Ask TON: When Is Outsourcing Unethical?

5645164344_1d072fab2f_zFrom following the latest research on your beat to pitching, researching, and writing features, any science writer knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed. But when is it OK—if ever—to outsource some of your work?

For our latest Ask TON, we solicited advice from experienced writers and editors about the delicate task of hiring a helping hand. Here’s this month’s question:

“I took on too many assignments recently and to get myself out of a bind without having to tell my editor I was so far behind, I hired another writer who I trusted to help me with my reporting and drafting. It all worked out, but after the story appeared, people were congratulating me on Twitter and I felt kind of gross. Was it unethical for me to hire a subcontractor?” Read more »

David Wolman Explores a Deadly Earthquake and Its Startling Legal Aftershocks

David Wolman

David Wolman

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake ripped through the heart of the central Italian mountain town of L’Aquila in April 2009, killing more than 300 people. To the horror of much of the scientific community, seven scientists and engineers were later charged with manslaughter, accused of misleading the public and creating a false sense of security after a series of small earthquakes had shaken residents’ nerves in the months and days before the big quake.

Writer David Wolman, a contributing editor at Wired and Matter and the author, most recently, of The End of Money, spent six days in Italy following the initial guilty verdict. In his feature, “The Aftershocks,” which ran in Matter on August 24, 2014, he renders the victims’ families’ heartbreak, the science of risk communication, and the dangers of putting science on trial. (On November 10, 2014, an appeals court overturned the convictions of six of the seven men.) Here, Wolman tells TON guest contributor Amanda Mascarelli the story behind the story:

How did the story come about?

My initial idea for the story came from seeing what most people did when the charges were first announced—those 100-word news briefs in various publications. It was just one of those small things you see in passing that makes you stop and think. I had the initial, “Oh, that’s ridiculous” outrage that most people did when they first heard of the thing: that knee-jerk response of, “Galileo! This is awful.”

I thought, “This would be an incredible deep dive—obviously there’s so much more to this than just little 100-word news briefs.” Then I did what a lot of people in our field do [when science intersects with breaking news], which is assume that someone else is going to be on the monster feature about it.

Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.

In December 2012 (about seven weeks after the verdict), I sent my editor a link to a news piece about the conviction, with the following message: “Did you hear about this? Feels like this is ripe for a deep dive—so much so that I’d think someone was on it already. Yet I can’t find it.” He agreed and I immediately got going on a pitch for the meeting later that month. 

Can you tell me about the pitch process?

The story was initially for Wired. My editor there, Mark Robinson, is second to none. But after a number of drafts, some alternate ideas from other editors, and a word count that went from X to X-minus-a-lot, it just wasn’t going to work. I don’t usually mind trimming, or even major pruning. At a certain point, though, it starts to feel a little like cutting off your own foot. Anyway, we had a mutual, professional, and respectful parting of the ways.

At about the same time, I was negotiating a contract to write a few stories for Matter. Word-count limitations don’t exist in cyberspace, which is nice. Longer stories aren’t necessarily better, obviously, but I felt like I had a second chance to explore some of the bigger ideas I had initially hoped to tackle. Thankfully, the Matter folks had heard of the earthquake trial and were interested in doing the story.

How did you start reporting the story?

It started with a conversation with one of the seven scientists. I just got in touch with him. And then I contacted a big geoscience guy in Southern California, Tom Jordan, whose name was coming up in a lot of short news items about the story. I talked with him about how to build my reporting plans and about what [was] being missed.

Ancient or poorly constructed buildings were the most badly damaged.

Ancient or poorly constructed buildings were the most badly damaged.

Also, early on I was corresponding with [Giampaolo] Giuliani, the self-described earthquake whisperer. Some media reports had suggested that he had predicted the earthquake. That is ridiculous, of course, but he was central to this story because the now-infamous meeting of the seven experts was convened primarily to correct misinformation that was infecting the community, courtesy of Giuliani. I made plans to spend time with him. I went into it with bias for sure, but I wanted to make sure I gave him a fair shake and every possible opportunity to explain to me what he was doing and convince me that the entire scientific community had it backwards.

