It’s not always easy to communicate your research to the general public. Many researchers present their work at scholarly conferences or give TED-style talks, but few think to reach out directly to news organizations or magazine publications. Yet science communication is important. It raises the profile of your research, it helps the public stay informed, and it can improve support for public research funding.
One easy way to help your research find a wider audience is to write a letter to the editor of a non-scientific publication, offering your perspective on a current hot topic in the news that relates to your research. Your commentary can provide context, add nuance, or correct misperception in general coverage. Even if your letter doesn’t get published, the process is a valuable lesson in organizing your ideas clearly and succinctly. Writing these types of letters well also establishes you as a trusted source to the news organization; even if they don’t run your letter now, they may reach out to you in the future for expert guidance on a developing news topic.
Before you get started, you should familiarize yourself with the publication. Make sure you know the topics it usually covers, as well as the style, tone, and typical article length. All of these things will help you select a target publication and craft an appropriate letter for its audience. For example, you may conclude that your research isn’t a natural fit for a general-interest newspaper like The Washington Post. Writing about the implications of your nanotechnology research for the food industry could work well in a publication focused on new food and beverage trends. Local publications are easier to get into and shouldn’t be discounted. You can use your experience with a local publication to convince larger publications to publish your work in the future.
Once you’re familiar with the publication, you’ll be able to move quickly when something applicable makes its way into the news cycle. The faster you can write your piece the better, as timeliness is critical to any mainstream news media. Type your letter in the body of an email. Don’t use an attachment, as many places won’t open these due to security concerns.
Always make you sure you reference the article you’re responding to early in your letter. State your opinion; briefly establish your credentials and then jump into the details of your opinion. Make sure you always include contact information so the editor (or a curious reader) can follow up with you for clarification or further information.
If your piece is accepted for publication, be prepared for your work to be edited. If an editor is pushing hard for a change that you don’t agree with, be polite and ask what’s motivating it. Maybe they see something that you missed, or maybe they’re misunderstanding your argument.
Letters to the editor are fantastic platforms for researchers to speak candidly on the topics they are passionate about to a wider audience. With a little effort, writing for non-scientific publications can increase your influence and help the public better appreciate your work.