Field of Science

On scientific writing

In science, communication, both oral and written, is a critical skill. I know the stereotypical scientist is some extremely awkward asocial geek or nerd (at least when they aren't maniacally evil). Of course this is not true1. Although an argument can be made that scientists are not necessarily good at communicating with the general public, to be a successful scientist you need to be able to discuss your work and the work of others and to write papers/grants/etc effectively. Unfortunately scientific communication is skill that is often developed on the fly.
1OK, Ill admit physicists really are awkward.
I argue that we should be teaching scientific writing early, at the undergraduate level. But unfortunately for undergraduate students, at least in the life sciences, a few stock lab reports, the occasional 10-20 page essay, and maybe a research project thesis represents their 4 year scientific writing experience. More problematic however is that there often little instruction given to the writing apart from the different sections that you need to include (abstract, introduction, etc.). As instructors, we rely on the English department, at best, or high schools, at worst, to teach students how to write. This generally leads to failure. The failure is not due to poor instruction by the English department, but due to the fact that the mission of the English department is not to teach scientific communication. The College of Biological Sciences (CBS) wants to rectify this issue by promoting student writing at the undergraduate level and providing some cohesion in writing instruction throughout the college.
CBS tries to get faculty cohesion in writing instruction.
To date I have been involved in a number of meetings (we're good at that) with colleagues to define the goals for CBS student writing. In part, we developed a list of the characteristics of science writing, realizing that a review paper and lab report have some different characteristics. Over the last two years, I have been introducing more writing and writing instruction into my fall semester course and I am continuing that trend this year. So with a few years of experience plus a small number of 'student writing' focused meetings under my belt, I will be posting (yet another probably never finishing) series regarding science writing.

This was supposed to be the first post in that series, but my introduction got so long the point was going to be buried. So I decided to make this an introductory post, another will follow shortly.


Connor said...

What we had was basically a day long class where we would look at recently published work, like that in Nature and see how we could improve it. We also watched TED talks to see how they do it. Pretty fun and useful, and easy to teach.

Leslie said...

Who am I in that picture of the sheep on the range? I'm psyched to hear about what you do this year in your class. Slow change....from the bottom up...the only way it's going to work. One Dana at a time......

The Lorax said...

@connor That sounds like an interesting class. From an instruction point of view, developing tools for assessment and feedback that is somewhat efficient is important.

@Leslie Sadly you missed the "getting faculty to"/"herding cats" joke. Therefore, you get to be the black and white cat in the front left. Ill keep you in the loop an anything we do writing-wise.

Anonymous said...

Check out Randy Olsen, "Don't be Such a Scientist".

Nate said...

As a student I can tell you that I would love to feel more comfortable with scientific writing, because as far as experience goes, my Organic Chemistry lab reports aren't going to cut it. Because it is not just a valuable skill, but for a student that will graduate with a Bachelor of Sciences degree, I would think it should be more of a requisite skill. I can also attest to the fact that English dept. writing instruction is vastly different from even BIOL2002 (Foundations) writing.

I'm looking forward to future posts on this (hope the series continues) because it is something I feel is important for undergrads. Let me know if there's anything I can do that might help get CBS going on this, I may not be on the student board, but I can make some noise and be annoying if I have a reason.

I also think there should be some focus on communicating scientific findings and theories etc. to the general public. Sometimes I think there are important ideas or concepts that get lost in that exchange.

The Lorax said...

@anon I like Olsen, but I do have some issues with the whole 'dont be a scientist' meme. Might be worth a post in the future.

A thought on lab reports. Lab reports are almost uniformly a waste of time in my opinion. You are writing about some method or activity that 47,000 other students have written about for no other reason than you are supposed to. You can learn about the parts of a lab report, but generally there is no context or rationale for why the specific activity is important or useful. I mean face it, no one that I am aware of has ever written a lab report outside of a lab class. I have never written a lab report as a professor, not as a post-doc, not even as a graduate student. I think its important to have students do some actual discovery during the labs (even if the ultimate information has been known since Newton) then it's a much simpler process to get students intellectually involved and enthusiastic.

If you want to feel comfortable with science writing do two things.

1. Read lots of science. Read reviews, read articles, read science blogs, read science books. Check out the journal Science online each week with your U account, at first the articles are impossible, but there are perspectives and science news articles that are good to start reading. Read Bioessays, Current Biology, PLoS Biology check out the review series like Nature Reviews. Find stuff and read it. If you are reading a few things every week you'll be doing yourself a world of good. (Also, read everything else, make sure you are reading something completely for fun, comic books count.)

2. Write! Write now write often. When your 30 days are up, keep posting on a semi-regular basis. Write about your thoughts on whatever you are reading, write about your classes and what you are learning. I realize that these writings are not the same as research paper writing, but so what. Find/invent an audience, your parents, the blogosphere, that cute student you'ld like to impress, whoever. Write to them, teach them the cool things you've read about or learned. Convince them that science is awesome and scientists are rock stars. The point is to communicate and you don't improve if you don't practice.