Notes for a ‘The Open Notebook’ report

I’m one of the journalists quoted in a new reported feature by Karen Emslie (with additional reporting by Allison Whitten), published in The Open Notebook on May 9, 2023. It is entitled ‘Expanding the Geographical Borders of Your Source List’, and is about the importance as well as advantages of science journalists diversifying their sources to include voices from outside English-speaking countries. In this post, I’m publishing my notes that arose in discussions with Karen and Allison, in the process of being interviewed, in full.

Methods, tools, organisations, journals, and strategies I use to identify and connect with expert sources

This is a difficult one because I don’t know of any common set of sources that some or many science reporters in India use; instead, it’d be safer to say there’s a common set of strategies: to dig up old research papers on the topic and contact their authors, or the authors of studies cited in that paper, to contact local institutes with researchers working on the same topic, so forth. Because I’ve been in science journalism in India for a decade, I’m fortunate to have access to a small network of experts, and I ask them for contacts as well. The IndScicomm initiative compiled a database of researchers on different topics who have been known to speak to journalists for quotes and/or to verify facts, a couple years ago. That should tell you about how such experts are hard to find in India – people who are authorities on a certain scientific topic and who have time to answer reporters’ questions. I know from personal experience that most scientists don’t know or understand why science journalists exist, because to them peer-review is the highest form of knowledge verification and because they sincerely believe there is nothing to be gained by communicating advanced scientific concepts to the people at large, forget us exploring questions of science and society, STS, etc. Of course, that database has also fallen into disuse (by my understanding). (By the way, there is also a reciprocal database of science journalists that scientists can contact; I don’t know what has become of it.) There was also supposed to be a ‘Science Centre’ along the lines of the UK’s ‘Science Media Centre’ but it hasn’t materialised.

India has three science academies and I’ve had some luck going through their rosters of fellows to identify suitable expert sources, but this said, it has been my experience – and that of many others – that few scientists actually ever respond, or respond in useful ways. (I once asked a physicist for his comments on the work of Murray Gell-Mann for an obituary I was writing when Gell-Mann passed away. He sent me the second quote on this page and told me that that should suffice.) One resource that has served us well is ‘The Life of Science’ project. It’s run by a small collective. Over the last four or five years (I could be wrong about how old they are), they have gone around the country talking to women scientists, scientists from marginalised socio-economic groups, and scientists of marginalised gender identities. So their efforts have been very useful to identify non-cis-male and/or non-Brahmin scientists.

Indian social media channels or groups on WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat etc. useful for connecting with sources

There are quite a few chat-app-based groups, although I believe the ones for environment and health are much bigger and better organised than, say, those for reporting on physics. In fact, I haven’t come across one for just the fundamental sciences. And my knowledge here is restricted to the English journalism community. I imagine there are several chat-app-based groups and Facebook groups pertaining to covering science in Indian languages. But I also imagine they’re organised more along the lines of geography and language than of topics, because my understanding is that while some Indian language news publications have space for science, health, environment and spaceflight reports, it’s not big enough to have anything more than the most important bit of news on that day or in that week. There are also many Facebook groups – the two most popular kinds are those run by individual institutes and those run by people interested in a particular topic in science. I haven’t had much luck with institutes’ Facebook groups in the last decade while the people-run groups have been helpful, at least with identifying the right person to talk to for leads on a particular topic.

As for covering space and spaceflight: I depend extensively on two social media groups. One is a group on Signal, run by a group of people invested in private spaceflight, ex-ISRO employees, entrepreneurs and spaceflight journalists. The other is the ISRO subreddit (which I like so much that I’ve even written about it).

All this said, I should also say that science journalism in India is at a unique historical moment today: it’s finally coming into its own, aided by new communication tools, a burst of new online-only news outlets, new revenue models for these outlets and for independent writers, the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis (which make stories on health and environment immediately more important), and an increasing awareness among young scientists of the importance, and in some cases even the lucre, of science communication. India had a professional body for science journalists before the creation of SJAI but it was defunct, which strengthened the case for SJAI. I’m also part of a group of scientists, science communicators and journalists that’s trying to put together a conclave “for scicommers by scicommers”, where scicommers from around the country can gather and meet each other, in most cases for the first time. [This is no longer the case.] This in turn should help with finding better sources for future stories. Right now, we’re all in a thousand silos.

Platforms or technologies to interview your sources

It’s usually phone, that’s the most convenient, together with a voice recorder. But in some cases I prefer email over phone, especially when I’m dealing with a particularly complicated topic and I find it helpful to have all comments in writing so I go back to them as many times as I need. I believe video interviews are becoming more popular as science media platforms are under pressure (like any other kind of news outlet) to produce more videos, and scientists and others also seem to understand this because they’ve been seeming more amenable to the idea. When I use a phone plus a voice recorder, transcription takes more time because most automated transcription tools don’t do a good job of recognising Indian accents of English (and there are several). When we’re dealing with sensitive material, we use a combination of Protonmail and Signal, among other tools.

