How to Write Opinion (Letters to the Editor, Editorials, and Book Reviews)

1. WRITING INFORMED OPINION

As you become known in your field, editors of journals and other publications may invite you to write pieces expressing your professional judgment. In particular, you may be asked to write editorials and book reviews. Chances to write the latter also may arise earlier in your career. And whatever your senior­ity (or lack thereof), you may submit letters to the editor for potential publication or posting.

All these pieces express opinion. But not just any opinion: your scientifically informed opinion. Although sometimes allowing more creativity in writing style, they should display the same rigor as a scientific paper. Evidence should sup­port views, and logic should be tight. In short, scientific opinion pieces should clearly evidence the mind of a researcher.

2. LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Many journals print or post letters to the editor. Usually, not all letters received are published.

Often, letters comment on papers recently published in the journal, thus serving as post-publication peer review. Sometimes, they deal independently with issues of professional interest to readers. In some journals, brief research reports or case reports can appear as letters; an editor who decides not to pub­lish a paper may offer to publish a condensed version as a letter to the editor. When a letter comments on a paper, the authors of the paper may have the opportunity to prepare a reply for publication.

Before drafting a letter, check the journal’s instructions, which commonly appear in the letters section of the journal and on the journal website. Among items that the instructions may specify are maximum length, number of fig­ures and tables allowed, number of references allowed, and acceptable means of submission. Increasingly, journals have been requesting or requiring that letters be submitted electronically. Some journals’ websites include a section through which letters can be submitted.

If you are writing a letter to the editor about a published article, submit it shortly after the article appeared. Some journals refuse to consider for publica­tion those letters received after a stated interval. If you criticize an article, do so in a constructive and respectful tone. (Remember: The author might peer review your next scientific paper or grant proposal.) Similarly, if you are respond­ing to a letter noting a possible shortcoming of your work, word your reply calmly—no matter what your initial reaction might have been.

Especially because of limitations in length, word your letter concisely, in keeping with principles presented later in this book in the section on scientific style. Focus on a single point (or a group of closely related points), and relate the other content to that central focus. Whatever your message, support it clearly. Your letter may then be a fine addition to the literature.

3. EDITORIALS

Some journals include invited editorials and other opinion pieces by scientists. In addition, scientists sometimes write opinion pieces for professional venues such as The Scientist, for op-ed pages of newspapers, or for other popular venues.

Invited editorials in journals can include both “perspective editorials” and “persuasive editorials.” A perspective editorial provides context for and com­ments on a scientific paper in the same issue of the journal. Often, a scientist who peer reviewed the paper is invited to write it. The beginning of such an editorial commonly resembles a miniature review paper on the subject. The end can then serve somewhat like an independently written discussion section— noting, for example, strengths and limitations of the research reported in the paper and discussing implications. For a perspective editorial to appear in the same issue as the paper it comments on, it may need to be submitted quickly. Therefore, along with the honor of being invited to write such a piece you might receive a stringent deadline.

A persuasive editorial, in a journal or elsewhere, argues for a specific point of view, for example on science policy. How to structure your argument can depend on your audience. If your audience seems largely to agree with your main point, presenting it early and then supporting it can be most effective. If, however, many readers are likely to be opposed initially, you might gain greatest agreement by starting with mutually supported ideas and relatively unexcep­tionable data and then showing how they lead to your conclusions. Whatever your approach, include arguments for and against your point of view and com­peting points of view. Acknowledging other viewpoints and showing that yours is superior is scientifically sounder, and thus more credible, than acting as if other viewpoints do not exist.

Some journals publish unsolicited opinion pieces, sometimes called sound­ing boards. The principles of writing them tend to be much the same as for writing persuasive editorials. For guidelines on writing such items, consult the journal’s instructions to authors. Similarly, if you wish to submit an opinion piece to a newspaper op-ed page or other popular venue, check the publication’s requirements by looking at its website or contacting its editorial office.

4. BOOK (AND OTHER MEDIA) REVIEWS

Textbooks. Reference books. Specialized monographs for scientists. Trade books for the public. Science abounds with books. And many journals, magazines, and other publications include reviews of books on science. As well as helping readers choose books to obtain or consult, book reviews can inform readers by sharing content from the books. They also can provide useful feedback to authors and publishers and help guide future authors. Reviews of other media, such as journals and electronic resources, can serve similar functions. Regard­less of whether a book or other item is reviewed, the principles are much the same. Thus, guidelines for writing book reviews apply in general to other reviews.

At journals, book review editors typically take the initiative in recruiting reviewers. However, they usually are glad to have potential reviewers volunteer, either to be approached as needed or to review specific books. Of course, if you have a conflict of interest (for example, because a book is by a close colleague), you should not offer to review the book or accept an invitation to do so.

A good review should both describe and evaluate the book. Among questions it may address are the following (Gastel 1991): What is the goal of the book, and how well does the book accomplish it? From what context did the book emerge? What is the background of the authors or editors? What is the scope of the book, and how is the content organized? What main points does the book make? If the book has special features, what are they? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book? How does the book compare with other books on the same topic or with previous editions of the book? Who would find the book valuable?

Normally, answering these questions entails reading the book thoroughly. For a reference work, however, sampling the content is more feasible and better reflects the intended use. If you take such an approach, consider drawing on your skills in research design in determining how to proceed.

To facilitate writing, take notes as you read or mark passages of interest in the book. Write down ideas for points to make as they occur to you. To help formulate your ideas, perhaps tell someone about the book.

Although some journals feature structured book reviews, with standardized headings for specified types of content, the reviewer generally can choose how to organize the book review. One format that can work well is a variant of the IMRAD (introduction, methods, results, and discussion) structure commonly used for scientific papers. In this format, the “introduction” presents an open­ing comment on the book, the “results” describes the book, and the “discussion” evaluates it. No “methods” section may be needed if you read the book from cover to cover and did not otherwise test the book. But if, for example, you sys­tematically sampled content in a reference book, you would summarize your procedure in the “methods.”

A review is not an advertisement and should not gush with praise. Neither should it nitpick or ridicule. Rather, it should have a reasoned tone. By pre­senting information about the book and drawing careful conclusions, you will serve well the readers of your review.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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