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How to Cover a Science Study

A comprehensive guide for first-timers

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Science helps explain the world around us, and sharing that knowledge with readers is one of the great benefits of science writing. A big part of science writing is covering studies, and when done well, there’s an opportunity to present new ideas and explanations to your audience. But when done poorly, writers can run the risk of laundering the authority of science to sketchy stories.

Here are important things to keep in mind when you’re writing about a science study, whether you’re including it as evidence in a broader story or if you’re writing about the study itself. While I believe accurately covering research requires thoughtfulness, I do think anyone can learn how to do it well. Here’s my advice.

What to keep in mind

Science is an evolution. Experiments and studies are typically adding to existing knowledge, and most of the time a study will end without a firm conclusion.This is the beauty of science (and yes, sometimes the frustration). But embracing this understanding will help you more accurately present research to readers.

Covering studies can be a bit contentious. Some writers are more skeptical when it comes to reporting on studies, especially one-off pieces of research. Others regularly cover new research as it’s published. I’ve worked in newsrooms that have embraced both approaches.

There can be a risk of overhyping findings or making something seem more definitive than it actually is. For example, if a study only has 40 people in it or the study was done in mice, then it probably doesn’t have much to say definitely for the average person. Why? Well, mice are biologically different from humans and a study that enrolls 10,000 people might find very different findings than one that has only 40.

This kind of research is still important for scientists because it provides proof of concept and avenues for future exploration. But a study in mice or a few dozen college students is only the start, and you typically shouldn’t draw hard-line conclusions from it. Overall, people reading and writing about single study findings should remember that some studies are considered stronger than others (by both scientists and the people who write about them).

Now let’s get into it.

How to read a study

A science study typically consists of a few parts:

The abstract: A concise summary of an experiment or research project. Read this to get a distillation of the researchers’ purpose for doing the study, how they did it, the findings, and their conclusions. Keep in mind that the abstract is also meant to “sell” the reader on the paper, so you want to make sure you read the full study if you’re writing about it.

Introduction: The introduction to a study is one of my favorite parts. This is where the scientists explain the motivation behind their work, and help the reader understand the larger context this study exists in. A study about breast cancer treatment might outline the current state of breast cancer therapies and survival, and why this new treatment is of interest.

The methods: This is where the scientists explain how they did the study. This is so that other researchers might be able to replicate their work, which is an important part of research to confirm findings. This is helpful for explaining how the researchers got to their results.

The results: This is where the scientists lay out their findings in detail. There are usually corresponding figures and tables that can be helpful.

The discussion: This section is an interpretation of the results. When I am writing about a study, I read the results but lean more heavily on the discussion, as it’s typically more comprehensible for a general reader. Sometimes the results and the discussion are included together.

Limitations: This is a very important part of the study where the researchers explain what factors limit their study that the reader should keep in mind. When you’re new to covering studies, I highly recommend reading this section thoroughly (sometimes it is lumped into the discussion). It will help you get a handle on what caveats to include, and why there could be some disagreement about the findings. As you gain experience, you’ll likely be able to identify limitations yourself — for example, in a study of 40 people, the scientists themselves will likely say that a limitation of their study is that it is small.

The conclusion: This is where the researchers summarize the most important outcomes of their work, as well as the takeaways. This is important if you’re writing about the paper, and a good spot to get inspiration for questions to ask the study’s researchers about the implications of their findings.

The press release: Often papers come out with a corresponding press release that summarizes the findings and usually includes a few quotes from the researchers. While it’s acceptable to cite those quotes (and credit the press release) in your story, keep in mind that you shouldn’t write a story on a press release alone. Sometimes a press release is not fully accurate, and so it’s important to corroborate it with the actual paper and researchers. Use it as a tool similar to the abstract, to give yourself an idea of what the paper is about and why it’s important.

Editorial: In some cases, but not all, someone in the field of the research who was not involved in the study will be asked to write an editorial (sometimes called a Commentary) that shares their own thoughts on the study. I love editorials as they provide more context and outside opinion, but keep in mind that it’s rare an editorial will be a critique or criticism of the study. It’s good to seek outside comment from other sources.

