SciDev.Net opinion articles
Information on writing for SciDev.Net
Below is essential information and guidance for freelance journalists wishing to write news articles for SciDev.Net.
In order to be considered for publication on SciDev.Net, a news story should describe a new and significant achievement, scientific breakthrough, technological innovation, policy decision, policy recommendation, official statement, political action, etc.
There are two types of significance: scientific/technological and social. In principle, a SciDev.Net news story should have elements of both.
The subject of the news story should be directly related to the impact of science, technology and innovation on development, particularly their contributions to health improvement, food security and the protection of the natural environment. We are also interested in stories on science, technology and innovation policy in, or affecting, developing countries. For a more detailed list of relevant areas, please consult the website.
In selecting an 'angle' on a story, try thinking in terms of what the news means in social terms and explain this significance when pitching an idea. For example, relate a story on the development of a new water treatment technology to its impact on an issue such as agricultural productivity, food security, rural incomes, health and access to clean water.
We report frequently on topics such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, genetically modified crops, bioprospecting, indigenous knowledge, research ethics, intellectual property rights, science policy and funding, and development aid related to science.
However, we will not necessarily be interested in all news related to these topics. A story about improving health or protecting the environment may contain insufficient links to research to be acceptable.
For example, on health topics we would consider news stories on issues such as clinical trials of vaccines and drugs, genetic studies of parasites, or other science-based research. But we rarely carry news related to public health awareness campaigns, drug supply (unless it raises issues linked to intellectual property rights), or studies of disease prevalence without any link to a potential treatment. We are also often offered stories about promising research – such as a potential cure for a disease or a way of boosting crop production – which on closer inspection turn out to be preliminary or speculative. In general, we only report on research that has been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal or presented at a major conference, since this indicates that a scientific finding has been accepted by the scientific community. The exception would be when the results of a research project may be so socially significant that they warrant earlier coverage. In such cases, however, it is important that you state the preliminary nature of the findings.
Example 1: a story about a new AIDS educational project in Uganda is unlikely to be of interest to us on its own, because it doesn't fulfil the science criteria. But if the project involves the use of new technology, and this technology could also be used in other countries if the project proves successful, then we may consider it.
Example 2: a routine advance in the search for a malaria vaccine is unlikely to be of interest to us. But an advance that is seen as highly significant in the malaria research community – particularly if the results are published in a reputable journal – is more likely to be published.
It is also important that a story has an international – or at least a regional – significance. This significance may be direct or indirect. In the latter case we are interested in developments in one country that could have implications for other countries (for example, a country's decision not to accept genetically modified crops may influence policymakers in neighbouring countries, or those who grow similar crops).
The potential international significance of a story should be explained clearly in the text. We are less interested in stories that are only likely to be of interest to readers in one country, with no regional or international implications.
Pitching an idea for a news story
If you are uncertain whether your story idea is likely to interest us, a good starting point is to look through stories we have already published to see if your story covers the same type of topic at the same level.
If you wish to 'pitch' a story to us, send a brief summary (2–3 paragraphs) explaining the story as concisely – but as concretely – as possible. We strongly encourage you to do this before writing the news item in full. Please use the SciDev.Net pitching template.
Your story idea should be submitted by email to the relevant regional coordinator:
Please send a copy of the email to the news editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In your summary, tell us what makes the story 'newsworthy'. What is new? Why is it socially significant? If we have published a story on the subject previously, what does it add?
A good way to indicate the angle you propose is to send us a preliminary headline. This usually helps to convey the main message of the story (i.e. what the 'news' is).
Please describe when the news broke or will break. Ideally, the pitch should come before the event or publication – this gives us enough time to get a story ready for when the embargo (if there is one) lifts. If the story has already broken, please state where and when.
Please also describe how you intend to report the story (what 'angle' you will take to communicate its significance, what questions you will explore, who you plan to interview and if you have already made contact with them).
If the pitch is based on a press release we may ask you to send us the release, and if based on a published research paper we may request the paper itself. A link to such materials is also acceptable.
All articles submitted to SciDev.Net must be exclusive, and must not be under consideration by other publications at the time they are submitted.
The exception is that we may consider a story about an issue that has been published locally, but you must let us know in advance if the story has been published before and when. You must also explain how the SciDev.Net story will be different from the material that has already appeared in print.
The regional coordinator or news editor will let you know as soon as he/she can whether the story is suitable for us. If so, he/she will indicate the number of words required, the deadline by which the article must be received, and any further instructions.
