Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Scientist

Approximately one gazillion years ago, I wrote a piece including tips from reporters about how to prepare for interviews with scientists. While that post is useful, several people have recently asked me for more specific guidance on how to interview researchers. Specifically, they wanted to know not only how to prepare, but what sorts of questions to ask.

Since I’ve gotten this question quite a few times now, I thought I’d make a list of some of the things I usually want to ask about when interviewing someone about their research. (I also encourage people to check out the interview prep piece I linked to above.)

Most of the people who have asked me for guidance on what questions to ask are writers who work for universities and are writing about scientific research for the first time. As a result, that’s the audience I’m writing for here – and I’m focusing specifically on the questions I ask scientists when interviewing them about research findings. However, many of these questions are ones that reporters would likely ask as well. [Note: I’m sure I’ve missed some good and important questions, so please chime in with your additions in the comments.]

Bean-Counting Questions

I call these bean-counting questions because they are questions you need to ask, but that are not necessarily very interesting. These are simply the boxes you need to check, because they are details you’ll need to address in whatever you’re writing. I usually ask them first to get them out of the way.

“Where is the work being published (or presented)?”

This one’s self explanatory.

“Who were your collaborators on this work, and what are their affiliations?”

In most cases I’ll be talking to the researcher about a forthcoming journal article or conference paper. Ideally, they will have sent me a draft of the article that includes this information. But it’s always good to double-check, and sometimes they have sent me a draft without this information. You’re not doing anyone any favors if you fail to mention collaborators or if you make mistakes regarding their affiliations or how their names are spelled. In addition, it is often worthwhile to ask about each collaborator’s job title – particularly for university science writers. For example, if one of the collaborators is an undergraduate, that may be worth highlighting. By the same token, if a collaborator has a “named” professorship, that’s probably something you want to note.

“What was your role in the work? What about the other collaborators?”

Sometimes a journal article stems from a truly equal partnership between collaborators. Sometimes a collaborator is listed as a co-author because they simply shared a data set with the lead researcher. It’s important to know who did what, since that can affect how you frame the work (and each person’s role in the work).

“Who funded the work?”

Sometimes researchers fund their work with the “startup package” that they get when they arrive at a new institution. But research is usually done with support from a federal agency (like the National Science Foundation) or a nonprofit organization (like the Gates Foundation). These funding organizations often have expectations about how they will be acknowledged in anything you write about the research. You can’t meet those expectations if you don’t know who funded the work. If the work was funded by a federal agency, ask for grant numbers so you can include them in the piece. Journalists will rarely include this sort of information in their stories, but often want to know how research was funded – because it can help them identify possible conflicts of interest. Which brings me to the next question…

“Are you pursuing intellectual property rights related to this research?”

This is important because it can help you identify – and clarify – any potential conflicts of interest the researcher might have regarding the work. (And if there are potential conflicts of interest, you want to be up front about them in whatever you write.) However, it’s also important (for institutional science writers) because universities are often interested in highlighting research that leads to startup companies or is otherwise related to economic impact.

Getting Oriented

Once I’ve gotten past the bean-counting portion of the interview, I often ask the same two questions – which help me get oriented to the work. Basically, they help me establish a starting point for the rest of my questions.

The first question is almost always “What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?”

I think this is a good one because it helps me place the work in context. This also usually leads me to ask a bunch of follow-up questions that I hadn’t planned to ask, because I’m often introduced to terms and concepts that I’m not familiar with. In other words, I have to stop the researcher every so often to say: “What does that mean?”

My second question is usually “What were the key findings that came out of the work?”

This is useful because it helps me zero in on what aspect of the work is most important. Or, at least, what aspect of the work the researcher thinks is most important.

Big Picture Questions

“Why is this important?”

This question should be self-explanatory.

“Who cares?”

You may want to find a more polite way to phrase this, but it’s a really good question. And it’s not necessarily a variation on “Why is this important?”

For example, if a researcher says a new technology will help scientists identify cyanotoxins in a lake, that doesn’t necessarily tell you who cares. Is it public health agencies? Environmental regulators? Drinking water providers? Recreational anglers? All of the above? You might think you know, but you won’t know what the scientist thinks unless you ask.

Here’s another good one: “How does this differ from other work in the field?”

I’ll rarely ask this question this way, but it’s something you need to address. Often, my question will be something along the lines of: “Is it faster?” “Is it less expensive?” “Is it more accurate?” (And if it is “more accurate,” what do they mean by that? This can be surprisingly complicated. For example, in the context of health diagnostics,  “more accurate” can mean either more sensitive or more specific – and those are two completely different things. There’s a good discussion of the difference here.)

In other words, what sets these new findings apart from other work? Let’s use the example of new technology for identifying cyanotoxins in water. There is already technology for identifying cyanotoxins in water – what makes this new technology different, better or interesting in any way?

Also, a question that I ask myself throughout an interview (but rarely ask out loud) is: “So what?” If you ask yourself that question at any point, and can’t answer it, find a (polite) way to ask the researcher.

What’s Next?

“What are the future directions for the work?”

Research findings exist on a continuum: they build on earlier research, and will (ideally) inform the work of future researchers. To put this another way, every time a researcher answers one question, he or she likely comes up with a lot of new questions. I think it is worthwhile to ask researchers about any new questions that result from their research findings, or how they plan to move forward from a given discovery. (It’s that whole “placing the work in context” thing again.)

For Stories Related to Health Research

If the relevant research is associated with human health, I also encourage folks to peruse the criteria that HealthNewsReview.org used for rating health stories. These are incredibly useful for identifying aspects of research that you might have overlooked, and can help you make a health research story much stronger. You may not be able to address all of the criteria, but it’s a gold standard worth working toward. [Full disclosure: I was a contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.]

Two Last Things

To be completely clear, these are not all of the questions I ask when interviewing a researcher. I usually ask dozens (and dozens) more. But these are some of the questions I almost always ask scientists when interviewing them about their work. I hope they’re useful.

I’ll also quote Deborah Blum’s advice from my earlier interview prep piece: “I’ll do research and I’ll write down questions, but I also think a good interview is akin to good conversation and if you’re too rigid in your prep work, too obsessive about your written questions, you lose those moments where the story may open up into something more.”

4 thoughts on “Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Scientist

  1. Last question. Is there anything pertinent I have not asked you about? Sure, it gets anything that was obviously forgotten, but it almost always gets me great quotes. For some reason, after they given me all the answers to my questions and explained evrything to me, they will sit back and just summarize the research or emphasize what’s new in beautiful, usable quotes.

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  2. Katie Burke

    These are good suggestions. I also ask (unless I can find out elsewhere): 1) preferred pronouns 2) how they want their name in print… and when there is time, I try to break the ice with a fun easy question, like fave books, to help them be more comfortable & personal & develop character

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  3. Here’s another: This is one that needs some diplomacy when you ask, but: Why might someone challenge your findings? What sensitivities did you have to consider? (Especially helpful to know in case you get media inquiries.)

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  4. Malcolm Ritter

    “How can I explain your work to my general audience” is good for eliciting plain-English, quotable explanations.

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