Expressing perspectives, opinions or even recommendations about the implications of your science can be a bit uncomfortable, even scary. But if you want your science to be relevant and useful, you need to make sure it gets out of pages of peer-reviewed journals and into real-world discussions. Connecting with policymakers and having an ask is one way to do this. Writing an op-ed is another great way to start to get your science, and ideas, into the public discourse.
Why write an op-ed?
Op-eds (short for ‘opposite the editorial’ page) are found in the section of a newspaper or magazine reserved for opinions from people other than the editors. While not every person may read op-eds, influential decision-makers – from the President, to mayors, to business leaders – do. Op-eds provide an opportunity to bring an issue into the public consciousness, and allow you to establish yourself as an expert on that issue.
At its core, an op-ed is a well-constructed argument with a point of view – yours. While often political, op-eds aren’t necessarily advocating for a specific policy outcome. To craft a good op-ed, you need a strong argument backed up by solid evidence. You need to support your argument with data to be compelling, but it doesn’t have to be all scientific data; it can be in the form of quotes, gray literature or political events. Before writing an op-ed, figure out what your argument is.
What are you asking for (and what are you comfortable asking for)? Here are some examples of scientist-authored op-eds that make different kinds of arguments:
- Jane Lubchenco and John Beddington argue for more public awareness and collaborative research on ocean acidification in this New York Times Op-Ed.
- Stephen Porder argues for society to have a discussion about how we will use land to feed the growing population in this New York Times Op-Ed (and lays out some of the considerations without advocating for specific actions).
Tips and resources for writing an op-ed
- Determine what you are arguing for, and develop your argument. Think more debate team than scientific manuscript. Identify your supporting evidence, and debunk opposing views. The Op-Ed Project has great tips about the structural elements of an argument. Try your argument out on your friends and colleagues, and – even better – people that may disagree that with you, to fine-tune it.
- Define your audience: who needs to hear your argument? This should inform where you submit your piece. You don’t have to always shoot for the big outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post. Start with where you are, and where your institution is known: local and regional periodicals are excellent outlets for your ideas.
Pitching your op-ed is straightforward, but there are still guidelines and cultures to follow. A clear and concise guide to pitching from The Op-Ed Project can be found here.
Successful placement of an op-ed is just the beginning. Be prepared to engage after your op-ed is published in real discussions, including with people who may disagree with you. The dialogue and ensuing engagement is where the fun and meaty stuff can happen.