb down the idea for catering to a wide audience. If you are contemplating writing a book, aim high, but avoid an academic or inaccessible tone”, advised Karolina. Indeed, she stressed at length that accessibility in terms of language is a key factor in terms of success of science books.

However, new technology is changing the way people read, and author Philip Ball pointed out that it could be perceived as a strange time to write books. Writers do not earn a lot these days and advances for books have frozen, if not dropped.  Will Hammond, editorial director of The Bodley Head, pointed out that only very few science books were included in the bestselling list in the past two years. Preliminary figures (from Nielsen BookData UK) showed that only the most popular science books sold around 15,000 copies in hardback within a few weeks and that was only the case for the most exceptional titles,

So, why would one still decide upon writing a book? “The main reason for writing a book would be that you feel you have something important to say to the public”, said Philip. “You need to have a unique perspective of what to give your readers.” The voice of the author is what makes people like certain books, and this is what distinguishes book writing from journalism. “Science books give us a sense of discovery. Take your readers on a journey that is an inherently pleasurable experience”, added Will.

Writing after completing the research?

Though it may seem desirable to complete all research before writing a book, it is highly improbable that the research can be deemed to be complete. Hence, the panel advised against delaying the writing process. From experience, Karolina stated how some authors never got around to publishing their books, since their research took up a lot more time and delayed their writing. Philip advised to start writing as soon as one gets any ideas, and gradually improve it.

Is self-publishing changing the landscape of the publishing world?

With numerous books self- published each year, Will Hammond felt that it may be a threat to the publishing houses. But, there wasn’t much that could be done about it. If a self-published book seems to be performing really well, a publisher might pick it up and the author could get an offer from them.

Write for sale or for yourself?

In times when a new author could end up getting no reviews or coverage for their book, it could be quite difficult to decide between writing what one really wants and writing what the public would like. “It is good to know what kind of books work well, but you cannot base your decision of what to write on this information”, said Will. On the contrary, Karolina also pointed out how some promising careers disintegrated over the years, as the authors did not stick to the market trends and went about writing what they really wanted to. Hence, there could be a flip side to one’s decision and it is important to consider everything before embarking on the project.

And what should you do if someone else is also writing a book on the same subject as yours?  Do not give up on the project! Your book might be better than theirs, and this situation could be a boon in that case.

Will new forms of commissioning and funding survive?

It wouldn't be overly cynical to say that print media is in decline. Or, perhaps more fairly, that it is becoming harder and harder to get commissioned. The rise and rise of the internet has contributed to this in its own way, but some people aren't letting this be the death of science journalism. Instead new platforms are being developed to revolutionise the way which we fund and commission science journalism. These new platforms give writing opportunities not only to weathered professionals, but also to those looking to break into the increasingly impenetrable world of writing.

One new model which is being explored is crowdfunding. The essence of crowdfunding is that you ask people for money to do something that you like, but it is for something which they like as well, says Sebastian Esser, founder of But this model hasn't yet been applied greatly to journalism. is one platform that is looking to use crowdfunding to revolutionise the world of commissioning and funding. It is not specifically a science platform, says Sarah Hartley, co-founder and editor, but a place for all long-form journalism where writers can pitch directly to potential readers who can then choose whether or not to fund them. The platform uses a 3-month production cycle, with a pitching phase followed by production and publishing phases, as long as the initial pitch receives enough backing. In response to the question, what do the people who fund the articles get out of the process? Sarah replied, "Contributoriais set up to be a collaborative community environment. I think our users feel a sense of altruism and a sense of belonging to a community." It shouldn't be viewed as a destination for reading articles; it is more of a community for writers, "a platform, a process and a cooperative."

Like most new commissioning and funding concepts, Contributoriareceived outside funding to launch. It received an initial grant from the Google-sponsored International Press Institute News Innovation Contest, and now receives funding from the Guardian Media Group. Nevertheless, questions have been raised about the sustainability of these new platforms once their initial funding runs out.

This new wave of funding and commissioning concepts isn't solely based on the crowdfunding model. Another emerging platform, Mosaic, takes open source to new levels. Giles Newton, editor of Mosaic, explained how the Wellcome Trust funds the platform, but the articles on Mosaic are not limited to Wellcome Trust-funded science. All Mosaic's stories are released on Creative Commons licenses, leading to many stories being taken up by mainstream media outlets, and inevitable surges in Mosaic’s site traffic. The ethos of Mosaic is that the stories are made available to all audiences, as long as Mosaic is referenced. None of the stories on Mosaic are copyrighted; this would undermine the whole concept of trying to gain wide audiences.< The talks concluded with a pressing question from an audience member who had been running a traditional publishing business for 14 years. He asked: "It is all well and good to have these platforms set up with enormous sums of initial investment, but in the long run how are you going to become economically viable? Are any of you going to be around in 14-years' time?" This does seem to be the most important point that is asyet unanswered. Are any of these new platforms going to become economically sustainable once their initial funding pools dry up? I, for one, do hope so.

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