By Nancy Holt, PhD
Science has an opinion problem. Namely, there’s almost nowhere to publish them. More high-profile scientific magazines should consider accepting op-eds in the same format and style commonly used by newspapers.
Opinion pieces are an important tool for generating public discourse on key issues. They fill a unique niche in journalism — being subjective rather than objective. Since scientists are trained not to insert their own judgement when preforming analysis, writing in such a style may seem counterintuitive. Much to the contrary, they allow scientists to express ideas that use reason and evidence to propose solutions to challenges that can’t be addressed solely by research.
Though less often discussed, acquiring the skills to write op-eds offers multiple benefits to the author. Sometimes simply looking at issues from a different perspective and organizing one’s thoughts in a written format has value in and of itself. Furthermore, it can create engagement with the public and those in the policy arena in particular, where op-eds are a common tool to suggest how to address a variety of issues. They also generate professional development opportunities. Lastly, the direct, active and concise writing style used in these pieces, which is typically not taught directly in graduate programs, can help building meaningful interactions with those beyond academia.
To note, the idea is not to generate pieces that pit opinion vs. scientific research findings, but rather ones that would benefit from discourse expressed by those trained in the scientific method. These may include opinions related to the internal workings of the scientific enterprise, such as how to structure the scientific community, and whether it is living up to its full potential. It may also cover more front-facing issues concerning relationship building with the public, and ways to engage with policymakers and communities. Even some of the biggest policy issues, such as affordable housing and incarceration, for example, have connections to physical and mental health where scientists can lend valuable insights.
To some degree, these topics are being raised in high-profile scientific publications, but not as op-ed pieces offered by individuals. For example, the Nature editorial board recently wrote a piece titled, “PhD training is no longer fit for purpose — it needs reform now.” While the content is highly relevant in the academic community, the very graduate students that are living the situation are not able to share their opinions about these kinds of topics directly in this magazine.
Presently, there are very few prominent spaces for scientists to submit this kind of content at all. The most notable science-focused magazine that publishes op-eds in the actual journalistic style — covering topics that appeal to a broad audience — is Scientific American. On the downside, they only have the capacity to publish a limited number. Others that will accept genuine opinion pieces include Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since they cover all of academia, they are greatly constrained in the space they can dedicate to science-specific discussion. They also receive so many pieces that there can be a relatively long lag time between submission and publication.
While it is hard to assess the thinking of editorial boards of highly-regarded scientific magazines, one hypothesis as to why they don’t accept op-eds is that there are concerns about these pieces becoming too political or too critical of academic practices. The answer to that is simple — editors simply don’t have to publish them. On the other hand, pieces that reflect the journal’s vision, without leaving room for input on the page opposite the editorial, doesn’t appropriately allow for the sharing of ideas that science is meant to offer. We need to trust that even early-stage scientists have valuable opinions that are worthy of publication. For inspiration, there was an op-ed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the need for better playgrounds in New York City written by local fifth graders.
Beyond magazines, the remaining options are a variety of blogs. There are upsides to this medium. The content on blogs can sometimes be even better in quality than published opinion pieces. They can also offer opportunities to discuss issues — such as this one — that don’t have other likely “homes.” On the other side, they are too often hindered by limited audiences, as well as varying quality depending on who oversees them.
Blogs also lack the sense of legitimacy that comes with more well-established publications that have full-time editorial teams. This affects the ability of an opinion piece to have impact — akin to the journal “impact factor” that scientists know all too well. In policy circles, people make a similar connection to publication status. For better or worse, opinion pieces in newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are largely still considered the “holy grail.”
There is a bit of a conundrum here — as op-eds are generally published in newspapers, which don’t really exist in the scientific community. Scientific magazines are a good options nonetheless, and offer the benefit of being published in a more timely fashion. Of course, scientists and others that write on these issues can submit pieces to newspapers, but they must focus on topics that deal with science topics directly affecting the publication’s audience. For example, New York City’s many local newspapers publish op-eds that tie-in to matters such as climate change and resiliency, sanitation, overall public health, STEM education and access, etc.
Scientists have lots of important opinions. Let’s find more places for them to be shared as op-eds in high-profile scientific publications. Disagree? Great, please share your thoughts…
Nancy Holt, PhD, leads Science for New York (Sci4NY), an effort to have policymakers and scientists in NYC work together to address key challenges facing the City. On Twitter @Sci4NY.