Demystifying Academic Hierarchies: Who’s Who on a Paper, and Whom Should You Interview?

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Poring over scientific papers is an integral task of the science writer. Deciphering the methods section and making sense of figure legends is challenging enough, but understanding who contributed to each part of the project can be just as confusing. Who, among a paper’s sometimes-lengthy list of authors, knows what?

Research projects are often conducted by a team of scientists that represent many different levels of institutional hierarchy, and each individual can provide a unique perspective to your story. A senior professor may not have a full picture of the daily grind in the lab or out in the field, and a graduate student is probably still learning the rich history of their discipline. Some researchers are inundated with media requests, while others are often left out of the spotlight. And as the demographics of academia continue to shift toward greater diversity, more junior sources may reflect a broader slice of humanity.

Deciphering these hierarchies may appear daunting from the outside. But figuring out which voices from different rungs of the ladder (or outside academia altogether) are the right fit for your story is key. Carefully selecting these voices will make your stories well-informed and may help broaden the diversity of your sourcing.


Who’s Who on a Scientific Paper

Most scientific papers include authors of varying levels of seniority or expertise who have played different roles in the project, from securing grant funding to pipetting samples in the lab. The meaning of the order of authorship on these papers can be all over the map and may depend on the field you’re covering (and can get dicey). Oftentimes, the first listed author is a junior scientist who did the bulk of the work, and the last author is the most senior researcher on the project. Sometimes, the order is reversed. If you’re unsure where a particular author stands, a quick online search should clarify their seniority. (Lab websites and Google Scholar profiles are good places to start.)

A paper’s senior author, often the principal investigator who leads the research group, should be equipped to speak to the larger context in which their project fits. These researchers tend to be listed as the ‘corresponding author,’ or the point of contact for a paper. As such, they are also more likely to be media-trained, says Robin Lloyd, a freelance journalist and editor in New York City. Senior scientists are typically seasoned grant writers with plenty of practice communicating the motivation and impact of their lab’s research. This practice can make for easier interviews, especially for stories on complex or controversial subjects, as these sources may have a lot of experience explaining tricky things.

Some editors may push you to prioritize including these more authoritative, senior voices in your stories, says Nature biomedical reporter Max Kozlov, whereas others may welcome comments from more early-career researchers. Including a blend of voices across seniority levels is key to crafting a well-rounded story, he says.

A principal investigator’s coauthors are often the ones getting their hands dirty in the lab: graduate students, postdocs, undergraduate research assistants, staff scientists, technicians, and lab managers with lots of technical know-how.

This approach helps ensure that you get an understanding of both the overarching science and the people driving it. “I want the reader to imagine themselves in the minds and bodies of the scientist,” says Eric Boodman, a general assignment reporter at STAT, who says he makes a habit of talking to both the principal investigator and the primary laborer on a project.

A principal investigator’s coauthors are often the ones getting their hands dirty in the lab: graduate students, postdocs, undergraduate research assistants, staff scientists, technicians, and lab managers with lots of technical know-how. Or an author may have brought a specific type of expertise to a project, such as in statistics or epidemiology. This may be especially true for large multidisciplinary research projects.

These sources may be particularly helpful in addressing specific questions about a study’s methods, and they are likely more familiar with the nuances of the data than the principal investigator. Junior researchers, such as grad students and postdocs, also tend to provide the detail, richness, and novelty that bring a story to life, Lloyd says. “I love talking with early-career people because they’re excited, and they think outside the box.”

Secondary authors may be easiest to reach, in part because they’re less likely to be besieged by media requests. Science journalist and multimedia producer Pakinam Amer recommends reaching out to postdocs, especially if you are writing a story that doesn’t necessarily need the authority of a senior researcher, such as a single-study news brief. “Postdocs are very passionate about their work,” so they may be willing to spend some time explaining it to you, Amer says. That said, it may help to err on the side of courtesy by including the senior author on emails requesting interviews with other authors, if you don’t plan to reach out to them directly.

