Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2017

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

Header from an 1884 science magazine called Knowledge, led by British astronomer Richard Anthony Proctor. Its tagline reads: “A magazine of science: plainly worded — exactly described.” Image via Wikimedia Commons & public domain.

Late January 2017 saw a shift in science journalism so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you make your living writing press releases. I happened to be interning in the press office of a prominent family of scientific journals that publishes basic research almost exclusively, so I felt it. And since our press office tracks the coverage of all studies from its journals, I saw data, too.

What we noticed is coverage of our papers in the first half of January 2017 looked a lot like the first half of January 2016. But on January 20, 2017, coverage of our journals’ papers saw a drop. Our February 2017 coverage stats were below our February 2016 numbers, both in terms of the percentage of studies covered and in the number of outlets that covered the popular studies. The numbers improved since then.

We’re biased, but we think it’s unlikely that our press releases suddenly got worse. The journal family is focused basic biology and chemistry (y’know–octopus RNA, flu-killing peptides in frog mucus, stuff like that), and it seems that science journalists, in aggregate, weren’t writing as many stories about basic research as they did in February-early March last year.

That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, and it may be the standard science journalism community response to a new administration, regardless of party. But in my mind, it raises the question: How do we decide what counts as “science writing”? Where do we draw the distinction between “health policy” stories and “science of health” stories? Is there a distinction to be drawn at all?

For instance, this Cara Giaimo piece–“Are We Knitting Too Many Tiny Sweaters for Animals?”–is well-written, charming, and includes lots of animals, which are certainly a topic in biology. But without scientists or peer-reviewed research in the foreground, is it still a science story?

Conversely, stories like Grace Wong’s report on a study about PTSD prevalence on the southside of Chicago are certainly based on peer-reviewed research, but the human interest facets of the story are what really shine. Can we still call it “best science” writing if the discussion of stats and studies doesn’t match the riveting descriptions of the people affected?

I loved both of those pieces, and both writers certainly deserve props for their work, but they make me wonder: Is the purpose of science writing to make people care about the subjects of science or about science itself?

These questions probably don’t matter much to general readers, but as the political landscape around science becomes increasingly partisan, perception of “sciencey-ness” can affect a reporter’s credibility. This methodologically questionable attempt at ranking science news outlets positions “ideology” as the opposite of “evidence”, although evidence and ideology certainly intersect in some stories.

Anyway, I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I think they’re worth thinking about.

But onward to the standout stories! As always, our selection is highly subjective and driven by the whims of whoever decides to send suggestions via our crowdsourced nomination/submission form. The form for the April-June is here. (If you aren’t impressed with our picks, you’re always welcome to send us suggestions for future installments or post pieces you would have chosen in the comments below.) Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.

The stories are grouped into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions” but are not ranked within those groups. Instead, we put the stories in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

We decided to rename the category formerly known as “News-Length” to “News-Style” and increase its word count limit to 1200. We had noticed that the difference between “news” and “deep dives” wasn’t so much length, as style and decided to make that official. This cycle, we ended up with almost exclusively “very serious health stories” in the news category, but inverted-pyramid stories on trends are all eligible, regardless of the gravity of the subject.

Welcome to our new editor Aparna Kishor, who currently works as a postdoc at NHLBI. Our returning editors are myself (Diana Crow, currently interning at Cell Press) Sarah Lewin of Space.com,Amanda Alvarez of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan, and Atlanta-based freelancer Nola Taylor Redd.

You can follow the Best Shortform Science Writing Project at @SciShortform on Twitter and on Medium.

Picks for January–March 2017 are below.

Short Shorts (under 600 words)

[succinct, focused, clear, cool]

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

News-style (601–1200 words)

[topical, informative, newspaper-style]

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Single-Study Deep Dives & Profiles (700–1200 words)

[Insightful, humanizing, focuses on 1 study or 1 scientist]

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1400 words)

[probing, original, rigorous, bonus points for visuals]

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)

[strong opinion angle, informed, possibly critical, possibly 1st person]

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Honorable Misfits

[Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway.]

Help Find the Next Batch of Best Shortform Science Writing!

If you’ve got suggestions on how the BSSW roundups can be improved, leave a comment. (Or email me at diana@dianacrowscience.com or tag us on Twitter @SciShortform)

If you liked this list (or if you think that we snubbed a deserving outlet or writer), please send suggestions for the next quarterly “Best” Shortform Science Writing. That post will cover April-June 2017 and will debut in mid-July 2017.

And if you know of any January through March stories we’ve missed, post ’em in the comments below!

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