Scientists are finding their voices. Researchers once reliant on press officers and journalists to explain their work to the general public can now do so on their own, sometimes by starting a blog or by pitching magazines and websites to pen articles under their own names.

Researchers’ interest has grown in part because universities have encouraged them to write, offering writing courses and workshops for doctorate students and postdocs. Other times, researchers are seeking it out on their own, joining workshops of scientists and journalists like NeuWrite Downtown, which we run. “There's a lot of value in publishing; you can reach audiences you can't necessarily reach in academic institutions,” said Heather McKellar, the senior manager of education and outreach programs at the Neuroscience Institute at New York University. “There are a lot of people who don't have access to scientists, and written and online material can provide that.”

But the opportunity to write for the general public isn’t open to all scientists. For international researchers who are in the U.S. on particular types of visas, doing the wrong kind of work could put them at risk of deportation.

“The public is just really interested in who we are and what we do. And they like to hear directly from scientists,” said Jennifer Raff, a blogger and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas. “Since many of us are paid by taxes, we have an obligation to return information to the public, and to be accessible to the public.”

But for about 39,000 PhD students, or just over half the total number of doctoral candidates in the United States, it could prove to be too risky. Most of these foreign-born researchers are in the U.S. on F-1 (for students), J-1 (for work-study), and H-1B (for specialty occupation) visas. The terms for these visas vary slightly, but all prohibit the visa-holder from “unauthorized employment”—that is, doing any work outside the university they’re working for.

Working for anyone other than the university could mean violating the terms of the visa. “Generally speaking, if you engage in any violation of the terms of your visa, you are no longer in lawful immigration status,” said Careen Shannon, a partner at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP, a law firm that focuses on immigration law. “If such a violation were to come to light in the course of seeking an extension of your temporary stay or adjustment of status to permanent residence, recent changes in immigration policy mean that you could quickly be subject to a ‘Notice to Appear’ in immigration court for the purpose of removal proceedings.”

That puts writing for a publication in a strange gray area. Because what exactly constitutes “work” can be subject to debate, immigration lawyers will give people different advice based on the specific facts and circumstances presented, Shannon said. Most lawyers will tell students to talk to the international student office at their university, but these offices can often only offer a blanket statement and sometimes contradict one another, which can leave researchers feeling unsupported and confused. Publishers themselves sometimes aren’t sure; sometimes publications simply don’t know a writer’s visa status, or it doesn’t come up. “We haven't had a situation that I know of where we've hired an international researcher,” Rick Berke, executive editor of the Boston-based biomedical news outlet Stat said via e-mail.

That uncertainty can have a chilling effect on would-be writers. Karen Kwon, a fifth-year chemistry PhD student at Columbia University, had been talking with an editor at the American Chemical Society about writing a short piece for their Graduate and Postdoctoral Chemist magazine. But Kwon is on an F-1 visa. When the editor suggested paying her in gift cards, Kwon was nervous. “Since I might be applying for a green card in the future, I don't want to take a risk by finding a way around,” she said.

There does, however, seem to be a way for visa-holders to still get their voices heard. They can write for general interest publications as “volunteer contributors,” eschewing payment and the stability of a contract (which more or less guarantees its publication) for the simple opportunity of writing. One of the authors of this piece—Huayi Wei, a neuroscience PhD student and an F-1 visa holder—isn't getting paid for her work (the other author, Alexandra Ossola, is a U.S. citizen and did receive a modest payment).

Some publications allow writers to work without a contract, while others may insist on it. If you don’t receive compensation, or if there's a clause addressing this in the contract, it may be possible to argue that what you're doing does not constitute "employment." But since there may be other factors to consider in making that determination, we suggest that you seek individual legal help if you are signing a contract, just to be sure.

Writing for free is, admittedly, not ideal. Writing without a contract could mean that a researcher could do the work but with little assurance it will be published even if it's of high quality. Already-overworked researchers might need a little extra incentive to make time to write. And it doesn’t set a good precedent for full-time freelance journalists; why would an editor pay someone to write about science when someone else even closer to the work itself could do it for free?

“Getting paid to write legitimizes the seriousness of the writing, and it shows that an organization values my time and expertise,” Raff said. She hadn’t heard that international researchers sometimes couldn’t get paid, but when we told her, her first reaction was: “Oh, that sucks. I hope that all scientists, including international scientists, could have the opportunity to develop their writing and voice.”  

Granted, the law could change, though it’s not likely to become more relaxed, especially not under an administration that actively worked to reduce the number legal immigrants in the U.S. as well as the resources available to them.

But it’s important for scientists to know that they can, in fact, write for their dream publication. It’s important for publishers to court and cultivate those voices, too. Because life-saving, world-changing scientific breakthroughs don’t happen when information is siloed. Because collaboration is the only way to go far in science, or really in any other field. Because if we want to push society forward, we need all the best minds and information across oceans and borders. Because we can’t afford not to hear the world’s brilliant scientific voices, no matter their immigration status.

That knowledge helped Kwon, at least, submit her first journalistic article for publication. “Now that I know how to do it, I would approach other publications much more easily,” Kwon said. Her advice to other visa-holders interested in writing for the lay press? Be upfront about your visa status with your editor once your piece is accepted. Hopefully, the editor will know how to take it from there.