When Alexandra Witze was writing a story in July 2021 on the controversial question of whether to rename NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, she spoke to dozens of sources who had lots of opinions on the issue. To make sure that this diversity of opinion was captured, she carefully selected quotes from numerous sources. She interviewed three astronomers—Peter Gao, Saurabh Jha, and Johanna Teske—who all observed that, in their opinion, the telescope should be renamed.
Witze, a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado (who is also on The Open Notebook‘s board of directors), mentioned all three astronomers in her story but used a quote from only one of the three, Peter Gao. She chose to do this because, while the other two interviewees made similar comments to Gao that they thought the telescope should be renamed, they also offered additional details, such as potential alternative names for the telescope. So Witze paraphrased their quotes in order to enrich the story without making it into a long series of quotes. “I didn’t want people all saying the exact same thing,” says Witze. “I had to work really hard to avoid that.”
After conducting interviews, journalists typically have a lot of information and quotes to choose from. Deciding which quotes to use is a key step in the writing process, and one that requires skill and careful thought. Quotes serve many different functions in science stories. They can present a source’s opinion, give factual information or context about how a study was conducted or about its results, suggest a metaphor or analogy to explain a concept or process, or express why a scientific discovery matters.
The number, length, and type of quotes you use will vary depending on whether you are working on a news or feature story. But one thing is constant: Quotes should always serve a purpose, and that purpose is to reinforce the main idea of your story.
Quotes Express Emotions
Science is a human process, performed by people. Yet scientific papers tend to be written in the passive voice and seldom give scientists the chance to express emotion or personality. Journalism is different. Science writers can use quotes to humanize the scientific method and bring the struggle, hard work, and joy of being a researcher to life.
“It’s the one time we hear [scientists] speaking in their own words,” Witze says. “The purpose [of researcher quotes] is to enrich the story by letting the voice of those close to the action be heard.”
In a 2021 Guardian story by Oliver Franklin-Wallis about the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, this quote from Cath Green, head of a clinical biomanufacturing facility, captures the thrill of when her team managed to grow small amounts of coronavirus DNA into enough material to make trial vaccines:
“There’s a stage where you have to centrifuge the material through a gradient, and all of the vaccine lines up in one layer. You can see it. Kathy, one of my production team, came out and said: ‘Look at these babies!’ We were like, ‘Oh my God!’ That was the day when we knew we had enough, and we could get it into somebody’s arm in three weeks’ time. That was great. I will remember that always.”
Quotes offer a window into people’s interior emotional lives—their feelings, reactions, and physical sensations—says Brooklyn-based science journalist Shayla Love, a senior staff writer at Vice News. This includes researchers, as the example above shows, as well as the people their research could affect.
In health stories, quotes from people living with a particular condition or disease help convey their subjective experience. “I find it best to hear straight from them,” says Love. “Rather than summarize what they are going through or thinking about, I let them speak for themselves.”
In a 2020 story on pedophilia, for example, she quoted a man going by the pseudonym Joseph Parker who described how his condition affected his sleep:
“As soon as I tried to release myself from wakefulness, my mind would sink into the pool of sexual energy, and I would feel this horrible sense of joy and happiness towards children.”
This quote, as disturbing as it is to read, does express the person’s feelings in a way that a summary made by a journalist could not. Quotes provide access to the lived experiences of people which nobody else would have access to, Love says, unless they also happen to be experiencing the same thing themselves.
Quotes Provide Details or Context
Reporters can use quotes to give context around why a study is important, why it is being conducted in a particular way, or what the results mean for the wider world. For example, in a STAT story by Megan Molteni, Yadong Huang, the coauthor of a study on preventing Alzheimer’s disease, said:
“Developing new drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease takes a lot of time and money, so we wanted to find a faster way to move drugs to patients.”
The scientist elaborates further in another quote:
“There are many cellular and molecular changes in Alzheimer’s disease patients besides plaques, but we usually don’t talk about them,” said Huang. “These results suggest that in order to treat Alzheimer’s we should probably not target only one or two but multiple genes and multiple pathways involved in the disease.”
