Researchers should have opinions – and let others know them

2020 is proving to be a busy year for epidemiologists.

In the current global pandemic, media are daily seeking the wisdom and expertise of these scientific research specialists to help interpret data about vaccines, and the public health implications of COVID-19 testing and transmission trends.

It’s a timely reminder that research can and does play a valuable role in everyday life.

Yet, after decades of working alongside researchers, I’ve noticed that many are reluctant to step into the world of media and current affairs, viewing it as hostile or banal. Some are scared that media will sensationalise, ‘dumb down’ or misinterpret research findings.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value and importance of unpacking research via media.

Many researchers have stepped up their professional communication to express their opinions, within their areas of expertise, on various aspects of the pandemic and the recovery. Programs like the ABC’s ‘Coronacast offer daily guidance from medical scientists and epidemiologists who present reasonable, considered opinions backed by sound evidence.

Australian-based websites such as The Conversation and Open Forum have provided important avenues for researchers to express their opinions to a wide audience, outside of mainstream broadcast media, in a relatively unfiltered, un-sensationalised format. This format has increased trust for both authors and audiences in the stories published.

Being widely available online, these websites have helped researchers who address current affairs to gain local, national and international prominence through their thoughtful, credible insights.

Tips to help write opinion articles

Timing is everything!

Readers expect news websites to provide timely responses to current public issues: and the editors of these websites in turn expect their authors to be ready to meet their deadlines. This places an onus on researchers to be prepared to commit time and effort into writing these stories. If not, the editors are not interested.

While you can’t plan individual opinion pieces in advance – that is the unpredictability of current affairs – researchers can prepare themselves and their ideas beforehand.

Referencing is important for credible science communication: without it, ‘verified’ facts can be ‘manufactured’ to support particular opinions, and so urban myths become ‘fact’. To illustrate their credibility, researchers publishing in The Conversation are required to present evidence to support their contentions, by providing links to relevant academic papers and reputable media items to support their claims.

Here are some tips to help you prepare for science communication opportunities, especially with more mainstream media:

  • If required, get some training on how to write opinion articles – you can start with this resource from the ARC for Climate System Science;
  • Consistently follow current affairs and media trends;
  • Practice writing opinion pieces by writing for your institution or lesser ‘known’ blogs;
  • Develop teams of fellow academics that could move quickly to offer opinions when appropriate topics arise – this helps ‘spread’ the workload;
  • Develop a few key messages that support your expertise – these messages can be re-purposed subsequently to support your opinion on a particular issue;
  • Know the requirements of media that publish opinion pieces – for example, see ‘Become an author’ with The Conversation.
  • Find colleagues to comment on drafts of your opinion pieces – they can also act as your ‘unofficial’ peer review;
  • Know the limits of your expertise to maintain your credibility as a commentator;
  • Recognise opportunities to offer opinions to reputable outlets;
  • Be prepared to shift priorities and move fast;
  • Be prepared for adverse reactions and ‘trolling’ when addressing controversial and emotive issues; and,
  • Reply to opinion opportunities offered to you, whether you follow through with the opportunity or not – it’s about maintaining relationships for ‘the big one’.

By preparing and planning for putting your opinions into current affairs, researchers can reduce their initial trepidation in putting pen to paper and prepare ideas faster.

While opinion writing can be a major commitment of time and energy, it does provide opportunities to stretch your intellect and spread your ideas.

It also provides a wonderful source of dinnertime stories!

To help you prepare for your next (or your first!) opinion piece, contact The Comms Doctor® via email or visit the Comms Doctor® website. Special thanks to Mary-Anne Scully from Mary-Anne Scully Consulting and ACRE for her invaluable advice, experience and assistance with this blog.