I definitely started out life as a science journalist. No doubt about that. And I started at the very top: my first ever piece, published in 1998, appeared in New Scientist.
It was an opinion piece titled A bedtime story on why I thought that an appreciation of the history of science was so important. It reads well, but I’ll tell you a secret: it is far from the original that I submitted. Nevertheless, where most novice journalists would have had their attempts scrunched into a ball and binned, I was fortunate enough to have a telephone call from the editor himself who talked me through his work and justified all the edits. I like to think he recognised raw talent!
But in recent years my work has taken me away from the press and writing about research; instead I now write more for research. The subjects of my journalistic writing have become my clients. I have become a science copywriter, helping scientists and researchers to communicate clearly to other people, sometimes the general public, sometimes funding bodies such as the European Commission.
My byline is much rarer these days, although I’m still writing just as much, if not more. Certainly my journalistic experience helps me to write clearly and engagingly and, for some of my clients at least, perhaps quite daringly too. I recently wrote a report for the European Commission about the Future Internet Assembly event held in April 2010 in Valencia, Spain. I injected my upbeat, slightly informal, visual style into the text – and they loved it!
OK, they were a little cautious at first. “I looked at it very briefly and IÂ liked it,” said my contact, but “[s]ince it is quite different than [sic] what we are normally having, I am checking with others to see whether this tone fits.” But after the final submission the feedback was glowing: “I found the report very good with clear writing… So thanks a lot to Edwin, I think he has done a great job.”
But here is the problem, recently raised also by Oliver Lehmann on the EUSJA blog. Can I be a journalist and publish articles under my own byline, but also take money from institutions and research projects? Does my work as a copywriter affect my ability to report honestly and without bias?
Currently I draw the line on a case by case basis. If I am working on some project dissemination for an EU-funded project, then I will not try to sell a story about the project to the press. That is an obvious conflict of interest. But perhaps it goes to a deeper, more fundamental level. If I am in the pocket of scientists or funders, like the European Commission, can I really be objective about the scientific enterprise?
Then again, was I ever really that objective back in the olden days when I hankered to see my name in print?