Quotes can also provide the “bigger picture” as to why a scientific study is significant. For example, in a Nature story about NASA’s Perseverance rover mission on Mars, Witze quoted planetary geologist Vivian Sun of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The quote encapsulates the immense ambition of that mission:
“Perseverance will be the first rover to seek the answer to the outstanding questions that we haven’t been able to address with other rovers—was there life on Mars, and can we find evidence that there used to be life?” says Sun.
Quotes Present Opinions
Research is rarely black-and-white. Researchers have opinions and views on topics that science journalism can shine a light on, helping readers understand science as a human process, subject to debate and interrogation.
In a recent story about the historic approval of the first malaria vaccine, Nature reporter Amy Maxmen quoted a scientist named Badara Cisse, who expressed skepticism about whether public support for the vaccine would be sufficient, given its level of effectiveness.
“I respect the researchers involved with this massive effort, but the reality is that so much money has been poured into this vaccine, even when the results from studies are disappointing…. I don’t think a 30% effective vaccine would be acceptable for Americans.”
In another Nature piece, Gayathri Vaidyanathan quoted two scientists who expressed their personal thoughts about India’s ambitious carbon-zero pledge made at the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow:
“It’s an ambitious target,” says Apurba Mitra…. “It has put net-zero on the table.”
“It’s great; a very bold announcement,” adds Vaibhav Chaturvedi.
How to Select Great Quotes
Learning how to recognize which parts of an interview could produce great quotes can help make the writing process more efficient. Here are some qualities of a great quote to keep in mind: They contain critical information, vivid language, provocative ideas, strong opinion, or a unique perspective. “The ideal quote is one that summarizes, in clear language, a significant point of the story,” says Witze.
While conducting interviews, New Delhi–based science journalist Sonali Prasad looks out for any strong expressions of emotion. “You can see the person either crestfallen, or excited, or moved by the conversation,” she says. When Prasad observes such emotions, she makes a note of the timestamp on her recorder so she can later go back to her transcript to scan for worthwhile quotes. “This brings color to your piece,” she says.
Remember, you don’t have to quote every source that you spoke to.
If a source gives her an answer that is unclear during an interview, Prasad rephrases her question in the hope of getting a more coherent response that she can later use direct quotes from. She also asks the interviewee to slow down, if need be.
Remember, you don’t have to quote every source that you spoke to. To choose the best person to include, Witze asks herself a couple of questions: Is it a person whose voice has not been heard until now? Is it the person who has the most knowledge about the topic?
Witze also stresses that you should select quotes that accurately reflect the entirety of an interview. Researchers can veer off in interviews, perhaps talking about things they don’t have expertise in, or revealing something they really shouldn’t, she says. Witze is always careful, for example, when quoting early-career researchers who might be speaking too informally during an interview. “It’s really easy for graduate students to mouth off to me about funding agencies,” Witze says. However, this does not imply that journalists should quote only sources saying things that will make them look good. Nor is it the responsibility of a journalist to protect a source’s reputation while they’re being interviewed.
The number and length of quotes you use will depend on the type and scope of the story. For a feature story, says Akshat Rathi, a London-based reporter for Bloomberg News, you may speak to many sources and quote several of them. For news, you will end up quoting fewer people. But you don’t need to treat quotes differently for news and feature stories. “A quote is like icing on the cake—it makes the story more interesting because of people’s voice and expertise,” says Rathi.
When to Paraphrase
Not all direct quotes will fit seamlessly into your piece. Some quotes may be very wordy, long, or contain too much technical language. They might be grammatically incorrect or clumsily phrased. Or they might be just plain boring or generic. If this is the case, one option is to paraphrase—putting a quote into different words without altering the meaning, and still attributing the idea to your source.
Paraphrasing is also helpful for breaking down complex scientific concepts, allowing you to add explanations or examples where needed.