Sometimes, senior researchers redirect journalists to their trainees, says Jennifer Ouellette, a staff writer covering science and culture at Ars Technica. This may simply be a logistical move—senior researchers often have packed calendars but don’t want to reject media requests altogether. But since many senior researchers are professors, they’re also often eager to pass trainees the opportunity to communicate their science to the media. As Ouellette observes, “These younger kids are going to be the senior researchers of the future.”


Beyond the Paper

The scientists named on a paper should rarely be the only sources in a story. Researchers who didn’t contribute to the work you’re covering can provide helpful perspectives on the rigor and validity of the project, and they can help you understand where it stands in the context of the field you’re covering. Depending on the topic and your story length, just one or two outside sources might do the trick, but other situations may demand more.

When reporting on a potentially thorny topic, for example, it’s crucial to seek several outside opinions. There may be ongoing disagreements within a field that might not be visible to you as an outsider, Ouellette says. She recalls a time when a piece she wrote on one lab’s publication incited criticism from a different research group, revealing a recurring battle between theories within the field. “Sometimes, you don’t know that there’s tension and debate and controversy, and you can stumble into it and screw it up,” she says.

Journalists also need to be vigilant in getting outside comments from scientists when the rate of discovery and publication in a field is booming, such as in COVID-19 research. Papers published in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals have already been vetted by scientists. But that’s not the case for preprints, Amer cautions. “You’ll have to do the heavy lifting of talking to a lot of scientists” to check the validity of the study, she says.

To find researchers who are unaffiliated with a paper’s research group, Kozlov recommends scanning that paper’s references. While they won’t provide an unbiased list of scientists in the field, they may point you toward outside experts working in relevant fields. Asking your primary sources for recommendations for outside sources is another good starting place. It may even help to flip the script and ask them to think of someone who’s likely to disagree with their work.

While academic outside sources are critical voices to include in science pieces, they aren’t your only options. Clinicians, politicians, legal experts, social workers, and other community members can provide extra context about what a study means on the ground.

Twitter is also a helpful resource for getting a sense of what researchers are saying about each other’s work. Sometimes, researchers post tweets or threads about new papers or preprints (check out #tweeprint), which provide a jargon-reduced summary of their main findings and may have spurred comments from others in the field.

Keep in mind that if you’re covering an emerging or highly-specialized field, there may only be a handful of outside experts available. In these cases, it’s especially important to double-check that possible sources are truly independent, and not a former advisor or regular collaborator of one or more of the paper’s authors. You can do this by checking the CVs of your primary sources, often available on their personal website or LinkedIn profile, or using websites like The Academic Family Tree, which tracks advisor-trainee relationships across the history of dozens of disciplines. Some of these resources may have errors or be out of date, though, so when in doubt, ask your source.

When your selection is limited, Lloyd recommends prioritizing potential sources’ depth of knowledge, eloquence, and excitement, rather than their seniority. “You have to use your intuition and say, ‘This is going to make the best story for my reader,’” she says.

Requesting interviews from outside sources requires a delicate dance. To maximize the likelihood that a potential source responds to your email, be as specific as possible about what questions you plan to ask—both to pique interest and to help them decide whether they are the right person for your story. If the study you’re covering is embargoed, it may be wise to confirm explicitly that the outside commenter is willing to honor the embargo before sending them the study.

While academic outside sources are critical voices to include in science pieces, they aren’t your only options. For Kozlov, the real opportunity for thoughtful consideration comes in when contacting outside sources. Clinicians, politicians, legal experts, social workers, and other community members can provide extra context about what a study means on the ground. When covering topics in the realm of health and medicine, patients can share an especially useful perspective. These sources are the best experts of their own experience, Boodman says. And in some cases, patients may have also developed valuable expertise in the scientific or political issues related to their conditions.


Casting a Wider Net

Adding an extra layer of thoughtfulness to choosing which study authors and outside sources to interview can also help journalists intentionally broaden the diversity of their sources. Good journalism needs to represent the world equitably and inclusively. So consider how your sourcing choices can counteract the diversity issues academia already faces.