Note that half the time (anecdotally speaking), what platforms/technologies I use to contact my sources isn’t in my control; they’re dictated by whom I’m interviewing. If it’s a scientist in government, particularly in an institute that is not on friendly terms with The Wire [where I worked until November 2022], email is often the only option. Scientists at more independent facilities and in the lab (as opposed to the field) are okay with email, video, WhatsApp, phone call, etc. Those in the field, if they have internet access, prefer email.

Is internet connectivity an issue for some sources, and how did you cope with this?

In my experience, the best solution has been to give up on trying to meet a deadline. Note that I’m the science editor at the publication I work at, and I’m happy to give my writers and reporters deadline extensions if they need it, as long as they keep me in the loop and their reasons are… well, reasonable. So I know dropping the deadline or making it flexible are easier said than done. You need a certain kind of publication, a certain kind of editorial setup to be more easygoing with the timelines. I’m sure you know that internet connectivity in India has been as much at the mercy of natural disasters as at the mercy of local governments, which, at the first sign of some kind of major social unrest, move to suspend internet services at the city, district or even state levels. And the way our cities and towns are built, even heavy rain often constitutes enough of a disaster. So when someone I’m trying to reach doesn’t have access to a good internet connection, there’s a healthy chance that they’re also dealing with other, more pressing problems. So the solution I personally prefer is to give them, and myself, some time. If they’re experiencing connectivity issues for any other reason, I find that SMS and email work (the latter can work if the connection is weak instead of absent).

Cultural issues in India that science journalists from abroad should consider when connecting with experts

I have very rarely come across an article where an Indian scientist was quoted in a story by a foreign journalist (by which I mean those from the U.S. or Europe, who are the most common) when the story was not about the Indian scientist’s work or when the Indian scientist wasn’t widely acknowledged as one of the best experts on the topic. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, Indian scientists by and large are unable to speak about their work and/or their field in creative ways. If you mean what they ought to consider: these are a dime a dozen. Perhaps the most important issue is that India is a country of countries. Something that applies in the country’s north isn’t likely to apply in the country’s south or east or the northeast, in terms of class, gender, caste, aspirations, etc. Among these variables, the caste-gender combine is a particularly thorny one and journalists, both within the country and without, get this wrong in one of two ways a lot of the time. Inadvertently: by overrepresenting the voices – and views, priorities, morals, politics – of male upper-caste scientists, and thus at risk of building a narrative that is unlikely to conflict with the forces currently endangering democratic and constitutional rights in India right now in a more than superficial way. Deliberately: which is to do the same thing as in the inadvertent case but in order to erase the voices of everyone but those in a thin stratum of society.

Another thing foreign journalists should know when they’re covering issues on the caste-gender axes is that they might believe any independent expert will in fact provide an independent opinion. But caste affinities in the country have been known to transcend one’s commitment to science or even to their professional ethics. So, and crass as this may sound, journalists may be better off quoting non-Brahmins if the question at hand concerns the conduct of Brahmins, or in fact any so-called ‘upper-caste group’. There are several experts who are exceptions to this ‘rule’, but unless a reporter is completely sure that they have identified one such expert, they should keep looking.

Obviously all this is going to matter less in a story about what the Higgs boson is but even here, journalists are constantly at risk of misrepresenting who is or can be a particle physicist in India. If I had to codify this as advice for anyone looking for it, I’ll only say don’t be fooled by the Indian government’s claim to the country being any kind of superpower, and look closer.

I also have an addendum, although I’m not sure if it’s relevant to your question: if foreign journalists are following up on something that Indian journalists have done, please give credit.

With government scientists, email is often the only option for communications and interviews, whereas scientists at independent facilities may have more flexibility. Why?

The possibilities include the two potential reasons you’d mentioned – that they need a written record and/or they need the approval of their superiors. In fact, the latter is more common than it’s made out to be and it sometimes also manifests in a particularly frustrating way: whereby scientists at some institutes are likelier to talk to members of the foreign press instead of those working for establishments within India. In my experience, I’ve encountered two reasons for this, and sometimes they’re working together: Indian scientists don’t trust the Indian press (possibly because they’ve had a bad experience when they’ve been misquoted in the past or because they don’t know whom to trust, whereas some foreign publications – like the NYT – are more ‘well established’, so to speak, or because they’re conflating science journalism with public relations) and/or because their institute doesn’t want to be seen speaking to journalists who are employed by organisations that are critical of the national government.

The latter hasn’t been something I could prove with data but there are several anecdotes. As it happens, in India, there’s a set of rules called Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules 1964 that specify – among other things – that employees of government facilities aren’t allowed to speak negatively of government policies. Some institutes have of late interpreted these Rules very strictly to mean they can’t comment on government actions and laws altogether. But in 2015, the Allahabad high court ruled that the staff of a university that’s funded by the Central government don’t have to abide by these Rules – but the Rules remain in the picture and have been invoked by institute authorities to prevent their colleagues from speaking to the press. Then again, of late, some parts of the country have been emboldened or cowed down by the national government, as the case may be – implicitly, not explicitly, by passively condoning the persecution of people who engage in “anti-national activities” – to demand new staff and students to sign an undertaking that they won’t engage in “anti-national activities”. This term is vaguely defined for a reason, so the government or any body with power can invoke it to punish anything it finds inconvenient in future. The government of Uttar Pradesh state even promulgated an ordinance in 2019 demanding private universities do this! It’s against this broader background that I think scientists at government institutes tend to prefer communicating via email.

