Scientists’ Creative Conundrum

It’s a great privilege of mine being one of the editors of our graduate program’s Charité Neuroscience newsletter (CNS – http://bit.ly/1HglVvV). One of the things I’ve noticed while editing the past seven issues is that, in general, scientists are great at journalism. We do our research diligently and excel at fact-checking and carefully interpreting what we find. But one thing that has stood out for me is that, in our quest to be accurate and factual, truly “scientific” if you will, creativity often takes a beating.

Billboards are designed to draw the reader’s attention to the article as they flip through the pages. In journalistic style, billboards are short excerpts from an article, usually placed somewhere on the page in large letters. They’re meant to be concise and catchy, but informative. Many of our writers, myself included, struggle with these little snippets – they don’t tell the whole story can be outright biased or easily misleading (intentionally or otherwise). They’re also often fairly abstract and, as scientists, we just find them plain shady. A lot of substance is lost when brevity and attractiveness are the main goal – and we can’t really handle that – it feels … icky.

I think our reluctance to season our writing with creativity stems from the relationship between science, scientists, and the media. It’s no secret that scientific studies are sometimes outrageously misconstrued by the mainstream media. I’m not talking about when the media reports on bad science as if it were good – that’s ignorance, and it’s forgivable – but when good science is misrepresented for the sake of attracting readers. This happens on a daily basis and any scientist will tell you that it makes our jobs much more difficult. Not only does it spread false or inaccurate information, it also makes people’s trust in science diminish, especially when these stories are eventually debunked. So that’s why, when scientists write, our (somewhat condescending) attitude is: we should know better (than to do what they do)!

Of course, one difference between journalists’ and scientists’ writing is the intended audience. If, like the former, you intend to reach everyone then sensationalizing and exaggerating (at least just a little) might be unavoidable. Perhaps scientists need to accept that they’ll always have a limited readership (some call it the “wider scientific community”, whatever that means). That might help us write in a more attractive way without undermining our principles. The question is then, is it really “science journalism” if we know, even as we write it, that it’s not meant for everyone?

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