What to look out for

Sample size: This the number of people involved in a study. It’s often presented as the “n” number (n = 40 means there are 40 people in the study). There is no hard rule about what makes an n number sufficient or not (it’s relative depending on the experiment and field), but generally the bigger the better.

Population: Who is being studied or tested? Think about how the study findings are meant to be applied, then think about who the people in the experiment are. If a study on the causes of breast cancer across all women is performed only on white women in their forties, for example, you can’t say with certainty the results will necessarily apply to all women outside of that group.

Randomized controlled trial (RCT): This is considered the “gold standard” in research. It’s a study in which people are allocated at random to receive a given clinical intervention. One of these interventions is the treatment or control. The control may be a standard practice, a placebo (“sugar pill”), or no intervention at all.

Controlled: In this kind of study, one group — the experimental group — has the intervention being assessed (could be a drug or a vaccine, for example), while the other — usually called the control group — has an alternative condition, such as a placebo or no intervention.

Double-blind: A type of clinical trial in which neither the people in the study nor the researchers conducting it knows which treatment or intervention participants are receiving until the clinical trial is over. This makes results of the study less likely to be biased, and means that the results are less likely to be affected by factors that are not related to the treatment or intervention being tested.

Observational: An observational study is when researchers observe the impact of a factor on a population without directing who is being exposed to it. For example, researchers ask a group of people if they shower before bedtime. They find that people who shower before bedtime are also more likely to stay asleep through the night. This is an observational finding.

Correlation: This is when a study finds an association between two behaviors, though it’s not necessarily a causal link. Take the example I just made of people who shower before bedtime and sleep longer through the night. The researchers found a correlation between showering and sound sleep, but they did not prove that taking a shower before going to bed means people will sleep for longer. It’s important to point out when a study is making a correlation or an association.

Peer review: Ideally a study is published into a journal that uses peer review, which means the work has been evaluated by outside experts who work in the field. This adds rigor to the publication process and serves as a safety net to make sure the findings are accurate.

There are some journals that heavily rely on peer review and have gained acclaim over time, including Nature, Science, JAMA, Cell. But there are plenty of medical journals that have rigorous peer review that are smaller and have good story fodder. When you visit a journal website, it should state clearly whether it is peer-reviewed. If not, there is usually a press contact listed who you can reach out to confirm.

Preprints: Scientists can freely disseminate new findings before publication on “preprint servers.” Papers submitted to these servers are called “preprints.” These used to be papers read mostly by scientists as a way to get early glimpses at their peer’s work. Scientists tend to especially appreciate them during times when scientific knowledge is developing and changing quickly — like say, during an ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Writers tend to have different opinions about covering preprint studies because they haven’t been peer-reviewed, which is a very important part of the scientific process. If you are going to write about a preprint study, you should make it clear to the reader that the study is unpublished and hasn’t undergone peer review. It’s normal, and not offensive to the authors, to state that clearly. For example: “This study is not yet published, which means it has not undergone peer review, which is important to keep in mind.”

Conflict of interest: This is one of the most important parts of covering studies to become familiar. Conflict of interest in research is when the researchers have financial or other personal considerations that may compromise, or have the appearance of compromising, a researcher’s judgment in conducting or reporting research. Often, but not always, a conflict of interest will be cited at the end of a study. You should always look for it.

Having a conflict of interest is not illegal or even necessarily always frowned upon when conducting research. All pharmaceutical companies need to conduct research on their drugs and vaccines, for example. They will typically pay researchers to do those studies. That is considered a normal part of their process. If you’re covering a study funded by a pharmaceutical company, make sure it is peer-reviewed and published in a reputable journal.

Conflict of interest is not benign, however, and in many cases, companies with a vested interest in building a market for their products will fund research. This research can even be peer-reviewed and published, which creates confusion. It’s important to build an understanding of the details of these relationships.

