Where to find a science story

Speed read

  • Sources may be human, digital or hard copy
  • Big science story ideas can be found within society
  • Beware of exaggerations in press releases

By: Charles Wendo

If content is king, as is often said in journalism, then the source of information is the kingmaker. The tools and platforms journalist use to gather, package and distribute the information will only be effective if there is good content. Finding your science story begins with knowing good sources of information.

The information that journalists report in the media comes mostly from one of the following sources:

1. human sources of information
2. digital sources, usually online
3. paper resources, e.g. hardcopy reports
4. a journalist’s observations

Knowing where to find the above sources of information is crucial in finding your science story. Furthermore, having a nose for the news, or the ability to spot newsworthy information, will help you utilize your sources well. It’s also important to know how to ask the right questions so as to get the information you need from these sources.

What editors and audiences want

Before discussing where to find a science story, let’s look briefly at what editors and audiences expect of you.

Remember, your main role is to provide audiences with information that they can use to make decisions. These decisions may be at a personal, community, national, or even regional and international level. Regardless of perceptions you may have about the power of the media, you do not make decisions for your audiences. You only provide information that audiences can use to make their own decisions. Your story can influence their decisions, but you cannot make decisions for them. Moreover, people’s attention is selective: they pay attention to stories that are clear and relevant to their circumstances.

For people to use your story to make decisions, they have to understand it. Secondly, the information in the story must be relevant to their circumstances. Meaningful decisions can only result from accurate information.

In a nutshell, editors and audiences expect from you a science story that is easily understandable, relevant, accurate and engaging.

What to report on

Now we know why we are reporting stories in the first place, and what editors and audiences expect of us; below are some ideas on what to report on (the list is not exhaustive).

• New research findings
• A scientific explanation of a topical issue
• New government policies and programmes related to science
• Profiles of researchers
• Applications of science and technology. For example: how a research finding, innovation or policy change from previous years has made a difference in society
• Human interest stories or stories about the social benefits of a particular research study

So, where do you find information that meets the above criteria?

In the society

A science story in the society? Yes! This should not come as a surprise. In fact, most award-winning science stories clearly show the link between science and society.

Geoffrey Kamadi, 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Winner, says the best science stories can be found in the society: “Always talk to people in the communities [affected],” Kamadi said in an interview with The Open Notebook. “That’s where the real story is. Not in conference rooms, where experts speak and give out lectures. So talk to people daily. That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned.”

Kamadi reported on an ecological problem around Kenya’s Tana River, through focusing on the real life experiences of the affected people. He included scientific information in the story to explain what the people were going through.

Basically, anything that you see, feel or hear within society can be the starting point for a science story. Think about any notable incident, trend or topical issue in the community. Ask questions such as why, how, etc. Look for scientific explanations to answer these questions. An alternative approach is to begin with a scientific development and then to seek out people or communities that are affected, whose stories can be told.

Carefully observing your surroundings and asking the right questions are useful steps towards finding your science story.

Academic journals

Researchers announce their findings by publishing them in academic journals. A good number of these research findings will be newsworthy. Hundreds of thousands of scientific papers are published annually. A curious journalist who gains access to scientific journals can never lack something to report on. Scanning academic journals is a useful way of finding a science story.

The structure of research papers may vary but generally they begin with an abstract (summary), followed by the full paper. Both the abstract and full paper follow a defined structure. They begin with an introduction, followed by a description of the research methods. Next comes a presentation and discussion of the researchers’ findings. Finally, in the conclusion, the researchers summarize their main findings and the implications of those findings.

A good way of finding a science story in a research paper is to read the abstract first: this takes only a minute or less. By looking at the researcher’s conclusion in the last paragraph of an abstract, a journalist can tell whether the research is potentially newsworthy. This will help you to decide whether to go on and read the whole paper.

To know what research has been published, you need to subscribe to scientific journals. Some are free, others are paid for. Among the paid-for journals, some might give journalists free access.

You do not have to be a scientist to read and understand a scientific paper. For more on how any journalist can easily spot the story in a research paper, please see Chapter 8 of our free science journalism ebook.

Press releases

Most science journalists find their news stories in press releases. Thousands of research papers are published in academic journals every week. Some institutions and journals make these findings known to the wider public by issuing a press release after a journal publishes the study. They then disseminate these press releases either directly or through press release services, such as EurekAlert and Alpha Galileo. By subscribing to such services, you will get access to the latest press releases in a wide range of research areas. Subscription to science press release alerts is free for journalists: you just need to go to the relevant websites and register.

