Reporting science is critical but must be done with strict fidelity

Friday September 15 2017

A scientist works with mosquitoes on March 30, 2017 at the insectarium of The Institut Pasteur, a private non-profit foundation in Paris, whose mission is to help prevent and treat diseases.  PHOTO | PATRICK KOVARIK | AFP

A scientist works with mosquitoes on March 30, 2017 at the insectarium of The Institut Pasteur, a private non-profit foundation in Paris, whose mission is to help prevent and treat diseases. PHOTO | PATRICK KOVARIK | AFP 

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I have two articles for you. The first is headlined Study: Nairobi has the highest number of children with rickets. It is about 700 words long, or the length of  this article.

The second has a headline which reads: Using data from a multi-hospital clinical network to explore prevalence of paediatric rickets in Kenya. It is 11 pages long (5,418 words).

Which would you prefer?

I am almost certain that you would prefer the first article because it has a catchy and easy-to-understand headline and is short. Actually, the two articles contain more or less the same information.

The first one, which is based on the second, is written by a journalist for the public. The second one is a research paper, written by a scientist for other scientists.

You might have read the first article in the Daily Nation on Tuesday. It is an example of science reporting, or how journalists popularise science. It breaks down the research paper for public consumption. I shall return to it shortly.


Journalists play a critical role in the popularisation of science. They bridge the cultural gap between scientists and the lay public. The gap between what scientists know and discover and what the general populace knows and believes must be bridged if we are to benefit from scientific information and the latest developments.

Societies make progress through the utilisation of science. Popularisation of science helps to get rid of ignorance and anti-science beliefs.

When a child has rickets, for example, mothers must know it is because of lack of vitamin D and not because they have been bewitched.

However, reporting science is not easy. Reporters must master what the scientists know to report accurately. They must simplify scientific jargon without distorting the information. They must know how to tap and borrow the brains of the scientists. This calls for cooperation and trust.


One of the greatest fears that scientists have—and reporters must overcome—is that they will be misquoted or misreported, thus making them a laughing stock of their fellow scientists or, in some cases, even endangering their careers.

That is why many scientists are wary of reporters. Besides, misreporting, distorting or giving inaccurate information can be dangerous to the public who consume the information.

For their own career development, scientists publish their research findings in academic and peer-reviewed journals. Talking to reporters is not their primary need. It is, therefore, important for reporters to observe their protocols. Now we return to the first article. It illustrates the need to follow protocol in reporting research papers. It is written by Eunice Kilonzo.

The research paper on which she based her article is authored by Stella W. Karuri, followed by Maureen K. Murithi, Grace Irimu and Mike English in that ranking order.


They are all affiliated to Kemri. Mr English is also affiliated to Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford. The article makes clear the role played by each author.

The day the article was published, Dr Karuri, who was the principal author, wrote to Ms Kilonzo to complain, saying the article published by the Nation was “a complete disappointment to Kenyan researchers”. It is easy to see why. All the other authors of the paper, except Mr English, were not mentioned in the paper. Mr English took all the credit.

“Your article does a great disservice to Ms Murithi,” said Dr Karuri. “Myself and Dr Irimu are not harmed by your article because we are established in our careers, but Ms Murithi isn’t.

“What sort of message do you send to young Nation readers who dream of a future in science as researchers and of solving Kenya’s problems? They might as well explore other career options because they will not receive credit for their ideas.”

Ms Kilonzo, let me hasten to add, was not at fault: The editors dropped the names of the authors she had appended in her article.

Send your complaints to [email protected] Text or call 0721 989 264.