3 April 1998
850 words

Nature Medicine, Nature Biotechnology
need non-science news about science

In the back of the book, Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology publish heavy-weight peer-reviewed articles on basic research. In the middle, specialist scientists write review articles. In the front, freelance journalists can write news stories about policy and business.

"The main point of the magazine is the scientific manuscripts," said Nature Medicine's news editor Karen Birmingham, PhD, at a meeting of the Editorial Freelancers' Association medical affinity group in New York on 2 April.

For example, the cover line of the February issue is "Apoptosis in vascular lesions." When vascular cells proliferate in the rabbit model of atherosclerosis, the bcl-x gene keeps them alive. Insert an anti-sense gene, apoptosis resumes, and the lesion goes away. Neat, huh?

"They're really heavy going," said Birmingham. "I have a PhD and it's heavy going for me."

"We are not a medical journal," explained Birmingham. The focus is research on the cellular and molecular level, in animals and in vitro, written for PhD- or MD-level medical researchers. "We're not heavy on the clinical end."

A New England Journal of Medicine article on raloxifene, an estrogen analog, would be concerned about the incidence of cancer and osteoporosis. Nature Medicine would be concerned about the chemistry of raloxifene's interaction with the estrogen receptor.

The front of the book, a 6-page news section, is open to freelancers, but not to duplicate the journal articles. "News does not write about science," said Birmingham. "Don't tell me that a new gene was discovered. I want to know who cloned it, where did they get the money." Nor is she interested in routine FDA approvals, clinical trials, or epidemiology, and especially not consumer health stories. She covers alternative medicine rarely, when it undergoes (or escapes) scientific assessment.

Behind the science

Readers are interested in things that affect their research, like funding, new or terminated research programs, new policies and politics that affect biomedical research, and ethical issues. They're interested in famous or upcoming biomedical researchers.

Recent stories covered proposals to regulate in-vitro fertilization; the dangers of transmitting pig viruses to the human population in organ transplants; mass-marketed DNA paternity testing; a $1 billion contribution of anti-parasitic drugs to the World Health Organization; Luc Montagnier's $30 million HIV research center in Queens College, New York; and the successor to FDA commissioner David Kessler. When 2 major scientific organizations contradict each other, that's a good story, said Birmingham.

Stories follow a 1-month cycle. Pitch the idea, with proposed sources, around the 27th of the month, said Birmingham. Deadline is first week of the upcoming month. The writer reviews the edited story 3 days later. It's published the following month. Scheduling is tight and "it is wise" not to miss deadlines.

Nature's prestige helps. "If you call the NIH and say it's from Nature Medicine, chances are they'll call you back," said Birmingham. If they don't, the office can find an alternative. "We have a big database at Nature Medicine."

The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and other newspapers cover the same beat (and often pick up Nature Medicine research), so a Nature Medicine story must be more analytical, perhaps with a business or science angle that the daily press didn't get. If a story is in the newspapers, Nature knows about it already. They're interested in relevant stories the newspapers don't get, such as the talk that goes on at scientific conferences behind the scenes.

"If you want to ingratiate yourself with the editor," ask researchers to supply artwork at the same time you interview them, added Birmingham.

A good length is 500-600 words. Pay starts at 70 cents a word and moves up to $1 a word.

Nature Biotechnology

Similarly, Nature Biotechnology wants "business stories that scientists would be interested in," said news editor Emma Dorey . "We're very business-oriented," she said. "We're interested in academic, corporate and government activities that affect biotech research."

That includes corporate financing, acquisitions and mergers, and anything major that affects the stock market. It includes patents, particularly litigation. It includes "significant successes and significant failures." For example, the April issue has a story about the Irish environmental activist opposition to biotechnology, and one about the sale of DeKalb Genetics stock by the family that owns controlling interest.

Dorey's news hole is bigger, 6 to 10 pages, depending on advertising. Stories are assigned the 3rd week of the month. Much of the news section is staff-written, but "We're interested in original stories that we don't get ourselves," said Dorey, particularly coverage of France, Australia and Japan.

"Special projects do come up," said Birmingham. "We need someone a bit special who is going to call someone up and talk to them in their own language."

Despite their editors' charming British accents, both publications are written in American English.

The 2 journals are part of the Nature magazine group. Nature's news stories are free on the web, but Nature Biotechnology and Nature Medicine are available in a more abbreviated version. Full-text will soon be available, but only to subscribers.

--Norman Bauman