You should be aware that we actively encourage other websites and news media to use our articles, or information from our articles, without payment, provided that reference is made to SciDev.Net.
How to construct a news story
The first two or three paragraphs of the story should summarise the whole article, bringing out its most significant facts. Do not leave these to be 'discovered' later in the story. Also, do not exaggerate the story's significance.
Most SciDev.Net news articles are around 400 words in length. Please consult with the regional coordinator or the news editor before writing the article if you feel you need to go above this length. Articles that are significantly in excess of the number of words previously agreed with the author may be rejected for publication without payment.
Your story must be in your own words. The direct copying of significant amounts of text from other news stories or sources – known as plagiarism – is not acceptable. If plagiarism is discovered the story may be rejected, and payment may be refused. You may also find it difficult to persuade us to accept future stories from you.
You can use press releases and other publications as sources of information, but this must be cited clearly in the story. This includes quotations from individuals, such as researchers or policymakers.
Do not take information from other media sources as established fact, as they may be inaccurate. Where possible, confirm with an expert or an official source (such as a press officer) that the information you provide to us is accurate.
Where possible, you should get a comment from at least one of the main participants in the story or those likely to be affected by it. Such quotes should be exclusive to us, and not taken from other published sources.
We encourage you to get quotes from more than one person in your story. If reporting on a scientific paper or a report you should quote at least one of the authors, preferably from the developing world (if there is one).
You should also seek to get 'reaction' quotes from someone who works in the field but is not involved directly in the research being described. However, please ensure that those you quote are in a position to make an informed comment, rather than just being interested observers.
Journalists are expected to find their own contacts. Most organisations will have a press office or general contact phone number or email address, and can direct you to (or arrange for you to speak to) the appropriate person.
In addition, the telephone numbers of individual researchers can be found by searching for their name on an Internet search engine (such as Google) with the word 'tel' afterwards. Email addresses can also be found using Google, and email addresses for corresponding authors can usually be found in the research paper.
When contacting people for comment email can be used to make initial contact, but journalists are expected to follow this up with a phone call if they do not receive an email response the same day.
It is also a good idea to try and get several sources for comment, since one or more of the people you contact may be unavailable.
Where a quote is taken from another publication, the source must be cited in the story.
When interviewing a person, be sure to ask before you start the interview whether their comments can be used and attributed to them in the story. Comments that are given to a journalist for publication in the story are known as 'on the record'.
Sometimes interviewees give information to help a journalist understand the background of a story or his/her point of view, but do not want it to be quoted or mentioned in the story. Such information has been given 'off the record', and should not be used.
However, if a person you interview does not want his/her comments to appear in print, this person has a responsibility to specify that the conversation is off the record before it begins. If no explicit agreement has been reached, it can be assumed by the reporter (and by us) that the conversation is on the record.
A journalist is under no obligation to keep something off the record after it has been said if no agreement was reached beforehand. This is partly because the journalist may choose to decline to be offered information off the record, on the basis that such information may be available elsewhere.
However, such situations may need to be handled tactfully – for instance, in cases where it is clear that the interviewee was unaware of standard procedures in talking to journalists, but has a strong and convincing reason that something he/she said should not to appear in print.
A third category is where an interviewee has given a journalist information on the understanding that this information may appear in print, but does not want to be identified as the source. This is known as 'unattributable' information. It should only be used rarely, and in circumstances where the journalist feels that the person being interviewed has a legitimate reason for withholding his/her name from publication (although the journalist must be prepared to divulge this name to the news editor or the editor if required to do so. In such instances, confidentiality will still be observed).
Keep accurate notes of your interviews, particularly when dealing with controversial topics. That way, if the interviewee disputes what you have written in your story you have an accurate record to refer to. It is a good idea to keep all your notes, emails, audio recordings or any related correspondence on a story for at least two years after publication. This is so that you can always refer back to your records in case of later disputes or legal action.
If an individual or organisation is criticised in the article (for example by a person or report that is quoted) try to contact that individual or organisation for a response to the criticism, even if they decline to comment.
We attach considerable importance to the authority of the information that we publish. This means, for example, that scientific claims made in stories should be credible (e.g. published in a reputable journal, or presented at a scientific conference).
'Scientific hearsay' – such as stories about 'natural' remedies for AIDS, or information released at press conferences with no back-up peer-reviewed publication – should be used with great caution, if at all. Be sure of the facts, and be cautious of any controversial opinions. If someone makes a surprising claim or statement always ask yourself: is it likely to be true? How would an expert respond to it?