I spent two nights at his house, listening to his whole thing, and spending time with his family. He was very kind and hospitable and trying hard—but also, as the story shows, full of it. I thought the time with Giuliani would distinguish my story from anything else you’d seen out there.

Read more »

A Day in the Life of Dan Vergano

Dan Vergano is a senior writer-editor at, where he focuses on space, archaeology, and enterprise reporting. He was formerly the senior science writer at USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter @dvergano.

Dan Vergano

Dan Vergano

What I’m working on:

I’m digging through my notes and ideas from folks at the AAS Division of Planetary Science meeting I attended last week in Tucson, reading through abstracts for the Society for Neuroscience meeting going on this week in D.C., and girding my loins for the AGU meeting in San Francisco in a few weeks. And I’m trying to finish two short features, on dinosaurs and a Maya temple, before I take off for that meeting.

Plus I’m teaching a course on the history and ethics of journalism at NYU’s D.C. campus, which is actually (don’t tell nobody) fun. We argue about Watergate and Peter Zenger. I’m learning Objective-C thanks to NYU’s online course offerings too. The last books I read on airplane flights were Carlota Gall’s The Wrong War and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The book I’m really enjoying, though, is Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which I’m reading anecdote by anecdote on my cellphone reader on subway rides home. I had never read it and it is a hoot.

Where I work:

Where I work there is a Spinosaurus in the courtyard and a battalion of Mars rovers in the lobby. Really. I’m on the fourth floor of National Geographic‘s M St. building, near 17th and M St. in downtown D.C. It’s between DuPont Circle and the White House—basically, a tremendous location for reporting.

I am sitting at a brand new cubicle in a brand new newsroom. It has that fresh-out-of-the-box new-newsroom smell. My laptop screen is set to Tweetdeck and this note. My main screen is on a story I’m editing. I don’t have any phone messages blinking red on the phone. Life is good.

Daily routine:

I wake up tardily, take a shower and help get the kids ready for school, and then drive to the subway or hop a ride with a neighbor who needs a “slug” to get on the HOV lanes into D.C. A godawful half-hour to hour later spent emailing on my cellphone I’m at Nat Geo. There is no typical day here, aside from the editors meeting around 9:30 to talk daily news. Sometimes I get an IMG_0309assignment out of that, and sometimes I work my own stories. There are a lot of meetings involving different subject areas, science, archaeology, and society grant-related stuff.

I usually load up Tweetdeck with a few tweets for later in the day. Usually they are links to abstracts of interesting studies that I will never have time to report but I hope somebody out there will see and take an interest in, or at least find amusing. Basically I look for news, assign stories, edit them, report news and write it the rest of the day, on an as-needed basis. I read a lot of email and talk to a lot of people all day long, interspersed with typing and trips to the coffee pot. Sometimes I write a short story, sometimes a long one. It all depends, and that is what I like about the work. Also, Laura Parker, who sits next to me, and I bicker all day long over the mindless story of the day on the newsroom TV sets. Good times.

Read more »

Surviving the Grind of Fact-Checking

shutterstock_225205249It was a low moment, the kind most writers remember for a long time. I was sitting at my desk, wrestling with a tight deadline, when I received an email from one of my editors. A reader had just written in challenging the accuracy of a description I had given in a recent story. Could I look into it, my editor asked? I began scouring my research and realized to my chagrin that the reader was right: I had slipped up. The following day I sat down and wrote a correction, which ran in the next issue of the magazine.

Even the most careful writers get caught out committing an error from time to time. Editors seldom rank these blunders near the cardinal sins of plagiarism or fictionalization, but frequent errors or a cavalier attitude towards accuracy can quickly erode the credibility of a writer and the reputation of a magazine. To guard against this, large publications often hire fact-checkers to root out mistakes before articles see the light of day.

Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.

Many science writers I know have a kind of love-hate relationship with fact-checkers. In principle, most appreciate that someone is looking after their backs, but they can’t help seeing the process itself as a little humiliating and painful, right up there with having a root canal or a colonoscopy. “I really hate it with all my heart and soul,” says veteran science writer Ann Finkbeiner. “It’s everything I left grade school to get away from.”

