Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The traditional scientific journal article begins with a few general statements about things that are usually well-known or accepted. It then outlines the background to the research, provides a description of the experiments carried out and their methods, reports and discusses the results, then finally draws a conclusion from them and discusses its wider implications. The reader must work their way through each of these steps in order to be rewarded with the finding.

A science article written for the media or a lay audience, on the other hand, adopts almost exactly the opposite structure. It reports the main finding and its impact on society in the very first sentence, then explains who did the research and why, adds further detail and finally, if there is room, goes on to discuss what most scientists would see as the main game – the research itself. This is because audiences are usually more concerned about how the science affects them directly than they are with the method by which it was achieved. They are users of science, not its practitioners.

In journalism, the conclusion is nearly always presented first and the rest of the article then expands on this, providing the reader with the supporting evidence for the initial claim and the background to it. This structure has since become common in many forms of reporting: corporate and government reports, for example, present their findings in an executive summary – often a series of terse bullet points – so the busy reader can seize the essence without having to wade through the detail. In journalism, most readers read the first few paragraphs, but few make their way to the end of the article. If important information is placed here it will be lost (or even cut out completely by the editor).

This ‘upside down pyramid’ article structure, with the most important fact first, achieves a much higher impact on the reader and is likely to stick in their mind longer. Where there are several important findings from the research, the article will present them one at a time in the first few paragraphs, rather than risk obscuring or losing some key points by running them all together.

Scientists often assume the reason they are doing their work is selfevident, but this is often not the case. A good science article therefore makes clear, in its opening paragraphs, why the research is being carried out – to save lives, prevent environmental damage, improve industrial productivity, and so on. Indeed, it is on this simple fact that the importance of the article and its chances of publication depend. If it is omitted, the relevance of the science to the reader may well be lost. The editor may regard the story as unimportant and ‘put it on the spike’ (discard it).

The credibility of science with the public often depends on who performed it, so the science article identifies the researchers and institutions involved early on. This is a sign to the reader – who may be unfamiliar with journals and peer review – how trustworthy the information is. However, a good article or media story does not waste space on long wordy names, titles or teams.

A good science article often goes directly to the meaning of the science to society, rather than to the science itself. This is especially the case with a new technology or piece of applied science. The exception would be a ‘blue sky’ discovery, or findings from fields such as astronomy or palaeontology without immediate practical application. In these cases, the article will dwell on the sheer wonder or novelty of what has been found and seek to engage the reader through their curiosity about the natural world.

To engage the reader at the outset it is vital to choose a strong heading. Unlike a scientific paper, where the heading often describes the research, a heading in the media, a press release, a book or a report is intended to catch the eye and capture the attention of the reader – not to inform them. It is usually concerned with the impact of the science, not with the science itself. It is an advertisement for what follows, not a synopsis of it. For this reason, a strong heading is usually short – three to five words work best. An attractive heading may also use mystery, humour or an unusual word to attract the reader. All it needs to do is entice them into reading the first paragraph, which then delivers the main message of interest and lures them to read on.

An effective piece of science writing often has only one idea per sentence. As mentioned above, this gives the reader time to digest important facts. Where high impact is required, occasionally use only a single sentence per paragraph.

The white space between the paragraphs emphasises the point being made in a delicate way, without using exclamation marks, underlining, bold type or italics. In fact, the last three can offend the reader, as they are the typological equivalent of shouting at them (like using CAPS in an email).

Good science writing is usually very economical in its use of language. It compensates for complexity by elegance and simplicity of expression and choice of words. It avoids pomposity or talking down to the reader. It goes directly to the wider significance of the research and why it was done. It explains its relevance to the general reader, rather than to science. It seeks to convey a sense of wonder, where appropriate, but does not exaggerate or overstate. It is checked with the scientist, to ensure accuracy. If there is room, it refers to doubts, criticisms and alternative interpretations of the science.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 

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