By using freelance writers to write articles based on papers appearing in scientific journals, we aim to tap into local knowledge and events and present a developing world perspective on issues. This also applies to news stories based on information obtained from press releases and newswire articles.
Try to provide a local perspective on the story, both to demonstrate its development implications and to make it unique to SciDev.Net. However, if you write for us regularly do not rely on using the same people for comment in all your stories.
Journalists should remain neutral about the issues they are describing when writing a news story, and should refrain from expressing personal opinions (although it is legitimate to report that a particular opinion about a topic, which may be shared by the journalist, is widely held).
It is particularly important to ensure that where a controversial topic is being covered (for example, over the planting of GM crops) both sides of an argument are accurately represented, and that the news article is not unduly weighted in favour of one side or the other.
It is essential that all names are spelt correctly, and that the organisation to which a person belongs is described accurately. Please double-check these if you are uncertain.
Submitting your finished news story
Send the full story to the news editor by email, either attached as a Word document or in the main body text of the email, on or before the agreed deadline.
If you are likely to miss the agreed deadline, notify us as soon as possible so that we can adjust our production schedules. However, you should be aware that missed deadlines can cause major problems if we are depending on a story being posted on a particular date.
If a deadline is missed without good cause or prior notice, we reserve the right not to use the story and to withhold payment.
Please ensure that the source of your story (e.g. a scientific journal, press conference, report, conference speech, news release) is clearly indicated in the text and, if possible, send electronic copies of, or links to, relevant documentation.
We always need pictures to go with our articles. Let the news editor know if you are aware of a source of pictures that could be used with the article, although these must either be free or we must have permission to use them without payment. The main individual or organisation involved in a story – particularly if you have interviewed them or are in contact with their press office – may be happy to provide pictures, so please ask.
Please also list any relevant websites that could be linked to under the article's accompanying 'external links' section, and provide links to the full electronic copies of any major reports referred to in your article.
After submitting the full story we may ask you to clarify some of the information that you have provided, or to provide additional information. Let us know if you will not be available to answer such queries, and ensure that we have your correct contact details (email and telephone number).
Pen names and pseudonyms will be considered only in exceptional circumstances, and where good reasons for anonymity are provided to the news editor.
You will be paid according to the number of words published, at a rate agreed at the time that the article is commissioned from you.
No payment will be made if the article does not meet the terms agreed at the time of commissioning (for example, if its main thrust is essentially different from what was agreed, and is no longer suitable for us).
If the article meets the terms of the commission, but is otherwise considered unusable by us for any reason, we will pay half of the amount agreed on commission as a 'kill fee'.
Generally, SciDev.Net will not cover expenses incurred in writing the story. In agreeing to write a story, freelancers are expected to cover the costs involved in gathering information (including the cost of telephone calls and internet access).
If your article is published before the 20th of the month, we will endeavour to pay you at the end of that month. If your article is published on or after the 20th of the month, you will be paid at the end of the following month. Please note that electronic payments made abroad can take four or five days to reach your bank account (although this will vary from country to country), so please wait at least seven days after the beginning of the month to query payments due.
If the total amount payable to you is less than £80, we will wait until further articles are published in order to reach this amount before paying. We will wait a maximum of three months, and then payment will be made regardless of the total. This is to minimise the extremely high bank transfer charges for each payment (please note there may be variations in this procedure from country to country).
To receive payment, you must forward your bank details to Jill McAveety using the email: email@example.com. The bank details required are as follows:
Bank charges: SciDev.Net will endeavour to reduce any bank charges to the beneficiary. However, some local banks will charge the account holder for incoming transactions. SciDev.Net cannot take responsibility for the different banking systems in each country and cannot bear these costs.
If you have any queries about payments, please contact Jill McAveety at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In general, the copyright of all material commissioned by SciDev.Net and used on the SciDev.Net website remains the property of the author of the item published.
However, the terms of publication (and payment) are that, in exchange for payment for the article, SciDev.Net has an exclusive licence to its use and rights over its reproduction elsewhere. We will permit such reproduction under a Creative Commons licence.
This arrangement allows us to require that where other publications or websites use our material (which they are encouraged to do free of charge), full acknowledgement must be given to SciDev.Net.
All freelance contributors are required to sign a form accepting these terms. This will be sent out to you on the acceptance of your first commission, and must be completed and returned to us either by fax or in 'hard' copy. Only one form is required from each contributor. It is essential that you return the attached copyright form as soon as possible.
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