How should we report incremental science?

Click for the whole comic. [Credit: Nik Papageorgiou]
Click for the whole comic. [Credit: Nik Papageorgiou]
Do we really need to report every new exoplanet discovery? How significant does an advance in cancer research need to be to merit a news story? Is every paper by a famous scientist newsworthy simply for reasons of that person’s fame? What do we do with contradictory research results, or concurrent studies that draw opposite conclusions? How about research that ends up being retracted?

These aren’t just provocative questions: they’re important for science journalists in any medium, working researchers whose work is covered, and those who write press releases. And they’re important for the readers, TV viewers, podcast listeners, and other consumers of science reporting in its many forms. I’m a consumer of science journalism in biology, paleontology, medicine, etc. — every field that isn’t physics and astronomy, and indeed in any story I read that I didn’t write myself. We’re all readers, watchers, and listeners, even if we’re also producers. It’s important to get these stories right.

That’s why I want the session I’m facilitating at Science Online 2014 next week to be more than just for writers like me: I want to hear from everyone who has a vested interest in science reporting. The title is Reporting Incremental Science in a World that wants Big Results, but our scope should be broad if we’re going to have a meaningful conversation. Here are some stories you might find useful to spur thinking (listed in no particular order):

Other examples? Please leave them in the comments, or better yet, post them on the session forum (registration and login required).

3 responses to “How should we report incremental science?”

  1. After a little thought–incremental reporting is a lot like picking up a ‘news paper’ —a lot of us will read it for a number of reasons: 1) crisp writing –no frills or Associated Press style, 2) how does it affect me, 3) does the paper catch my eye–is it designed well? 4) do I read about those who care about me or vice versa
    That would be my short list and science reporting is a hard sell in so many unfortunate ways. Just my two cents.

  2. Having served on University Tenure and Promotion committees, I can say that one reason these incremental reports are submitted for publication is to create a longer list of publications for the authors. (And isn’t all scientific research incremental? Subject to the next research result?)

    1. I know journalists aren’t concerned about T&P committees, but the above is a factor they might want to consider. Is this current paper the first of a series stringing out results so they may want to wait for the whole study?

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