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Science. Communication. Community.

Scientific Publishing Matters for Journalists Too

Scientific publishing is changing every day as open access and new technologies take hold. Scientists aren’t the only ones who need to keep up; it matters for science writers too. 

by Rachel Bernstein


During graduate school, I read more than 5,000 pages worth of scientific papers. I know this because, when I had to pack them all up at graduation, they overflowed from the printer paper box.

Despite reading all those papers, I realized as I left the lab for my new job as an editor at a scientific journal that I had never given more than a passing thought to the publishers whose ranks I was about to join. After six years of research, I had learned everything I could about the mechanics of a single protein, but had learned almost nothing about the crucial communication tool on which I relied so heavily. I knew the top journals in the field, of course, and I occasionally compared the merits of their color schemes and PDF designs, but I never questioned what they were doing, or how they were doing it. I never thought about what they could do better, or what would be more useful to me as a researcher – or as a reporter.

Because researchers aren’t the only ones who rely on scientific journals. Science reporters do too. These publishers provide the raw content that most science journalists write about every day. But, just like scientists, most science reporters don’t spend much time thinking about the publishing industry either.

The first scientific article was published in 1665, and things didn’t change much for a long, long time. Recently, though, as technology has progressed, a revolution in scientific publishing has begun, particularly around open access. For example, just last month five members of the US Congress, Democrats and Republicans, introduced the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act, and a week later, on Feb. 22, the Obama administration released a policy memorandum supporting public access to federally funded research.

Open access is crucial for researchers who need rapid access to the latest results, and it could have a similarly profound effect on science journalism. In a fully open access world, reporters could fact check against all the primary materials, find the exciting stories off the beaten trail of journal press packets, and read all the background material they want. And readers would be able to read the actual papers, too, creating a little extra incentive for reporters to make sure they’re getting it all right – which is a good thing.

Scientific publishing is changing in myriad other ways too, including new ways to trackmeasure and display research impact, smarter PDFs, and social reference managers. These changes aren’t just for scientists; they’re for journalists too.


About Rachel Bernstein

Rachel was a 2010 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Los Angeles Times, and is now a freelance science writer living in San Francisco. Among other things, she is interested in scientific publishing, education, and backpacking, especially in Yosemite.

One comment on “Scientific Publishing Matters for Journalists Too

  1. kelly tyrrell
    March 24, 2013

    I can’t tell you how many times I have wished I was still affiliated with a university. It can be a real bummer to be limited to abstracts only. As a newspaper reporter I am often on tight deadlines. Though I can gain access to many papers straight from the source, I don’t always have the luxury of time on my side. Open access to more papers would certainly improve the depth of reporting and that of countless others.

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2013 by in Policy, Science Journalism and tagged , , , .
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