Many large-circulation magazines insist on fact-checking, however, writing it into their letters of assignment. National Geographic, for example, requires writers to provide a manuscript copy that includes “the annotated list of publications, addresses and phone numbers of people and institutions mentioned in the text and other sources of information,” and to submit all the source material they collected during the assignment. The magazine then assigns a fact-checker to go through the story with a fine-tooth comb, checking each fact against the backup material to ensure that the writer has gotten even tiny details right.

I’ve been through this kind of gruelling fact-checking many times, yet I still feel a little anxious every time a fact-checker calls. But I have learned over the years that a writer can keep a fact-checker’s queries to a minimum by making the best and most detailed annotated copy possible. Read more »

A Day in the Life of Tim De Chant

Tim De Chant is the senior digital editor for NOVA and editor of NOVA Next. He produces the blog Per Square Mile and has written for Wired, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. Tim is also a lecturer at MIT in the Graduate Program in Science Writing. Follow him on Twitter @tdechant.

Tim De Chant

Tim De Chant

What I’m working on:

I just finished a big feature on automation and the economy, which I’ve been working on for the last few months. With that done, I’m starting to think about my next writing project. I always have a few ideas on deck, so it’s just a matter of doing some initial reporting to see which of them look most promising.

I’m also working with my colleagues on some new initiatives at NOVA, including some very cool projects that I’d like to say more about but probably can’t at this point.

Where I work:

I’m based out of NOVA’s offices at WGBH in Boston. I work with a great team that produces both the NOVA website (and related apps) along with the long-running TV show. My workspace is a typical office with a desk, iMac, and second monitor (I find those indispensable). Like others at WGBH, I’ve fine-tuned my lighting situation with a trio of desk and floor lamps so I don’t have to endure interrogation-room brightness of the overhead fluorescents.

Our team is split between quieter offices and “the cubes,” where the action is more lively. We also have a great break/lunch space that looks west over the leafy Boston suburbs. It’s a great place to take a first pass at editing a story. (Plus, the view of the sunsets can be pretty amazing.) Read more »

Ask TON: How to Build Narrative in Explanatory Stories


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This month we’re talking about how to turn your story’s vegetables into a juicy, tasty stew.

You have an assignment to cover new developments in a complicated field. You’ve been following it for a while, so you know the basics and the main players. You know you have to include summaries of some results, and enough background (your vegetables) to give readers a good overview. But you still want your story to be deliciously compelling, not just chock-full of data.

So what are the steps you can take to bring more narrative to a summary-type story? For stories that are mostly explanatory, what kinds of questions do you ask your sources in order to create narrative? Read more »

Meet the Newest TON/Burroughs Wellcome Fund Fellows

BWF logoWe are delighted to announce the latest recipients of our second round of fellowships for early-career science journalists, made possible by a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

In a large pool of outstanding applicants, Geoffrey Giller’s and Julia Rosen’s story ideas and ongoing efforts to expand their science journalism skills and knowledge stood out. TON readers will get to know them and their work in the coming months, but for now, here’s a little bit about Geoff and Julia:

Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller, who will begin his TON/BWF fellowship this month, is a freelance writer and photographer and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He especially enjoys writing about amphibians, ecology, and natural history. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoffreyGiller and see some of his photography at his website.

Julia Rosen

Julia Rosen


Julia Rosen, who will begin her fellowship in March, is a freelance science writer based in Portland, Oregon. She loves to write about earth science, energy, climate, and food, although she can get interested in just about anything. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, where she worked as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, EARTH MagazineEos, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @ScienceJulia.

We’re delighted to welcome Geoff and Julia to The Open Notebook. We’re also thrilled to have enlisted the services of two terrific journalists who will serve as their mentors and editors:

April Reese

April Reese (Photo courtesy of Peter  Weiss)

April Reese, who will work with Geoff, is an associate editor at Discover magazine. During her 15-year career, she has written about science, environmental policy, politics, and music for numerous publications, including Greenwire, Land Letter, High Country News,,, and Trend magazine. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter @areesesantafe.


