Many science writing careers begin at the student-run newspapers and science magazines housed at universities and colleges. These independent newsrooms give aspiring science writers, majoring in any subject, the opportunity to gain skills, build confidence, and amass a portfolio of clips, while being protected from the competitive realities of mainstream science publications.
Most universities have a daily student newspaper. Around half of those papers feature a weekly science section with one or two news and feature articles, often focusing on discoveries from the university. Student science magazines are typically published less frequently—one issue per semester—and include news, features, book reviews, and interviews. Some publications are run by undergraduates, others by graduate students, and some by a mix of both.
Science editors at student-run publications shoulder a number of responsibilities. They must drum up article ideas, train brand-new writers, and encourage writers to meet deadlines. A science editor is a coach, cheerleader, recruiter, guardian of the free press, and fountain of ideas. Some of the challenges student editors face are unlike those outside academia because they and their writers must balance their reporting with classes, coursework, and lab experiments. Some student writers may never have written about science for a general audience before. And some journalism majors may have taken few university science courses. For all these reasons, editors at student publications—typically also student volunteers—are key to student reporters’ success.
The Idea-Generating Editor
New science writers may require additional help developing story ideas. “You get people that are interested in writing but can’t come up with their own ideas, or they’ve never written for a popular science magazine before,” says Simone Eizagirre, an editor-in-chief of EUSci, a biannual student science magazine at the University of Edinburgh. “You need to give them a prompt to orientate them in the right direction.” EUSci covers science news at the university, which can help new writers narrow their search for stories and sources.
Organizing each issue around a theme can also help attract and focus writers. At the beginning of the semester, the EUSci editorial team chooses a theme that’s both multidisciplinary and inclusive, such as Time or Intersections between Science and Pop Culture. Their writers and editors then brainstorm article ideas and share eight to ten of them via VolunteerSignUp, a free online app. “We try not to give them too many,” says Eizagirre, who also encourages writers to pitch their own stories based on the list.
At newspapers, which publish more frequently, the science editor must often round up story ideas every week. Madhuri Bhupathiraju, a former science editor of The Daily Targum, the student newspaper at Rutgers University, spent two hours a week searching for that week’s feature idea. She visited department homepages and scrolled through news sections for announcements about new grants or publications. Monitoring university press-office releases helped her find stories that would appeal to the student audience. “I looked for things that have real-world applications,” she says. “Research that’s at a stage where you can make the connection to see how it would impact the real world.”
As with all publications, keeping the audience in mind is key to choosing story ideas. When Rachael Lallensack, former managing editor of The Badger Herald, an independent student newspaper at University of Wisconsin–Madison, evaluated story ideas, she asked, “Why does the story matter to UW–Madison students as current residents of the city of Madison and state of Wisconsin?” That approach turned into a story on how the state budget influenced Wisconsin environmental issues and added a local angle to coverage of the Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa in 2013.
Science editors can also turn to their sources for ideas. Bhupathiraju encouraged faculty to contact her with their stories, and she emailed university department heads at the beginning of the semester. In 2017, researchers at the Cyberlearning Innovation and Research Center got in touch to tell her about their work with augmented reality learning tools.
And it can never hurt to have more ideas than you think you need. Bhupathiraju always kept at hand ideas for a couple of evergreen article topics, like one on genetic engineering, that could be written quickly and run at any time in case her assigned pieces fell through.
Aspiring science writers are often eager to contribute to a student publication at the beginning of the semester, but as coursework piles up, writers may become scarce. The students who stay may lack writing time and give the coursework priority over assigned articles. An attentive editor works with writers to keep them engaged without pressuring them.
With advance planning, editors can often accommodate busy student writers. When science pages contain a mix of material—from brief research highlights and book reviews to multi-page features—busy writers can opt for the shorter, quicker writing assignments. Carla Fuenteslópez, former editor-in-chief of The Oxford Scientist, gave students the option of editing articles when they wanted to contribute to the magazine but didn’t want to commit to writing a long feature.
Editors can also tailor the writing assignment to the student’s interests. Bhupathiraju learned her writers’ majors and sent them targeted article ideas tied to their field of study. She also made the pitch enticing by pointing out its potential significance. Bhupathiraju advises against sending blanket call-outs for writers on a story: When she did so, writers saw her messages, but each assumed someone else would volunteer.
