How To Be An Ethical Science Writer

I go over the hazards of science journalism

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Science journalism paints a rosy picture of the advances of medical research. A quick look at the “Health and Medicine News” section from Science Daily communicates optimism on our understanding of aging, pain relief, depression, and cancer. If one were to read these articles, one could expect an experience that gives the impression that the future is today and that the cure for cancer is just around the corner.

Such a writing style has its benefits, and I admittedly seek to impart a sense of hope in my writing. We do not understand many things, and hearing someone confidently communicate solutions to our big questions helps one sleep better at night. Touching on an article that I wrote earlier in the pandemic on the efficacy of vaccines against COVID-19 in November 2020, I would imagine most would agree that they would rather hear of how a therapy could turn our lives around versus portraying a cynical picture.

Writers must still inform individuals accurately. If an asteroid were headed for Earth, writers claiming that this was false would be acting in an unethical manner, even if they were motivated by helping readers sleep at night. Science must be communicated poignantly because information that stretches or does not represent the whole truth can cause harm, as observed with individuals taking overdoses of ivermectin trying to treat/prevent COVID-19 and, instead, making themselves very sick. This illustrates the importance of objectivity in science writing.

Going off on science articles discussing an investigative treatment for leukemia, science writing must be communicated considering its relevance. New therapies, such as the big new cancer drug, that show promise are well and good. Their significance for the audience of families looking for hope must be considered.

Losing hope can be traumatic, as many can attest. As seen in numerous examples of animal cancer models, experimental findings in a non-human do not necessarily translate to improved clinical care. The relationship is even more strained if the result was observed in a test tube or a dish. A great example of the latter is ivermectin’s observed effectiveness in ridiculous doses against SARS-CoV-2 in a test tube. The therapy ultimately proved to provide no clinical benefit for individuals with COVID-19, and prescribers have already appropriately started to lose their jobs for issuing it.

Fortunately for patients and their families, clinical trials are strictly moderated, and participants must be informed to make an educated decision on what they want to do. So for a new chemotherapy agent, individuals in a randomized control trial would be told that there is the possibility that they would not receive the experimental therapy and would instead receive the routine “standard of care.” They would be advised that it is possible that the new treatment would not be more effective than existing therapy while stating the experimental evidence that makes them believe that there is reason to be optimistic. Most importantly, they would be advised of their option to withdraw from the study at any time without any repercussions.

Most science writers that I have seen have acted ethically, and I am proud to write alongside them. Nonetheless, science writers have a responsibility to readers. They are obliged to present factual and holistic stories to allow readers to decide for themselves how they feel about the state of the field they are reading about.

While there may be reasons for authors to go beyond their expertise or data, stretch the truth, or find a way to maximize their views, what we say matters. We have a responsibility to maximize our readers’ ability to think and behave in a consistent manner with their identities as individuals.


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Julian Willett, MD
Julian Willett, MD

M.D. trained in the US, now researching SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in Canada for his Ph.D. After earning my Ph.D., I will be pursuing an Anatomic Pathology residency embracing my path towards being a physician-scientist. My academic interests are directed towards topics that provide the greatest net benefit for the greatest number of people. I love complicated, messy, and poorly understood topics.

I enjoy writing in my spare time, along with 3D printing and staying connected with my family. I have been a longstanding proponent for global health with projects ranging from supporting Doctors without Borders (MSF) to Syrian refugees (Syrian American Medical Society). 

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