Ten tips for the budding sleuth

Dan Fagin, science journalism professor at New York University, United States, defines investigative reporting as “the process of unearthing and verifying information that your subject really does not want you to know”. This takes effort, and is becoming increasingly challenging given shrinking temporal and financial budgets.

Useful places to look for clues include letter pages of research journals. Credit: Flickr/cudmore

Ten tips to ease the sleuth:

-Be brave about following your instincts

-Empirically verify your hunch by generating hypotheses and testing them, but always be prepared to be wrong

-Use your magnifying glass: useful places to look for clues include whistleblowers, letters pages of research journals, newspaper business pages, stock prices, company financial and annual reports, retractions in the scientific literature (pubmed.gov allows you to refine your search to retracted publications, a useful source for Retraction Watch)

-Take advantage of public databases, including the global clinical trials registry and the Wayback Machine, which archives websites from way-back-when

-Independently examine the science. Were standards upheld? Do the conclusions drawn logically follow from the data gathered?

-Specialise in crunching numbers; investigative journalism can be a rather quantitative affair. Various tools can help you assemble and analyse data, like Document Cloud

-Be persistent – more people want to talk to you than you think. If they don’t pick up the first time, call again, and again…

-Familiarise yourself with freedom of information legislation, enacted in more than 80 countries worldwide in different forms. To ensure a fruitful effort, make information requests as specific and pointed as possible, and take advantage of global links

-Rely on the group, and be generous in acknowledging information from others

-Don’t lose the storyline – the data doesn’t speak for itself

Smriti Mallapaty, SciDev.Net contributor, Nepal/London

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