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About this book

Catering to the specific needs of science students, this award-winning guide will equip students of all scientific disciplines with the skills they need to communicate effectively in written assignments.

The book guides students through each of the key stages involved in producing a piece of scientific writing. It begins by developing students’ understanding of the different types of scientific writing, including lab reports, essays and abstracts. Students are then taken through the writing process, from the initial stages of interpreting the question and conducting research through to writing a draft and responding to feedback.

This is an essential resource for all science students who are required to produce lab reports, extended essays, dissertations and other written assignments as part of their course. It is also ideal for international students who are new to academic study in the UK.

Winner of the 2018 Academic Book Trade 'Book of the Year Award'.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

Abstract
Pick up this book if you want something designed to meet the specific needs of science students. There are plenty of writing guides for the university audience, but most of them cater to students who spend their whole lives writing essays: students in the arts and the humanities. Scientific degrees don’t work that way, and scientific writing doesn’t look the same as theirs. This book actively works to give you an understanding of scientific writing from start to finish, and an understanding of what your markers want. It’s divided into three sections: Understanding Scientific Writing, Preparing to Write, and Getting Down to Writing. The sections are designed to take you through every stage of the writing process, from understanding the assignment you’ve been set, to researching and planning, right through to drafting and editing. Where relevant, we’ve incorporated example scientific sentences and paragraphs to help illustrate our points and solidify your understanding. Our approach puts you in charge of your writing by explaining why we write in a certain way in the sciences, instead of issuing rules and demands which might seem arbitrary and confusing. A grasp of clear, concise writing is just as relevant and achievable for science students as those in any other discipline. Your preference for scientific simplicity and rigour is what makes you an ideal scientific writer, and we’ll show you how to capitalise on that.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Understanding Different Types of Scientific Writing

Frontmatter

Chapter 2. The Lab Report

Abstract
Sometimes the marker will have put a lab exercise into the curriculum so you can gain some knowledge about your subject. This might be done by way of a standard lab procedure designed to measure or create something entirely predictable, where only human or equipment error could lead you to a negative result. Sometimes they will have put them into the curriculum so you can get practice at a particular technique. Molecular biologists need to know how to pipette; animal and human biologists need to see how a skeleton articulates; physicists need to know how to operate standard detection equipment; chemists need to be confident with the operation of burettes and fine balances. Sometimes a lab will be on the curriculum because the experiments will be rich in data for you to record. Perhaps you’ll end up measuring many different features of many individual samples, leading to a large and varied results section with lots of data types for you to manipulate. Sometimes labs will have been designed to challenge your ability to follow the scientific method. For example, labs in later years of degrees often begin with open questions, and you then have a chance to design and refine your own procedures (or ‘protocols’) based on the questions you alone are responsible for thinking up. This isn’t an exhaustive list of reasons that staff might put labs into your course, but in each of these different scenarios, the type of report you write may be quite different in substance and in the relative sizes of each section. Ask yourself if you can identify what seems to be most valuable to your marker, and consider whether to place more emphasis on this part of your report.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 3. The Essay

Abstract
We scientists don’t generally think of ourselves as people who put forth arguments – why would we need to, when scientific facts should always represent the objective truth on their own, anyway? – but an argument is simply a statement supported by evidence. Scientists do this all the time. We make conclusions based on our findings. That involves interpreting the data, perhaps in light of other pieces of information from other places, and saying what it tells us. Your purpose, then, is to demonstrate an ability to do these things to your marker. Your literal audience will be your markers, but the audience you write for at university should always be educated peers. Educated in the sense that they have the same background knowledge that you have, but peers in the sense that they don’t have any more knowledge than you. This means you should always fully explain things like abbreviations, acronyms, and new pieces of information you might have just discovered from current science reported in the media, or in peer-reviewed literature. Even though your lecturers would be able to understand these things too, they might simply not have read that same particular story or journal article, and so they may not be in a position to follow your meaning if you only give a brief mention. They are likely to be extremely busy running several modules for different year groups, and for students on completely different degrees, and many of them will also be leading research groups in labs. All of this means they probably have less time than they’d like to be able to keep up to date with every new development in their field. Therefore, you should aim to describe new developments in your essays as if to someone with a scientific education, but without prior knowledge of the specialism you’re writing about.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 4. The Dissertation

Abstract
A dissertation is probably the longest piece of written work you’ll produce in your degree. Depending on the requirements of your particular degree, it might take the form of an extended practical lab report or a literature-based research project. In either case, it will test your ability to come up with a research question, decide on an appropriate strategy to get some answers, and document the process and the findings at a depth you probably won’t have gone to before. Sometimes a student is paired with a research supervisor who already has a dissertation project in mind. It’s common in science for supervisors to want to find out which of these projects are likely to yield interesting results, but they don’t want to bring in a PhD student or a postdoctoral researcher for a long commitment without first testing the waters. It may also be that a supervisor has a rough idea about a brand new long-term project, but hasn’t had the time to properly assess the current literature on the topic enough to decide how to proceed. In both cases, honours and master’s dissertation projects are an ideal way for research groups to run ‘pilot’ studies while training up new students such as you. To reflect this reality, we’ll split the following sections into two parts, as some of the advice for a lab-based dissertation won’t apply to literature research projects, and vice versa.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 5. The Poster

