At the S&T desk...

When I left for The Hindu office today, I was looking forward to interacting with Dr. Prasad, department head of the Science and Technology Desk. I had met up with Dr Prasad for about an hour yesterday but couldn't interact well with him given that his section of the paper would be appearing the next day. However today I got to talk to him quite a bit on how he structured and developed on his section of the paper.

The first thing I observed about him was that he was a voracious reader. He had several science magazines strewn on his desk and a hi-fi looking article was staring at me from his monitor. He first informed me about the various columns in his section of the paper - the most well-read Q&A column, where the readers asked questions about various scientific matters and received replies, a science column published from an international reputed paper like The Guardian, etc. , a journal article (usually an editorial) adopted from Nature, an article on Agriculture usually written by a member of the S&T desk after field research, two or three more articles depending on space availabilty written by columnists mostly dealing with scientific aspects of matters of latest interest and a few scientific titbits.

Dr Prasad has himself written articles (in matters relating especially to stem cell research) and so I was curious as to how he actually chose his topics and presented them to a laymen in an appealing and crisp manner. I learnt that to choose topics, he usually read through various editorials of reputed journals across the world like Nature, The Lancet, The British Journal,etc and when he observed something totally new or unconventional or related to recent topics of interest (for eg. Bird Flu) he would bookmark it. After having short-listed various topics, he would read up on them thoroughly - the paper itself, the references it made and the references' references (!) to get a clear picture of what was being talked about.

On second/third readings, he would make a note of all the major points raised in the article and priorotize them and then draw up his first draft, which usually would be thrice the length of the published article! It was in this way, he said that you could personalise the article.

To be frank, I was very curious to know how exactly does one personalise a scientific article!! I have tried on several occassions to formulate an impassive opinion on an established fact and almost always land heavily on the emotional side! As people and as Indians, we all have perceptions which alters to a great degree what we believe to be fact!

Dr Prasad beautifully put it that the only way to overcome this disadvantage is to read a lot and write all that you know! That way, as you try shortening the article, you will find yourself making several comparisons which ultimately leads to the formulation of an opinion. Well...that sounds awful!! So let me try and put it directly the way he said it:

"I am right now working on an article which reviews the way peer review is carried out in Nature. For this it is essential to first know what peer review is all about. Secondly, you should try and think why this particular procedure is being reviewed. This will itself generate sufficient material to penn your article - but if you are interested you could go ahead and check out the history of peer review and see how it came into being and so on.. The point is that now you have the fact - that the way peers review your scientific paper is going to change. And then you have sufficient material to prove why this change is "long pending" - that some papers earlier published were all farce! This way you have already given a personal touch!"

It was quite interesting to know and I, who upto that point was confident that I could write an article worthy of the Hindu suddenly realised the amount of effort that went into each article! Apart from the effort involved to stay informed, it was impertinant that I read up as much as available on the topic, from all angles to write an article. I learnt that day, what the difference was between reporting and writing!

There was the other section of the desk that I had completely not recognized - the agricultural section. It was here that "field research" in the true sense of the word was involved - and that too of a very different kind. I spoke to Mr Prabhu, who contributes almost every week to the section to get some insight.

Well, if it was possible, even more knowledge and information was required here. One had to keep abreast of activities in remote villages - and percieve any change in the scenario. And again, I bring in the context to explain myself. Mr Prabhu had just returned from a trip to Kancheepuram and he had visited a village nearby. He was surprised to know that many of the farmers were no longer cultivating the seasonal crops - instead they were opting for all-seasonal crops with less water requirement! This was a very very abrupt change, especially in a village which traditionally opted for seasonal crops. But knowledge of this fact only formed the basis for the article. It would take many more conversations and exploration to realise that such acts brought in more income than usual and that several agencies supplying seeds to farmers had already recognized this trend! In this case, Mr Prabhu said, all the information was available - you just had to know where to find it!

So having learnt over about a week the various activities of the various members of the desk and gaining revelations into the tricks of scientific journalism, I tried my hand at it over the next 2 weeks. I read up and wrote an article on "Flies Flight" and got it analysed by Dr. Prasad, who was quite pleased with it except for the fact that I had failed to give credit to the people concerned explicitly.

With that my 4 wonderful weeks at this desk came to an end and I will forever keep these memories close to my heart!

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