Keep the landscape of the field and who tends to get the most media attention in mind, Lloyd suggests. For example, senior scientists tend to be featured more often but are less likely to reflect the diversity of the field than early-career researchers like grad students and postdocs. “If you only reach out to senior researchers for big-picture expertise,” she warns, most often “you’re going to have predominantly white researchers.”

When searching for outside academic sources, journalists can prioritize researchers from underrepresented communities who have expertise relevant to their stories. You can find sources like these by consulting lists such as 500 Queer Scientists, Diverse Sources, or SheSource, and others compiled in The Open Notebook’s guide to finding diverse sources for science stories. Also, try searching for diverse sources on Twitter via hashtags like #BlackInNeuro, #TransInSTEM, or #MarginSci, and make a habit of following diverse researchers in the fields you cover.

Sometimes, searching for underrepresented voices may take you into the past of a scientific field to uncover historical perspectives. “There’s something to be said for figuring out what scenes you want to bring to life and finding those people, even if they’re no longer working in science,” says Boodman, who put this technique into practice for his 2019 STAT feature on the winding story of the plant harvesters and scientists who developed a livestock-poison-turned-cancer-medication. These sources may be tricky to find, especially if they’ve left academia or retired, in which case they could come up as professors emeritus in university databases. Scanning the acknowledgements sections of seminal papers or the footnotes of science-history books may also lead you toward sources who can provide historical context for your story.

It’s important to be sensitive to your sources’ comfort level. Some people may be more comfortable being interviewed than others, due to their personality, cultural background, or previous experience in working with journalists.

As you work to broaden whom you include as sources, remember that this is an ongoing, often imperfect process. One common pitfall to avoid is asking your sources tokenizing questions, says Sibusiso Biyela, a Johannesburg-based digital science communicator at South Africa’s ScienceLink, an agency that helps scientists hone their communication skills. “I don’t ask them to give me their perspective as a Black woman scientist,” for example, he says. “I just ask them about their science.” This approach puts the emphasis on how a source’s particular expertise, rather than their identity, can contribute to a story.

It’s also important to be sensitive to your sources’ comfort level. Some people may be more comfortable being interviewed than others, due to their personality, cultural background, or previous experience in working with journalists, for example. Similarly, some sources may feel hindered by language barriers. Researchers who aren’t as confident in conversational English may stick to practiced technical language, which may include more jargon than fits into a piece meant for lay audiences.

To get a feel for how comfortable a researcher might be as an interviewee, Ouellette suggests trying to track down their lecture recordings and professional social media profiles online. “Are they stiff? Do they use a lot of jargon?” she asks. The way someone speaks to their students or followers can help you imagine how they’ll operate during an interview.

As you set up an interview with a potentially hesitant source, build in enough time to ensure everyone in the conversation feels comfortable and can speak at their own pace. You can also help sources feel more prepared for an interview by asking for their preferred mode of communication (phone or Zoom, for example), sharing the rough idea of your questions in advance, and reassuring them that you or another journalist will get in touch with them again during fact-checking to confirm the accuracy of statements attributed to them.

Doing your homework upfront can put your sources at ease. Make it clear that you’ve read the research you’re interviewing them about and craft your questions carefully to check your understanding, Biyela says. This “shows them that you worked through it,” he says. And in most cases, “they will either be very happy that you got it close, or they’ll be excited to correct you. Either way, it starts a conversation.”


Celia Ford Courtesy of Celia Ford

Celia Ford is a sixth-year PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, where she studies how our brains make sense of the world, and how we update our expectations when the world changes. A TON early-career fellow supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Celia writes for the Berkeley Science Review and makes podcasts with NeuroCinema. In a past life, she was a drive-time alt-rock DJ at 95.5 WBRU FM. In a parallel universe, she is a pole dance instructor, bass guitarist, and devoted cat parent. You can follow her on Twitter @cogcelia.

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