Cameron Walker

Cameron Walker

Cameron Walker, who will be Julia’s mentor, is a writer in Santa Barbara, California. Her work has appeared in Discover, Aeon, Cancer Today, and elsewhere. She is a regular at The Last Word on Nothing, a blog about science and other interesting things. Follow Cameron on Twitter @camonthecoast.


We look forward to great things from this talented crew.


Writing for Women’s Magazines


When I tell other science writers that I write for women’s magazines, their reaction is typically something along the lines of “Whoa. What is that like?” Writing for magazines like Glamour and O: The Oprah Magazine and Family Circle is certainly a different experience than writing for Nature—but it’s fun and challenging in its own way, and in my opinion it’s possible to cover science and medicine for these publications with integrity and accuracy.

Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.

Perhaps the biggest difference between a women’s magazine and a science magazine is audience expectations. While readers of Scientific American or Nautilus have a strong interest in basic science, women’s magazine readers may not. And women primarily read magazines like Good Housekeeping and Real Simple for their service—actionable information or advice on how to live happily or frugally or healthily (depending on the magazine). So while these publications do sometimes cover science, they only do so if the science applies to their readers’ everyday lives in a direct way that fits with the focus of the magazine. As science writer and editor Emily Laber-Warren, who worked on staff at Women’s Health in 2006, recalls: “Many of my ideas got no traction because I could not answer ‘where’s the service?’ to [the other editors’] satisfaction, even though I thought that our readership would be interested.” Laber-Warren now directs the Health & Science Reporting concentration at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Ensuring Accuracy

Oprah logoThe service that a women’s magazine provides has to apply to its audience in an age- and sex-appropriate manner too. As health and lifestyle writer Virginia Sole-Smith explains, “Many women’s magazines only want to feature research that has been done about their particular demographic—women aged 25 to 45, for example. This makes a certain kind of sense because the health issues of a 30-year-old woman are pretty different than a 50-year-old man. But there is a huge bias in health research; scientists like studying men because in a lot of ways, they are simpler—no periods, pregnancies, menopause, etcetera to factor into the results. So it can be frustrating to cover a topic like, say, heart disease, and realize how little of the data applies to your audience.”

To solve this problem, Sole-Smith communicates frequently with her editors during the reporting process about what she can and cannot provide in her story. Sometimes editors come to writers with only a vague idea for a piece and hope that the writer can find the meat of the story on his or her own. As Sole-Smith puts it, “The editors have decided what they want the headline to be, and then they want you to find the story to match.” In these situations, clear communication is also essential. “This doesn’t happen with every assignment, and I’m sure it happens with other types of magazines, too, but it is a recurring problem in our niche. As realsimple logothe writer, you constantly walk a line between needing to please your editor and needing to stay true to your sources and reporting,” Sole-Smith says. Likewise, it’s also up to the writer to ensure that the research mentioned in the piece is characterized and applied accurately, especially if it gets incorporated into service. If a small trial reported that cognitive function improved in elderly patients with dementia who ate an ounce of dark chocolate every day, the article shouldn’t tell its twenty-something readers that eating a Milky Way Dark every day will boost their IQ. Read more »

A Day in the Life of Jennifer Ouellette

Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer based in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of four popular-science books, most recently Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self (2014). She writes the Cocktail Party Physics blog at Scientific American (under the pen name Jen-Luc Piquant) and co-hosts Virtually Speaking Science in Second Life. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @jenlucpiquant.


Jennifer Ouellette

What I’m working on:

I spent the first few months of 2014 promoting my new book, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, which involved quite a bit of travel, but I did manage to knock out a few feature articles for various outlets in between. For instance, I wrote about the possibility of manipulating visual perception for a new kind of a “cinema without cuts” for Pacific Standard; covered self-organized criticality in the brain for Quanta, where I am a regular contributor; and had a blast with so-called “digital history” for New Scientist, focusing on the application of mathematical techniques to London’s Old Bailey archives to glean new historical insights.

I maintain my Cocktail Party Physics blog at Scientific American, with a weekly physics links roundup on Saturdays and the occasional additional post when a topic strikes my fancy—anything a bit quirky, interdisciplinary, or involving phase transitions are good bets for inspiration. Who doesn’t love a good phase transition? At the moment, I’m writing weekly recaps of the new WGN America series Manh(a)ttan, a fictionalized series of the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II—simply because I love the series. I always try to work in a bit of behind-the-episode science, too. And I’m finalizing a new book proposal in the next couple of weeks, topic still under wraps.

I also co-host Virtually Speaking Science every second Wednesday. It’s an hour-long conversation between me and a scientist / science writer guest in Second Life, hosted in the Exploratorium’s virtual space and simultaneously podcast over Blog Talk Radio. It’s purely voluntary / a labor of love, but I really enjoy having these in-depth discussions with very smart people—and seeing how they design their avatars. My favorite (so far) was a complexity scientist whose avatar was a swarm of butterflies. Read more »

Seth Mnookin Follows a Family Battling a Rare Genetic Disease  

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin

Bertrand Might’s parents knew something was wrong soon after he was born in 2007. The baby was “jiggly” and nearly impossible to comfort; as he grew, his health deteriorated. For years, the Mights searched desperately for a diagnosis. In 2012, scientists at Duke University learned through a form of genetic analysis known as exome sequencing that Bertrand’s illness was almost certainly caused by two separate mutations of a little-studied gene called NGLY1. While the Duke researchers were able to tentatively diagnose Bertrand, they couldn’t know for sure until they located another child with the same disease—and because there’s no formal mechanism for researchers at different institutions to share sequencing data, finding that crucial second case could have taken years. With Bertrand’s health rapidly deteriorating, his parents, Matt and Cristina Might, set out to find more patients on their own. Their quest drew the attention of science journalist and author Seth Mnookin, associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Mnookin was drawn by a simple question: What do you do when you learn your child could die from a disease with no other known sufferers?

In “One of a Kind,” published in The New Yorker on July 21, 2014, Mnookin told the Mights’ story. As he reported on the scientific and administrative complexities surrounding rare diseases like Bertrand’s, Mnookin says, he also discovered “remarkable amounts of grace” in the families struggling to understand and cope with their children’s illness.

Here, Mnookin tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind the story:

How did you find this story?

Matt Might, the father of the child I wrote about, wrote this 5,000-word blog post in May of 2012, describing the odyssey that ended with his son being diagnosed, through next-generation exome sequencing at Duke University, as the first person in the world with this new disease. Gizmodo reposted the piece two days later, which is where I saw it.

I was very affected by it. I emailed Matt saying “Hi, that was really powerful and if there’s any reason for you to be [in Boston] and you want to give me a call, please do.” He answered me, and then four or five days later I wrote again and said “I don’t have an assignment, I don’t have any prospects of an assignment, I’m not at a point where I can devote a huge amount of time to this”—I had just gotten to MIT—“but I think your story is incredible and I’d love to start talking with you with the idea of maybe one day doing something.”

For about a year, we spoke by Skype about once or twice a month. I also went and visited with the Mights in Salt Lake City in September of 2012. It was only in August or September of 2013, after I had dozens of hours of interviews with them, that I finally pitched the story.

How did the fact that you were teaching in the science writing program at MIT affect your decision to take on this story?

This was probably the first time in my life where I had the freedom to work on something without knowing what it was going to turn into. When I was just freelancing, I couldn’t have afforded to do that. In some ways my situation was perfectly suited towards working on that type of piece. Here was something I could work on when there was time. And if I hadn’t been able to convince some magazine to let me do it, I would have been really disappointed, but it wouldn’t have meant that all of a sudden I was going to be destitute. So that’s a huge luxury.

What did you talk about with the Mights, in those early conversations?

