We propose, in no particular order, nine possible ways scientists can improve science journalism and nine possible questions for science journalists. We are calling on Guardian readers to help us triage these to the top three in each list, which will then be discussed at the upcoming Royal Institution debate on Tuesday 13 March. So please help us by commenting on our article and it would be helpful if you would also tell us your profession. You can find many of the points raised here elaborated at our companion website.
If you are a scientist, please also take our anonymous 10-minute survey on science and the media. The results will be discussed at the debate.
Ways scientists can improve science journalism:
1. Watch what you release
In the balance between carefully reporting science and courting interest, we believe many press releases push the latter too far. We can help journalists by stating limitations and highlighting danger points in interpretation where an untrained eye might confuse correlation with causation, or absolute and relative risks.
Doing so requires us to place public understanding of science above our own vanity and pressure to achieve impact.
2. Reach out
For us this debate has highlighted the degree of separation between science and journalism, with neither world understanding in any detail the nature of the other. So let's get to know each better and destroy the "ivory tower" myth.
3. Be there
How many of us ensure we know exactly when our press release will be made public and make time in our diaries for interviews? The reality is that if we are unavailable in the 48 hours following the press release then the ship may have sailed, or sunk. Science may grow like a bristlecone pine but most news stories are mayflies.
4. Be prepared
Media training courses are important, but so is common sense. Key quotes can be prepared in advance of interviews. Advice from non-experts can help recognise and eliminate jargon.
5. Think big
We must accept that accuracy is relative. Scientists already know that their own peer-reviewed articles routinely include what other scientists would regard as oversimplifications. Journalists need us to shift our mindset to the perspective of the layperson and question whether a particular detail or caveat is necessary to convey the broader importance of the work. For a vital caveat, be ready to explain clearly why it is part of the big picture.
6. Think blogBlogs are often regarded as an alternative to PR and commercial media, but they may also be useful as extra resources for journalists. If a journalist doesn't understand your press release or journal article and can't get you on the phone, they could refer to your blog for detail and FAQs. As successful blogs show, this bridge can be highly valuable. We've tried this with an expanded version of the current article.
7. Make it public
Scientists face unrelenting pressure to publish in the most respected journals, placing much science behind paywalls.
The ethical concerns this raises, especially for publicly funded science, have been underlined at length (see for example here, here, and here).
We can post our articles on our websites but a coordinated move to open access publishing may require changes in government policy .
8. Watch your neighbourhood
When things go wrong, act. We must take the time to challenge misreporting of our own research and other work in our fields. Many scientists are apathetic about misreporting, either laughing it off or resenting it - but then doing nothing about it. Equally important is to challenge pseudoscience or exaggerated claims in our own fields. Bad science has no better ally than silence from good scientists.
9. Get the facts
Argument is no substitute for evidence. Most scientists are not experts in journalism studies, but that shouldn't stop us from teaming up with the experts and doing research on how our area of science is represented in the media. We have just embarked on research in our own field to assess the accuracy of press releases and news stories, and the attitudes of scientists toward them. We would encourage more scientists to do the same.
Questions for journalists:
1. If press releases contained more caveats and limitations, would it reduce their media uptake? Is this necessarily a bad thing?
2. Would journalists welcome clearer statements of limitations and interpretative danger points in press releases?
3. Would journalists welcome open days, internships or lab visits hosted by scientists?
4. Do science journalists feel constrained by the political or editorial agenda of their newspapers? If so, how do they deal with it?
5. Do science reporters believe that science news would be improved if the reporters were allowed to write their own headlines? How many do already?
6. Do science journalists (and generalist journalists covering science news) feel that their workload is too high? Would a newspaper suffer if it concentrated on fewer science stories?
7. Do specialist science journalists believe that interacting too closely with scientists detracts from their capacity to report objectively and critique science?
8. Would science journalists welcome a criterion-based quality stamp to aid in their news reporting, similar perhaps to the mechanism we propose in our submission to the Leveson Inquiry? Could such a system improve public understanding?
9. In science, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It has been suggested that the opposite can apply in science journalism. Discuss.