I thought this article from Ed Yong at National Geographic’s Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science blog might be useful for any scientists who talk to the media. Ed’s article is specifically about science experts he and other journalists might call on to comment on someone else’s work and put things in context.
If you’ve ever volunteered, or been volunteered, to provide some background info for a journalist and wondered ‘what do they want from me?’ this helps answer that question.
One of the sections from the “So, here’s what I would find useful” bit looks at the article’s weaknesses:
1) Weaknesses. The most important things you can tell me about a study are its weaknesses. Are there inaccuracies in the paper? Statistical failings? Do you think the conclusions don’t hold water? The last thing I want to do is to credulously cover a weak study. But I don’t work in your field and my bullsh*t detector is probably less finely calibrated than yours. So I’m basically relying on you to help me not mislead my readers. Maybe your comments will persuade me to drop a story because it’s just that bad. Maybe your comments will help me to confront an editor and say: “We shouldn’t cover this story that you seem so insistent on. Look: all these scientists think it’s bunk.”
This paragraph reminds me of vaguely-related thing of people creating lay (plain English) summaries of research, eg something that some medical research charities do, often with people who have the relevant health condition or care for those that do. While you can often ‘map’ the jargon aspects of the text to plain English on a one-to-one basis (eg hyperglycaemia literally means high glucose in blood) you also need the context on the type of research being done – whether it was a case study (cautious conclusions) or a well-designed large trial (perhaps stronger conclusions).
When I’m reading a biomedical paper I also try and remind myself to think in terms of “what if?” and “what’s missing?”.
For general science examples see the discussions among Chris Buddle, Michael F Kelly, J Prescott and Nick Wright here Science outreach: plain-language summaries for all research papers.
For health examples see Patients Participate! (see the stuff in the blue panels) and I’ve blogged a bit more about this sort of thing at my main blog: Patients and health research findings: accessing, discovering, understanding and putting them in context.