Initially I just started talking about Bertrand’s history: the same ground that Matt had written about in his post, and that [Bertrand’s mother] Cristina had also written about—she had her own very active blog about Bertrand that she had been keeping since before he was a year old. I was just building up the timeline and getting them to go back again and again because each time, details would come out. Read more »

Making the Most of Lab Visits

5744968358_e1392eeba0_zAny science story depends on getting the facts and figures right. But visiting scientists where they work allows you to move beyond the facts to glean insights into their personalities and passions. A lab visit can reward the enterprising reporter with behind-the-scenes details about how a discovery was made and what motivates the people doing the work.

But getting the most out of a lab visit is a skill unto itself. Many science journalists I know began their careers as bench scientists with intimate knowledge of lab work and all that goes with it. But with a background in political science, I had no occasion to visit a research lab until I started writing for a science museum nearly 15 years ago. Like a lot of other science writers, I’ve learned on the job—though not without a few missteps. I’ll never forget one of my first lab visits, when my overstuffed backpack nearly toppled an outsized glass Erlenmeyer flask in Pat Brown’s Stanford University biochemistry lab. I quickly stashed my pack in a corner, grabbed my notebook and pen, and resumed the lab tour, heart racing, hoping no one had noticed.

Watch Your Step

Editors’ note: This article is published with funding support from the National Association of Science Writers.

That early close call highlights a central element of any laboratory visit: Most labs have fragile equipment lying around and sensitive instruments recording experimental results. It may seem blazingly obvious that you should be extremely careful not to break anything or interfere with the work at hand. But labs can be cramped, cluttered, and chaotic. And when you’re juggling notebooks, pens, cameras, and recorders, it’s easy to get distracted. The last thing you want to do is bump into someone who’s in the middle of a delicate procedure or place your gear on a finely calibrated instrument. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, and you’ll be fine.

Book Enough Time

I usually ask for more time than I think I’ll need at a site—which, depending on the type of story I’m doing, could be anywhere from one to several hours. You should respect your source’s time, but your first priority is to get good material for your story. If I notice my time’s up but the person I’m interviewing doesn’t appear antsy, I’ll keep asking questions until I’m told it’s time for me to go. Read more »

Call for Fellowship Applications

bwfWe are now accepting applications for The Open Notebook/Burroughs Wellcome Fund fellowship for early-career science writers. (See here for stories written by our previous two fellows.)

The Fellowship

The next four-month TON/BWF fellowship will begin on November 15, 2014 and end on March 15, 2015. A second fellowship will begin on March 15 and end on July 15. (If you are available for only one or the other of these periods, please note in your application that your availability would be limited to that period.)

During the fellowship period, fellows will produce a total of five articles for publication at The Open Notebook—a mix of “story behind the story” interviews, reported features, and other resources, with the guidance of a mentor who will help shape story ideas, provide reporting and writing guidance as needed, and edit final copy. The fellowship will be remote and will be part-time. Thanks to a generous grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, each fellow will receive a stipend of $1,800.


The fellowship is open to early-career science writers with fewer than two years of professional science writing experience. (Internships and student work do not count toward this requirement). Graduate students interested in science writing are eligible. Prospective fellows must be available to devote sufficient time to completing articles as specified in the fellowship description.

Selection Criteria

TON’s editors will select one fellow for the fall 2014/winter 2015 period and one for the spring 2015 period. Priority will be given to applicants who demonstrate an ability to propose good feature ideas and who show strong writing ability.

Application Process

Applicants should email the following documents (collated into a single PDF file) to

  • A resume or CV
  • A one-page letter of interest explaining why you are seeking the fellowship and what you hope to learn from the experience
  • Up to three writing samples
  • Proposals for two TON features or multimedia stories (these can take the form of a behind-the-story writer interview; a topical feature on some element of the craft of science writing; or some other project centered on the craft of science writing). Each proposal should be no more than two paragraphs.

Separately, please provide one or two (no more) letters of reference. (Applicants who applied for our last round of fellowships, last winter, may re-use letters from their previous applications, if they wish. If doing so, please indicate as much at the TOP of your application letter.) Please ask referees to send letters directly to


Applications, including letters of reference, must be received by midnight (Central time), October 27, 2014.

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