How to write a terrible science story

Genomicron has an excellent description for how to write a terrible popular science story. I agree 100%. And when he hit #10, I had to cheer.

10. Don’t provide any links to the original paper.

If possible, avoid providing any easy way for readers (in particular, scientists) to access the original peer-reviewed article on which your story is based. Some techniques to delay reading of the primary paper are to not provide the title or to have your press release come out months before the article is set to appear.

Damn right. It’s the internet age, it’s not only possible, but easy to include a single embedded link to the critical source material.


  1. What really bugs me is when scientists’ institutions put out press releases that don’t have links to the original scientific paper! I mean, sheesh.

  2. #10 is one of the internet’s biggest disappointments. In the early 1990s there was a great hullaballoo about how the web would support linking of reference and source materials. Since news articles frequently rely on references, and those references are critical to interpreting the accuracy and relevance of story, many thought it certain news organizations would jump on this great opportunity to provide the public with more and better information.
    Sadly no. In one of many clear reminders that most of the major news media care little for providing useful information, they have taken years, and years, and over a decade, to provide embedded links – indeed, many continue to show no sign they will ever do so.

  3. Citing references is such a common practice in science and academia that it truly baffles us when journalists don’t do the same thing.

    I think a lot of this boils down to the layperson trusting the journalist, thinking that the journalist MUST have done substantial background research and performed serious critical analysis of all available data (especially where conflicts exist). The average reader expects the journalist to do all the work so they don’t have to, so why would they want references? If they say, “studies show that…”, then who cares WHAT study or WHO showed it? It’s sad, but true.

    What I find particularly troubling is that journalists can specifically get away with publishing information from sources they WILL not reveal (i.e., interviews with unnamed officials, leaked classified documents). Come on! Could you imagine trying to get away with making a claim in an article for Nature or Science, citing as proof a private conversation with “someone who shall remain nameless, but believe me, is certainly someone in the know”. And yes, I know some journals do accept private (unrecorded) communications as references, but they at least require one to identify the persons involved, their affiliations, and a rough estimate of the date of the conversation.

  4. Sorry for the double post, but I have a separate point to make here. To open up the PRISM debate again, what’s still a big disappointment with the internet is the continued restricted access to scientific information by the big science publishers. What’s the use in citing articles, if the average reader can’t get to the article anyway? For those of us who work at major research universities with a huge journal subscription base, it’s not an issue. It is a huge deal for Jane and John Doe who don’t live in a college town with a large journal collection. For them, listing references IS pretty much a waste of time.

  5. Re the quote “What I find particularly troubling is that journalists can specifically get away with publishing information from sources they WILL not reveal”.

    Put yourself in the position of a journalist. You have an exclusive and revealing bit of information from an official who has proved a useful contact to you, and who you hope to maintain good relations with. The official doesn’t want to be named, because they’re not meant to be providing you with that information. They would lose their job. Sure, you could reveal your source. But you sure aren’t ever going to be told the truth by that official ever again.

    That’s why journalists don’t always reveal their sources. [nb this doesn’t apply to citing references already in the public domain, of course. Not doing that, I agree, is extremely irritating].

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