Training Students to Write as Journalists
New undergraduate and graduate student science writers are trained in the prescribed writing styles called for in university essays and academic publications. However, they may not know how to write about science for non-scientist audiences. Part of the science editor’s role is to help them understand the basic ethical rules of journalism and break unhelpful academic writing habits along the way.
One way editors instil good writing habits is by adopting policies that offer clear, concrete guidance about what makes for solid reporting on a science story. For example, writers at The Daily Targum must interview at least three sources for a 700-word feature article, including the faculty, postdocs, or grad students involved in the work; they also must get a comment from a student on the research’s potential significance and interest. Interviewing multiple sources reduces the likelihood of biases and mistakes seeping into the reporting.
To ensure accuracy, The Daily Targum asks its writers to record all interviews. Although the newspaper doesn’t publish the recordings, editors want writers to provide them if sources challenge the reporting. Writers can also listen to the audio after the interview to ensure they understand what their sources told them. “In the sciences you hear a lot of technical terms that might not be familiar to you. And it’s important you use the right words and the right analogies,” says Bhupathiraju.
When writers at EUSci volunteer to write a story, they must submit a one- or two-paragraph pitch. By asking student writers to do so, Eizagirre says, editors know “whether or not people have a clear idea of what they’re planning to write.” This requirement also helps writers focus their thoughts, see if their idea translates into a good story on paper, and deliver stronger articles. As a way to help writers and editors fulfil their roles and smoothly work together, the publication also provides detailed instructions for writers and editors, establishing universal standards for article format, punctuation, style, and tone. New writers and editors work through their respective checklists as they write and edit, which helps everyone quickly create strong pieces.
The Berkeley Science Review, a graduate student science magazine at the University of California, Berkeley, offers separate monthly training workshops for writers and editors. The editors spend a few hours completing short exercises, such as cutting an article from 750 to 500 words or restructuring a directionless piece.
Just because a story is grammatically and factually correct doesn’t mean it’s engaging. Many student writers may default to “academese,” the flowery, jargon-crammed lingua franca of research communications that alienates a lay audience. That’s especially likely the more steeped students become in science. “Graduate students have some level of expertise with what they’re writing if it’s in their field,” says Dat Mai, former editor-in-chief of The Berkeley Science Review. Mai suggests a simple fix for that: pairing writers and editors whose research doesn’t overlap. “If the writer becomes too technical, then the editor will not know what they’re talking about,” he says. He also consulted with his non-scientist friends to see if they understood the technical language. If they did, it stayed in the piece.
Writers aren’t always at fault for introducing academic jargon into a story. Sometimes it creeps in during one of the most important steps in science journalism: fact-checking. Fact-checking is an important part of science journalism, but editors need to be careful with how they handle this process. The academics that student writers interview have stockpiled decades of experience writing about their science and many—with the kindest of intentions—offer to review drafts and provide corrections or edits. Unfortunately, these edits can make articles dry and academic, instead of engaging and accessible. Sometimes faculty “tweak it and put their own biases in,” says Bhupathiraju.
Different student publications adopt different ways of preventing this kind of well-intentioned interference. Like many student publications, The Badger Herald follows the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics standard that sources shouldn’t review articles prior to publication. The Daily Targum allows student writers to send sources an article summary in bullet-point format or share quotes for a fact-check.
Many editors get involved with their school’s publication because they believe in the importance of science communication. But they’ll also develop skills in project management, communication, and team work. Not everyone who writes for a student science publication will seek out a career in science writing. Fuenteslópez says sometimes student writers just want a venue to share something interesting they’ve learned. Still, a good science editor can boost a new writer’s confidence, teach the important skill of explaining science to the public, and help them discover exciting stories.
Claire L. Jarvis is a science and medical writer based in Georgia. She wrote science features for Rutgers University’s The Daily Targum and served as editor-in-chief of Emory University’s Postdoc Science Writers’ Magazine. Her reflections on life as a scientist have appeared in Chemistry World magazine. Follow her on Twitter @StAndrewsLynx.