Rathi says he often paraphrases sources if quoting them directly might stop or slow the reader. But typically, when he does so, he includes a direct quote after the paraphrased material. “Keeping direct quotes also shows that you’ve had a chance to speak to the source,” he says.
Paraphrasing is also helpful for breaking down complex scientific concepts, allowing you to add explanations or examples where needed. In those cases, says Abigail Beall, features editor at New Scientist, “It’s always good to go back and ask, ‘Is this correct?’”
One situation in which paraphrasing can really help is when sources are talking about numbers, data, or statistics. To simplify your story and stop the pace from dropping, you can take the nitty-gritty detail of the numbers out of direct quotes, but then include a quote from your interviewee discussing the significance of the numbers or reacting to them.
There are some times when it is preferable to avoid paraphrasing—for example, when reporting on legal issues. Using direct quotes ensures that you are accurately reflecting what the source told you. “It offers you safety in a way, as a journalist, because nobody can suggest that you’ve changed what somebody has said,” says Fiona Broom, features and investigations editor at SciDev.Net.
When and How Much to Edit Quotes
There are many situations in which you might wish you could tweak a quote—sometimes, sources just don’t express themselves as clearly, eloquently, or succinctly as we might want them to. But most media organizations strictly forbid changing quotes, for the simple reason that the act of putting words within quotation marks is, in effect, a promise to readers that the quoted words actually came out of a person’s mouth. Some media organizations make exceptions for making minor grammatical corrections; others, such as The Associated Press, make no such exceptions. Before you change anything about a quote, always check in with your editor, advises Witze, because publications have different policies on whether and how much quotes may be changed. “If I turn in a story and the editor thinks the quote needs to be tweaked a tiny bit in order to be more readable, and if the publication permits that sort of change, then that is the only situation in which I would ever change [a quote],” she says.
As crucial as quotes are in science stories, distilling great ones from a mess of interview notes can be overwhelming, and it requires skills.
When confronted with quotes that aren’t grammatically correct, it can be tempting to make small fixes to quotes. But that may set a dangerous precedent. Instead, editors at Undark simply paraphrase, rather than rework anything within the quotation marks, says Brooke Borel, an editor there. She adds that it’s best practice not to remove words within quotation marks, nor to put sentences together that weren’t spoken together. “There are ways to paraphrase or otherwise indicate to the reader what the speaker was trying to get across,” Borel explained in an email.
Likewise, Prasad says she avoids tinkering with quotes. “Sometimes, a simple rearrangement of sentences or words can alter meaning or context,” she says.
When using quotes from an interview that was carried out in a different language than that of your article, it’s important to work with a professional translator, and to consider also using a fact-checker who works in that language. Prasad did both while making a documentary on the west coast of India, when she interviewed fishermen in a local language that she didn’t speak.
For representing different dialects, there seems to be no satisfactory guidance. On one hand, you want to make sure that you aren’t unintentionally creating a caricature of a source by writing their quotes in a particular way. On the other, you want sources to sound like themselves, even in print. “I think there are arguments for both preserving and not preserving dialect that make sense, and that editors and journalists have to approach this with sensitivity,” says Borel.
As crucial as quotes are in science stories, distilling great ones from a mess of interview notes can be overwhelming, and it requires skills. Always keep three things in mind: clarity of the quote (is it short and understandable?), content of the quote (does it illustrate a major point that needs to be made in the story?), and the person providing the quote (are they speaking to their area of expertise and are they the correct person to be making this point in the story?). When used with sensitivity and purpose, quotes are a powerful tool. “It’s not enough to use a quote just because it sounds good or the source said something nice,” says Witze. “Don’t just throw in a quote if it doesn’t serve the purpose of your story.”
Abdullahi Tsanni is a science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and is currently a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has reported on science, health, agriculture, and biotechnology issues in Nigeria for Nature, The British Medical Journal (BMJ), Nigeria Health Watch, and African Newspage, among other publications. He works as a volunteer with Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network, and has a degree in biochemistry. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni.