Writing OpEd Articles

An OpEd article is an article written for a mass-media audience. OpEd literally means that this is the kind of article that appears on the page opposite the editorial page of a newspaper. The general assumptions of newspaper editing is that the audience has the English skills and reading ability of a student in Junior High School (5th through 8th grade). For a newspaper in a town like Willimantic, where more than half of the population uses English as a second language, the editor probably focuses the writing toward 5th grade. A newspaper editor in Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard) might focus the writing style closer to an 8th grade audience.

What this means in practical terms is that the writing must have these features:

1. Distribute and read the Science News article by Susan Milius. While reading, circle passive voice verbs with pen, highlight personal names or personal pronouns (I, he, she, we, they) with the yellow highlighter, highlight affiliations with Universities or Societies or other validifying phrases with the pink highlighter. And count the quotations with numbers in the margins.

There are many personal names and pronouns used throughout. To the common person, the person is more important than the work. To the common person the affiliation gives the scientist credibility...moreso than the data or a logical argument. Quotations are valued as a direct communication from the person whose credibility has been built. The common person prefers active voice with dynamic verbs...the subject performing the action on the object is more important than the action or the object. We shall see how this compares to a refereed journal article.

2. Distribute and read the AJB abstract by Ute Moog, repeating the exercise with pen and highlighters.

Compare and contrast the title, format, sequence of elements, what is deemed persuasive, sentence length, vocabulary. Who is the audience for the American Journal of Botany? How does the structure of the abstract compare with the main sections of a standard laboratory report (Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, Literature Cited)?

Distribute the AJB Article "Thrips pollination of ..." by Ute Moog. Go through this article using the same pen/highlighter technique for selected paragraphs in each section of the article. Discuss the reasons for the varying use of these features in science writing.

3. Apply the technique to the first paragraph of introduction on page 50. Names are mostly used in introduction in discussing background findings of others, but most of these are in parentheses as references to the cited literature. First names and affiliations are NOT shown here. It is not hero worship, the names are the handles to the validating information found in the literature cited section.

Personal pronouns we/I/us are used when the author is describing assumptions made, proposals made, interpretations made, and conclusions drawn. It is appropriate in those cases to use personal pronouns because it DOES matter who the subject is in those specific instances.

4. Apply the technique to the paragraph in the Materials and Methods section on page 51 under the heading "Reproductive phenology." Notice how passive voice which was rare in the introduction is now prevalent in the materials and methods section. Here it should NOT matter who does the work; it is important WHAT work is done. Thus the object is important and the subject is not...so it is objective... not subjective.

5. Apply the technique to the first paragraph in the right column at the top of page 53. Here in the Results section, and in the rest of the paper, it does not really require passive voice. Active voice reads better...and so this is the style of introduction, results, and discussion. The two cases of passive voice found in this paragraph are not necessary and the paragraph could be improved by making the verbs active.

In the eighth line, "the bracteoles are densely covered with unicellular trichomes" would be far improved if the verb "are covered" were made active. The result might be: "unicellular trichomes densely cover the bracteoles." Yes, even published articles can be improved by editing. Now you know why I will not accept the published abstract as yours! You can do better!

Now look at the third line from the end of the paragraph. The phrase "nectar secretion was proved with glucose test strips" has the embedded passive verb "was proved". An improvement would be: "glucose test strips proved nectar secretion" Proved is now filled with active voice. However is it the right verb? Would any test strip prove something...or is the result just evidence? Could you have a false positive or a false negative outcome with a test strip? Maybe a better edit would be "glucose test strips indicated nectar secretion." That is not just better English, it is better science too!

6. Apply the technique to the first full paragraph in the right column of page 56 in the discussion section. Again you notice that "we" is OK when "expectations" are involved... that is subjective! There is just one passive construction that needs improvement in line four. The phrase "...will cause a certain amount of pollen wastage" needs editing. The embedded verb is not to be (will) or to cause (cause), but rather has been converted into a NOUN at the end of the sentence: wastage rather than to waste. This phrase would be far superior if worded "...will waste a certain amount of pollen." Is wastage even a legitimate word? I think in most cases is should not be used even though found in dictionaries! It is a sign of excessive use of passive voice.

Notice again, that there are no quotations in any part of this journal article... Scientists paraphrase rather than quote. Again what is said is more important than who said it. Similarly, there are no institutional or societal affiliation references as these, again, are not important to the science.

How a Journal Article is Published

Now we can discuss how this article saw the light of day. The author did much drafting after completing the work. She wrote and edited repeatedly. She took a break for a week or two to do something else and clear her mind of the paper. Then she came back to re-read and re-edit and re-vise. After a few rounds of that she sent the manuscript out to some friends...not pals who would stroke her ego...rather to friends who could be trusted to be critical and constructive. She revised and rewrote...again taking a break and coming back. Finally she sent the manuscript to the editor of a journal.

The editor scanned the manuscript and selected two reviewers. He may have chosen these in a way similar to that which Susan Milius used to find her quotations. He may have known someone in the discipline who was not quoted. Ute had to be sure to quote all the people who are active in the field to avoid upsetting the ego of someone who the editor might choose to review the manuscript. The two reviewers who replied that they were available to do the work were sent the manuscript. They read and edited the manuscript...probably 30 pages all double spaced...including the legends for the figures. They wrote an abstract and critique (something we shall do later this semester) and returned their decision (accept, accept with revisions, reject) to the editor.

If the two reviewers agree on acceptable, the editor returns the manuscript to the author for her to consider any comments made and incorporate any revisions requested. Hopefully they do not suggest more work in lab or field. If the decision is split, then the editor probably will select a third reviewer to break the tie. If that is positive, then the author gets the manuscript for yet another revision cycle. If the two reviewers (or two of three reviewers) reject the manuscript, then the editor rejects the manuscript and perhaps gives a young author some encouraging words to "keep working on it."

Assuming the author has finally sent in the revisions requested to the editor, the editor examines the progress made by comparing the resulting version with the requests of the reviewers. If he is satisfied that the author has addressed all concerns of the reviewers, then the author will be informed that the article is accepted for publication. The article can now be listed as "in press."

A few weeks/months later, the author will receive what are called "galley proofs." This shows how the article will look in print. The author must proofread this meticulously for errors...every diacritical mark in French references must be correct, for example. Each page number, every comma and period in the literature cited must be right. Every binomial must be in italics and spelled perfectly. Each hyphenated word must divide at the syllable break, etc. Every reference in the text must have a citation in the literature cited, and the literature cited must be actually cited in the text. The author has to cross-check that precisely.

The corrected galley proofs are returned to the editor and a few weeks/months later the issue is published with the article in it. The author hopes that there will be nothing missed that would embarrass or negatively impact the author's credibility! It can take more than a year to go from manuscript to publication...so when you read 2002 in an article, remember the work may be significantly older. The Moog work was done in 1999 (could you tell?)!

How is an Op-Ed Piece Written?

Now, when Susan Milius read Ute Moog's article we can understand how she wrote her Science News piece. We could now highlight precisely the passages used by Susan to compose her article. Clearly she picked and chose what she wanted to lift up in her own article. For example the passage on how the thrips interact with each other does not tell the story of pollination, even though the agonistic behavior might be interesting to some readers (me included).

How did Susan get her quotes? Well, obviously Ute Moog, the author, gave an address under the title, and an email address in a footnote. If you analyze the quotes, you can imagine what questions Susan asked of Ute in her email.

If there were no email address given, how could we find one? There are email search engines on the WWW, but the author gives an institutional affiliation. That university or institute has a website that is easily found with a standard search engine (e.g. Google). The department's list of faculty can be examined and probably includes email addresses for one of the authors.

The first author in the article is usually the person who did most of the work and much of the thinking. Middle authors probably were technicians or others who contributed small items to the project. The last author is often the lab group leader...the professor. Again, knowing this can help you find a contact for asking questions for quotes.

You might notice Susan Milius also quoted people who were NOT authors. Who are these people? If you check out Ute Moog's list of references it is easy to figure out how Susan chose her other "authorities." She scanned the author list to see who had published on similar topics recently. Then she could email these using similar techniques. She could find the article cited, from there the affiliation, and from that the email. She sent off the questions and got the quotes she needed.

Where did Susan get the nice picture for the article? Check out page 53 of Ute Moog's article. Obviously in her email, Susan asked for a color photo or a digitized image from the same roll as that taken for the AJB article. She could have obtained permission from AJB to use the same photo, but notice the arrows are different in the two articles. The caption in Susan's figure credits Moog, so I think this image was obtained via correspondence directly with the author.

Tasks for Next Week

Your task for next week is to begin your own op-ed piece from one of your other primary articles. You may NOT use the article you abstracted. My goal is to get you to use all of your various articles for different small projects, so that when we get to the larger projects at the end of the semester you will have a broad base upon which you can draw your ideas. So get your questions together, email your authors, and bring a draft of the text for next week. You will add the quotations after you get them in the email. Chapter 12 of Pechenik should help you with this task.

Keep working on your abstract...especially those of you who are on the first draft! You must bring a draft to the next class!

Keep working on your resume...that project is never done if you are an active scientist. But for our purposes some of you are getting very close. I want your latest and best draft at the next class!

I also want the final draft of your bibliography. Some of you understood the difference between primary and secondary sources and have the bibliography coming along just fine. Others are having to "start over" because what they thought were primary articles are turning out to be secondary sources!

 



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