If you see a conflict of interest, consider how it might impact the findings themselves. In 2018 for example, there was breathless coverage of research that found health benefits from eating pasta. Turns out the studies were funded by the world’s largest pasta manufacturer, Barilla. A few years ago it was also revealed that U.S. guidelines about cavity prevention were heavily influenced by the sugar industry through research funding.

Conflict of interest is tricky. Right now funding for science research is tight, and scientists may feel compelled to partner with industry in order to continue their work. Researchers may disagree over how conflict of interest influences the integrity of their research. But the bottom line is that it’s important that you as the writer point out any conflict of interest to the reader, or even consider whether that study is worth your coverage.

While typically conflict of interest is considered when a finding is consistent with what the funder wants, it can go the other way too, which may bolster your belief that things are on the up-and-up.

How to get access to a study

The embargo game: Ever wonder why suddenly every health journalist is covering the same Covid-19 study? It’s because many journals share their studies with writers a couple weeks early with an embargo. This means that no one can cover the findings until after the embargo lifts. This is a very strict practice in science journalism because breaking an embargo and publishing a story about a new study early is frowned upon, and usually means a writer is cut off from further access to embargoed studies from that journal in the future. (There’s plenty of critique of the embargo practice, which you can read here, but it hasn’t led to change.)

A good place to start getting access to embargoed studies is to email a journal’s press offices to get on mailing lists or join sites like EurekAlert!, which compiles embargoed or recently published studies in one place.

If there’s a specific study you’re looking to get access to, there’s typically two ways to get it quickly. You can email the press or media office of that journal, or email the researcher directly. The lead researcher’s email is usually included in the study itself, either near their name at the top, or under “correspondence.”

Writing and reporting tips

Always talk to the researchers if you can: For the most part, researchers want to talk about their studies. As mentioned above, the email for at least one of the researchers is usually listed on the study itself, and you’re encouraged to reach out to that researcher for an interview. If the researcher doesn’t respond, consider reaching out to their institution’s press office to ask for an interview.

Science studies can be full of jargon and are not always super easy to understand. That’s why speaking to the researcher directly is important for building a better understanding of the motivations behind the research, the findings, and the study’s implications.

Reach out to an outside expert: Consider interviewing someone who is in the same field as the study researchers, but was not involved in the study itself. This will provide outside insight into the study findings.

Ask the basic questions: I recently reached out to other science writers for tips on covering studies, and multiple people said to lose the ego. Do not feel like you need to use jargon when talking to a researcher. If you’re writing for a general audience, you should ask the questions that will help you cover the study very clearly. “If you want quotes that will work for average readers you have to ask dumb questions,” says science writer Nathanael Johnson. “That was big for me because I wanted scientists to think I was smart and had read their work carefully. Had to kill my vanity.”

Avoid jargon: Some writers like jargon, but I personally think it makes your writing much less accessible. If you want to reach the largest possible audience, lose the terms or at least explain them well at first mention.

Try to paraphrase the findings yourself, and then fact check them: A good way to make sure you’re representing the findings accurately is to fact check them with the researcher. This doesn’t mean sharing your story with the expert (that is considered bad practice) but you can confirm parts of your story that describe the research. “I will paraphrase complex methods to the best of my understanding and ask the author source if my paraphrase is an accurate summary,” says science writer EJ Willingham. “I don’t use text from the article, just my own paraphrase. It’s a good fact check for me.”

Be aware of overhyping: Rarely is a single study a “breakthrough” or “groundbreaking” or a “game changer.” Use that kind of terminology sparingly. Usually a study is adding to existing knowledge.

Provide context: It’s helpful to the reader if you sum up the most recent work in the field and why this new finding is interesting or important. As mentioned, much of this information is provided by the authors in the study introduction. It’s also helpful to check out what other coverage this kind of work has received in the past.

This guide is meant to be a starting point. There are plenty of other health and science writers with tips and tricks for successfully covering studies and including evidence in their work. Feel free to add your own advice in the comments section!

With reporting by Yasmin Tayag.

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that