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What Is the Value of an Op-ed?

Writing for the public is a powerful way to reconnect with why the work you do matters to the broader world.

September 28, 2021
 
 

If you’ve ever tried to share your research with the public, you might have heard a little voice in your head telling you it’s a distraction for an academic to spend their time writing anything other than papers for scholarly journals. But for the increasing number of researchers who want their ideas to have a broader impact, mainstream writing is an important part of a well-balanced research-dissemination diet.

Op-eds, blog posts, social media, policy briefs and other forms of mainstream writing don’t replace academic papers but instead complement them to help you achieve different goals and reach new audiences. An op-ed in a local paper or national outlet can immediately get your ideas in front of far more people than will ever see them in a scholarly journal. Your research can shape public discourse and influence policy makers, business and civic leaders, practitioners, and other key audiences.

Writing for the public is a powerful way to reconnect with why the work you do matters to the broader world. It can also feed back to produce positive outcomes in the academic realm. Several studies have found that media attention for a piece of research results in increased attention and citation counts for the underlying paper.

Despite the many benefits of writing for the public, you may wonder whether your efforts are having an impact. You might hear crickets at first or have colleagues question why you are spending time on op-eds. While we have clear indicators to track the reach of academic papers -- citation counts as well as newer altmetrics like downloads -- measuring the impact of mainstream publications can be complicated. Media outlets rarely share how many people read an article, even with the authors of a piece.

We know, however, that getting your ideas published in a mainstream outlet can massively expand their reach and impact. At Footnote, we’ve worked with hundreds of academics to create and place op-eds sharing their research and expertise in major newspapers including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe; business publications like Fast Company and Harvard Business Review; and other outlets including The Hill, Newsweek and Wired.

We’ve seen firsthand how these publications can exponentially increase the influence of a scholar’s research. The academics we collaborate with have been invited to speak at conferences and testify at government meetings as a direct result of their articles. Funders, partners and researchers in related fields have shared and responded to their publications. They’ve received follow-up media coverage and interview requests that continue to expand their visibility.

Of course, not every article will have all these outcomes, and they won’t all happen right away. So how can you tell if your research communication efforts are working? What kind of impact did that op-ed you wrote have?

Before you start answering this question, it’s important to define your goals and target audiences. If you are trying to influence a specific group of policy makers or practitioners, it may be less relevant how many people you reach and more important whether you’re reaching the right people. On the other hand, if you’re trying to influence the broader public discourse around an issue, connecting with as many readers as possible may be an important metric -- and you may want to target your publications accordingly.

While most media outlets will not tell you how many readers your op-ed had, there are a couple of ways to get a sense of an article’s potential reach. First, look at the size and composition of the outlet’s overall audience. Many publications make this information available online to attract potential advertisers (here’s an example).

For instance, we’ve collaborated with several business researchers to publish articles in Fast Company. While this may not seem like an obvious choice for an academic op-ed, it has a wide audience of top business leaders as well as readers interested in technology, innovation and workplace issues. We know articles in Fast Company will potentially be in front of the outlet’s 12 million monthly web visitors, 2.3 million Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of daily newsletter subscribers. If even a sliver of this overall audience reads a given article, that adds up to a lot of eyeballs, far more than see the average academic paper.

An outlet’s overall audience size and characteristics will give you a sense off the potential reach of any article you might publish there. If you want to track the impact of a specific article, the best place to go is social media. On Twitter, you can search by the article headline or URL to see who is posting about an article. The posts that generally get the most shares are those from the outlet itself, as it usually has a large following, so make sure to look at the outlet’s social channels to see how many likes and retweets your op-ed got.

You can also use social media tracking tools like Union Metrics and Muck Rack to get data about the reach of an article, such as the number of impressions or shares it had on different social platforms. It’s important to look at the quality of an article’s reach in addition to these quantitative metrics. Tracking tools, as well as your own searches on platforms like Twitter, can reveal the thought leaders, journalists and other influential accounts that have shared an article and what they’re saying about it.

The final way to track the impact of an op-ed is to look out for long-term outcomes from the publicity. If you are asked for an interview by a journalist, invited to speak at a nonacademic conference or contacted by a potential partner, ask them where they found out about your work. This can help you determine which of your research communication efforts are most effective at connecting with the audiences you want to reach.

You can also look at subsequent citations and downloads for papers you write about in your op-eds. Studies have found that attention for a piece of research in traditional media and on social media can lead to increased citations, though of course it takes time for these effects to show up.

There’s no single metric that can tell you exactly how many people read your article and how it affected them. But there are many ways you can get a sense of the impact and value of an op-ed. Some outcomes may happen right away, while others will unfold over time as you slowly build an audience and attract increasing attention for your research and ideas. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that you are much more likely to influence and impact audiences outside academia if you meet them where they are, rather than sticking exclusively to writing in academic journals.


Diana Brazzell is co-founder and executive editor of Footnote, a communications group that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing it with a broader audience. She collaborates with scholars and academic institutions to translate their research into accessible, engaging op-eds and articles for outlets such as The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, The Hill, Newsweek, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. If you’d like to learn more about how to increase the impact and reach of your work, please contact her at [email protected].

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