Working around a lack of transcription services

Of course, it takes more time to produce a story. The longest transcription I’ve had to work through took me three hours but I know peers who’ve spent several days transcribing quotes collected over one or two days of field work. The point is also labour here: about commissioning editors being aware of the fact that the reporter might be doing more work and paying them more for that and/or making other allowances. There are now some new open-source tools in the works that are based on training ML algorithms to ‘understand’ different accents (like this one) with potential to be used to build region-specific transcription services. I hope these models are also trained on Indian accents of English – all the several hundreds, I suppose! – and made available for (affordable) commercial use soon.

On what’s lost when most science stories exclude scientists from many parts of the world

Many, many things are lost. I don’t know if I can ever furnish a complete answer to this question! The most well-known losses I think are the ideas that good science as well as good science communication happen in parts of the world other than in the wealthiest countries, and that science can be done or imagined in ways other than those that have been institutionalised in these countries. You lose perspectives shaped by histories that your communities never lived through. I also fear that, over time, the habituated oversight of scientists from West, South, and Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America could create the impression among new journalists that nothing is lost when they also don’t speak to these scholars. To extend this further: overlooking scientists from these places also overlooks their science, which in turn overlooks the efforts of science journalists navigating, communicating, and interrogating it, and the communities grappling with it.

There is one loss that is more immediate: when journalists don’t include scientists from other parts of the world in their reports, those scientists and their work are rendered further invisible, in addition to the invisibility imposed by history, nationalism (as is the case in many countries, including India today), censorship, revisionism, etc. This may well be inadvertent, and obviously I can’t straightforwardly expect a journalist from Europe or the U.S. to be concerned about the fortunes of an Indian scientist. But I think it’s fair to expect them to square this against the global reach and influence of some of the publications for which they write, such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Nature, or The Guardian, among others. In exchange for the far-reaching ‘privilege to influence’ afforded by these publications, journalists must tread lightly, carefully, and be constantly alert to the possibility that their stories are incomplete. (Also see the related Daniel Mansur example below.)

One piece of advice to journalists interested in including scientists from more countries

My number one piece of advice would be to include sources from countries you haven’t usually included. We just need more people to do this right now.

A close second: appropriately credit everyone who helped you locate the right scientists in their respective countries, gave you the local context, etc.

Once these two things happen, everything else can be figured out.

What I wish readers in English-speaking know about scientists doing their work in India

The countries that are currently typically underrepresented in science stories are often countries that are less economically developed (and whose growth pathways today are complicated by climate commitments, emission controls, inflation, war, etc.). So I’d like to replace the “primarily English-speaking” … with “economically developed”.

What I wish readers from economically developed countries knew are largely the invisible things in their own countries that they probably take for granted. I experienced this firsthand in 2014, when I went to New York to pursue a graduate degree in science reporting. I dropped out after a few months partly because I realised that many of the problems that we’re used to dealing with on a day-to-day basis in India just didn’t exist in New York, from labour rights to the quality of public infrastructure, from access to the bare minimum research facilities to bureaucratic probity. These gaps often manifest as unseen forces on anyone working in India (scientists, science journalists, etc.) which lead in turn to choices that might seem alien to someone not used to them. I realised that I wasn’t interested in learning to practise a journalism of a science that was free from these forces because, where I come from, everything we do admits them in some way. And they exert a stress that, by and large, makes life in this milieu much less enjoyable. They impose a cognitive burden that forces people to plan ahead in ways that people in, say, the U.S. wouldn’t have to. Sometimes they result in trauma that’s very region- and culture-specific.

I remember an interview I read in 2018 of a scientist named Daniel Mansur in Brazil, where he uses a hypothetical example in which he and his peers in a ‘richer’ university like Stanford both separately submit papers to a journal on the same idea or experiment or whatever. If the journal asks both groups to submit additional tests of the idea, according to Dr. Mansur, his group will have to wait for six months just to get the next batch of reagents. On the other hand, the Stanford group can purchase them because they’re made locally, and it purchases higher quality reagents, plus it has access to a bigger pool of postdocs, so it’s able to get back to the journal in a short span of time – whereas the group in Brazil is still waiting for the shipment. I mean stuff like this. If you include women’s safety, caste- and gender-based discrimination, anti-intellectualism, state-condoned pseudoscience, legal hurdles to sharing or receiving biological specimens, compulsions to conduct research, horrific delays in scholarship disbursement, etc. – all major issues in contemporary India – you have a situation in which no one may be explicitly discouraging you, but where you feel discouraged nonetheless from pursuing scientific work.

So I wish people in the economically developed countries understood the sort of big, compounded problems that can arise out of slight differences in one’s socio-economic and political realities, how that affects one’s work (including scientific and journalistic work; also see: ‘My country is burning. Why should I work?’), and then perhaps we can all begin to reckon with our respective complicities.