The advantage of using press releases is that they present the information in simple language. Also, the writers of the press release will likely already have identified the most newsworthy angle. The downside is that some press releases exaggerate the research findings. Therefore, after reading the press release, it’s important to then access the research paper it relates to.

It is important to note that there are many potentially newsworthy research findings that are not the subject of press releases, so you will miss a lot of research findings if you rely only on press releases.

Scientific conferences

Many newsworthy scientific research findings and policy developments are presented and discussed at scientific conferences. These conferences may take place in person or virtually and they are an important source of stories and story ideas.

Conferences are usually announced many months in advance, so you can create a calendar of conferences to attend.

For each conference, it’s important to look at the agenda and to prepare your own daily calendar based on the sessions you are interested in. Looking at the abstract book, if one is available, allows you to identify which sessions are most likely to have the most newsworthy presentations.

Away from the main conference sessions, make sure you pay attention to exhibitions and poster presentations as these might also yield important stories.

For more on how to harvest great science stories and ideas from a conference, please see Chapter 7 of our free science journalism ebook.

Research facilities and field sites

Institutions sometimes invite journalists to visit their research facilities and sites. Alternatively, journalists may request permission to visit a research facility or site. Either way, such a visit is an opportunity to get stories, story ideas, rare photos, general scientific knowledge and useful contacts.

If the research institution initiates the trip and meets the costs, you may need to discuss with your editor about the ethical implications. Different media organizations have different editorial policies on embedded journalism. If the visit is at your own initiative, ensure you get the necessary permissions from the relevant organizations. Permission might need to come from the head of the research institute or a higher office.

Regardless of the research institution’s interest in organizing or granting permission for the visit, do not forget that your responsibility is to the audience and to citizens. An institution will usually be interested in projecting a good image of itself. On the other hand, you have a duty to provide audiences with accurate, unbiased, relevant, timely and interesting information. Your job is not to give publicity to the institution. However, most likely, you will be able to report reliable information that is relevant and interesting to the audiences, while at the same creating visibility for the institution.

While at the research institution or facility, ensure you leave your contacts with researchers and with the communications team. Going forward, you will want them to give you tip-offs about interesting developments in their spheres. You may also need them to provide expert views and facts for your stories in future.

For more on how to report on lab visits and field trips, please see our free practical guide.

Organizational reports

Local and international scientific organizations publish reports to communicate facts, trends and their positions on a topic or a sector. These reports may have information that can be interesting and relevant to the public and policymakers. Such reports may give you a news story or several different story ideas. They may also provide useful background information for a story you are working on.

The title of the report will tell you what it’s all about. The name of the organization issuing the report will give you an idea about its credibility. The date will tell you how current the information is. The table of contents will list what’s in the report, while the executive summary will give you highlights of the content.

You can get a great story by identifying newsworthy information in a report and going out to speak to affected persons and experts. This combination of technical information, expert views and real life experiences makes a good story.


Being able to network with scientists and get information from them is an important part of science journalism. As discussed above, you can find scientists at a research institution. You can also find them elsewhere: for example, over the phone, by email or on social media platforms. You need to continually make contacts with new scientists. Create and keep a contact list of scientists you meet or interact with. Keep adding new names to your list. In science journalism, having a big database of scientists you can speak to is a great resource.

Other stakeholders in science

There are multiple stakeholders who can be affected by developments in science. These include political leaders, the business community and frontline workers in various fields, such as agriculture and medicine. These people may get to know about scientific developments early, and can give you a tip-off about them. They may also have access to reports that you might not otherwise know about.

Online resources

There is plenty of information online but you have to be careful as false scientific information abounds on the internet. An ordinary Google and Wikipedia search can be useful for finding general information. However, there is no guarantee that what you get will be verified scientific information.

To obtain verified scientific information, it’s better to search from databases. The information you get by searching databases will have gone through a reasonable degree of verification. Some databases are free (for example, Pubmed Central), while others are paid-for (for example, Science Direct).

Use multiple sources

In this practical guide, we’ve looked at various sources of information. However, in finding a science story, none of the information sources mentioned above will suffice on their own. A good science story should have information and views from multiple sources. Take, for instance, a study that shows that water scarcity affects women disproportionately. A story on such a study should report the research findings and quote one of the researchers, but that is not all. A researcher who did not take part in the study can provide an independent expert view. The experiences of the affected women will illustrate the problem. A policymaker will tell you whether the recommendations proposed by the researchers is workable. Thus, getting information from more than one source makes your story more informative and more balanced.