Recently, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, urged scientists to share their problem-solving innovations with the public in more accessible ways, including by using vernacular languages. This kind of openness and accessibility is important and needed. While most scientists publish their work in academic journals, only 10 people, on average, read a given article in its entirety; so clearly, the general public is not being reached that way.
Translating complicated concepts that are jargon-heavy into terms and ideas the public can understand is not always easy. But, increasingly, scientists, university and research institutions, government institutions and others are trying to find ways to do it. Professional societies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Entomological Society of America offer a wide array of tools and programs like science communication courses and science policy fellowships to help scientists with dissemination. The National Academy of Sciences even recently released a report, “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda,” to help scientists effectively communicate their research. An example of an international effort is the Imagine Project initiative, through which scientists take their research out of the laboratory and share it with rural and indigenous communities in Africa and Latin America.
These are great initiatives, but many young scientists, including PhD students, post-doctoral scholars and early career scientists, need more guidance in maneuvering the art of effectively disseminating their science to the public. I witnessed this need first-hand when I recently spoke at Emory University about my research on beneficial soil microbes and their use in agriculture; I mentioned how ever since I learning the art of writing opinion pieces through participating in a training offered through the Aspen Institute New Voices fellowship, I had written more than 60 opinion pieces that have reached millions of people. The audience of PhD students and post-doctoral fellows clamored to know how they could similarly write about their research for newspapers and reach the kinds of audiences their journal articles never do. I know they are not alone in that desire.
While there are other ways to disseminate academic research to the public, including writing research and policy briefs, sharing it on university and research institutions websites and blogs, my experience of this has been through op-ed writing. This is my advice to scientists who also want to use op-eds to reach the average person:
The first step is to connect the research you are doing or pursuing to a bigger theme. Is it the environment? Climate change? Public health? As an example, my research on beneficial soil microbes ties into several major themes including climate change, food security and soil health.
Secondly, it is important to find the story and storyline in your research. How do the results of your research creatively link and connect to the global challenges facing humanity? Once you have this lined up, it is time to write the piece.
Op-eds are centered around an argument: essentially you are arguing for or against something. So, you must decide on this before you can write the rest of your piece. The core argument should only be a sentence long and stated in a way that is convincing to your readers. Think as you decide on this: What do you want to share with the world? Is it new? Why is it new? Or what is new about it? How is it different from other arguments about the subject theme that have been shared before?
Next you need to build your evidence to support your argument. Often there are at least three main points of evidence. These pieces of evidence can include statistics and research, quotes from experts in the field, anecdotes and personal stories and news articles. For researchers, this should be easy since your piece will be focused on research findings.
The “to be sure” paragraph is an important part of an opinion piece. In this paragraph, you preempt people who may discount your argument by acknowledging their viewpoint and then by bringing in even more evidence to back up your own argument. This allows you to acknowledge the other side, but still support your own.
An element of an op-ed that differs greatly from academic writing is the news hook. While often this goes in the first paragraph of the piece, it does not always have to be placed there. What a news hook does is tie your argument and research to the current issues of the day to show how it’s timely and why your research matters right now. This also helps when pitching your piece to editors because they need to know what is new and timely about your piece before deciding to accept it. While a news hook could be a news story, it can also include new research and studies, a new piece of legislation, or a holiday or anniversary of an event or law. A recent personal experience can also be used as a news hook.
The final concluding paragraph is where you summarize all the paragraphs with a catchy and thought-provoking sentence. This is also where you can place your call to action. Why did you spend all that time doing your research? What do you want your readers and decision-makers to do?
Most importantly, always remember to keep everything short and to the point because many media outlets have a word limit that ranges from 500 to 900 words. And then your piece is ready to pitch!
When scientists write and share their work with the public in accessible ways, that is when the magic happens and we can build bridges between research and society, engage the general public, and develop a critical dialogue about the solutions science offers.