Op-Ed Writing: It's OK to Argue for Something

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, February 2 2015


Editor's Note: This article orginially appeared on the blog of our communications training partner, COMPASS.

by Brooke Smith and Sarah Sunu

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.

Your argument

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).
  • Martin Doyle makes an argument for dam removal in this piece in the Raleigh News and Observer (a regional publication, the right outlet/audience for his argument).
  • Michael Mann makes an argument for other scientists to remember they are also citizens, and to risk speaking up politically in this New York Times piece.

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 boys 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.
  • Escape from the Ivory Tower has a great section on op-ed writing. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin gives advice to scientists in Chapter 11.
  • Spend some time thinking about your voice, and how you want to show up in the world as a citizen and a scientist. Nancy Baron’s Finding Your Voice post explores this (and other op-ed tips). Virginia Gewin’s recent piece Speak up for science in Nature provides insight into considerations for scientists as they engage in outreach activities. And we love Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker, to explore the various roles you may play in political debates and policy formulation.

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.

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