Tip number 11: Mice or humans? Ask about the research method
Not all research is of equal quality. Here you will get advice on distinguishing good from bad.
Not all scientific methods are equally strong.

Not all scientific methods are equally strong. Ask the authors of the research and independent scientists to comment on the study’s most significant strengths and weaknesses. (Illustration: Thøger Junker)

Not all scientific methods are equally strong. Ask the authors of the research and independent scientists to comment on the study’s most significant strengths and weaknesses. (Illustration: Thøger Junker)

Key points

  • Some methods provide more solid knowledge than others.

  • A study of mice cannot be used to conclude whether something affects humans.

  • Always ask an independent scientist about the weaknesses of a study method.

Animal experiments, field studies, surveys and mathematical models.

Scientists use a host of methods, and while each has advantages and disadvantages, some provide more solid knowledge than others.

To improve your ability to quickly assess whether new research is a big story — and one worth pursuing – familiarise yourself with scientists’ methods.

Following this advice is a challenge, because there are many branches of science, and they use different methods. It’s not possible or necessary to know them all inside out.

The best way forward is: ask the authors of the research and independent scientists to comment on the study’s most significant strengths and weaknesses. 

Download the guide


This article is part of the guide 11 tips for journalists: How to avoid blunders when reporting on science. The guide is accessible in three formats: 

Online articles regarding each of the 11 tips.

The full guide of 11 tips as a PDF-file.

The 11 tips as a checklist, a one-pager.

Four things to consider 

You can also ask yourself four questions about methodology as a litmus test of the study’s news value, whether the topic is science, social science, humanities or health science:

  • How strong is the data? The more accurate and representative the data, the more solid the conclusion. Results from a study of mice, for example, cannot be assumed to be applicable to humans. Gaining the best knowledge about a disease in humans requires investigation on humans.
  • How thorough and comprehensive is the study? How much data is the study based on? For example, has a water sample been taken in a single lake, or did scientists analyse hundreds of water samples from a wide selection of lakes?
  • Do the scientists take into account significant sources of error? Can the scientist rule out that there could be other explanations for the results with the chosen method?
  • Does anything sound completely unbelievable? For example, if an archaeologist finds a fossilised tooth and a jawbone and from that concludes that it is evidence of a new human species, ask questions that can clarify what reservations you should include in your article or feature.

Health science: use the pyramid of evidence

When you cover health science, it is easy to overinterpret what a study can demonstrate. Here, you can use the evidence pyramid to get an idea of how much you can extract from the research.

Almost all health research can be placed in the pyramid of evidence. The higher up in the pyramid a study is located, the more solid the scientists’ conclusion typically is – and vice versa.

Therefore, be careful with sharp angles and leads when telling about a study that is at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy.

Read more tips by clicking the blinking icons at the left in the graphic below.

About the Science Journalism Guide

This guide is for journalists and journalism students who are working on science and research news.

It provides 11 specific tips on how to avoid common pitfalls when covering science material.

The guide is written by journalists at the leading Danish popular science site Videnskab.dk.

It summarizes our many years of experience and the best solutions for communicating research and science critically and nuanced and with credibility.

Help us learn

The guide is based on our own experiences as journalists at Videnskab.dk, and we have received feedback and input from several talented scientists, communicators and journalism students.

It is important to emphasize that the guide sets out only general guidelines and rules of thumb.

No two stories are alike, and you will probably come across science stories where the guide is lacking or where it doesn’t make sense to follow all the tips. In other words, the 11 tips in the booklet are not set in stone.

If you have ideas or suggestions for how our guide — or our journalism at Videnskab.dk — can be improved, we would always like to hear from you. If you have questions, or if you are interested in a presentation on science journalism from Videnskab.dk, you are also welcome to contact us. You can write to us at redaktion@videnskab.dk.

The guide has been compiled by

Lise Brix, Ditte Svane-Knudsen, Anne Ringgaard, Thomas Hoffmann, Frederik Guy Hoff Sonne og Marie Barse.

Editing and layout: Jonas Salomonsen og Jon Mathorne.

Illustrations: Thøger Junker.

Translation: Stephanie Lammers-Clark. Proofread by Randy B. Hecht.

©Copyright and publisher: Videnskab.dk.

Thanks for help, input and feedback

Videnskab.dk has recieved economic support for our work with developing and sharing knowledge about science journalism from Den Fynske Bladfond, a foundation that supports free press in Denmark.

The following has provided valuable input and feedback:

Claus Emmeche (Associate Professor), Eske Willerslev (Professor), Felix Riede (Professor, AU), Gunver Lystbæk Vestergård (PhD in science journalism), Jesper Lesager Christensen (Journalism Student), Karin Frei (Professor), Kresten Roland Johansen (Lecturer, science journalism), Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen (Associate Professor,), Lasse Laustsen (Associate Professor), Mads Faurschou Knudsen (Associate Professor), Maja Horst (Professor), Mikkel Gerken (Professor), Oluf Danielsen (External Lecturer), Peter Hyldgård (Chairman, Danish Science Journalists), Simon Taarnskov Aabech (Journalism Student), Søren Kjørup (Philosopher, Emeritus), Andreas Søndergaard Petersen (Journalist, TjekDet) as well as journalism students at Roskilde University and Danish School of Media and Journalism.

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