Abstract
Posters are an unusual beast. Very few people outside of the advertising and merchandising industry use posters to try to communicate with an audience, so creating one for a non-commercial purpose can be a challenge for a student until it’s clear what its job is to be. Posters are designed to be read by a standing or walking audience, displayed as part of a larger collection. This means that part of your poster’s job is to make someone stop and read. As a student, you’ll be asked to make posters to show you can balance the requirement to communicate your knowledge or data against the skill of being concise. The audience won’t begin to read if there’s too much text to get through in a couple of minutes. You need to become proficient in identifying your major points, convincing the reader why they’re worth reading about (i.e. opening with a strong introduction), and perhaps supporting all of this with images, figures, or graphs. Visuals should attract a walking audience member, and should help you convey a lot of information without resorting to long blocks of text. If you go into a career in academia, you’ll have to create posters to take to conferences. If not, posters created for your degree will probably be displayed in a similar setup, for example, in an open space for people to walk around. Conferences are opportunities for researchers to get together and listen to a small number of presentations from selected experts over the course of a few days, and to meet other researchers who may be working on similar topics and share notes or set up collaborations. A poster acts like a quick advert for a scientist and their research, and they’re usually displayed at specific networking sessions during the course of a conference where everyone is free to walk through the display hall and speak with the authors while they’re stood next to their posters.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 6. The Abstract

Abstract
An abstract is a short piece of summary text found at the start of a longer piece of work, such as a scientific article, lab report, or in a conference programme to advertise each presentation. Its job is to relay the main points of the main piece in such a way as to make any potential readers take notice and decide to read on. You’ll find one at the start of every peer-reviewed scientific article. This is necessary for the survival of journals because the publishers rely on readers paying a subscription to read the articles. If potential readers didn’t have access to the abstracts, they’d only be able to see the article titles and the names of the authors, making it highly unlikely that any readers would ever pay to download an article. (As a student, your university library will almost always pay for your access to articles. In Chapter 7 – Researching the Topic and Evaluating Your Materials, we’ll explain how your library may have a budget to pay for articles published in journals that they don’t subscribe to. If you ever come across an article like this, but the abstract makes it sound particularly useful, showing the abstract to your course coordinator or librarian may help convince them why they should pay for it on your behalf.) This means the abstract should advertise the science to the reader: it should want to make them know more. As a student, you’ll potentially need to write one at the start of some of the longer lab reports in your degree. You might not be asked to do this in first year, but you almost certainly will by the time you get to your final year project. Master’s theses and PhD theses need abstracts too, so if you plan to go on to have a career in academia, you’ll need to become familiar with how to create a good one.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Preparing to Write

Frontmatter

Chapter 7. Researching the Topic and Evaluating Your Materials

Abstract
The most daunting part of a written assignment is often knowing how to get started. What should you do first? Where should you go to find information? How do you even know what information to try to find? Usually you’ll need to base your work on something someone else has said previously. Whether you’re writing an essay, a lab report, or a large dissertation, you need to convince your reader that what you’ll say is based on solid science. To do that, you need to walk them through the key parts of what that science is. To do that, you’ll need to make sure you’ve found it and interpreted it appropriately. Books are used routinely in the early stages of an undergraduate degree. In science, the first year is often spent providing you with the necessary facts that you’ll need before you can move on to higher levels of analysis and synthesis of your own ideas. Much of this basic knowledge is therefore long-standing and well-understood. The nature of book publishing is such that the time between a book’s beginnings in the mind of an author and the date it reaches a bookshop or library shelf can be several years, and so books are not a good way to publish up-to-date knowledge in fields of active research. Their use is in helping you with the basics: the laws and the dogma of your subject. Don’t be afraid, then, to begin your research phase in a book.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 8. Incorporating and Referencing Other People’s Work

Abstract
If you’ve read the previous two chapters, you’ll be familiar with the mechanics of how to find materials to base your own writing upon. It’s important for you to start thinking about how you would write about those sources in your essays, lab reports, and dissertations. The answer to this depends very much on the type of piece you’re writing. (For an explanation of the most common words used to define your task, which we’ll call Command Words in these next few pages, see Table 3.2 on p.36.) Table 8.1 explains the rationale for giving you different types of assignment, and shows how referencing can help you to demonstrate your fulfilment of those aims. All of these reasons for incorporating the work of others are unified by these general principles: authority, correctness, openness, clarity, and giving credit. Many of our own students are concerned about being accused of plagiarism and think of referencing as a technical operation that helps you avoid being accused of it. Our aim is to help you feel less like this is a matter of rules and punishment, and more like it’s a convention or a writing style that marks you as an academic. Professional researchers don’t tend to think about plagiarism when they write their papers; they think more in terms of pre-empting any readers who might think to themselves, ‘how do we know that?’ or ‘prove it!’.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 9. Working with Data

Abstract
Returning to the findings of our research we mentioned in Chapter 2 – The Lab Report, 50% of lecturers said the purpose of assigning you lab reports was to help improve your communication skills. In your degree, you’ll make thousands of measurements. It’s up to you to decide which of those are (a) relevant to the story you’re trying to tell in any given assessment, and (b) useful and comprehensible from the point of view of your reader. In this chapter, we’ll show you what we hope you will do and why, and we’ll try to show you how to avoid the common pitfalls. Scientific writers primarily need to convey data. Writers in some of the humanities and in the social sciences have to communicate data too, but the distinction is broadly that data in the physical and biological sciences is quantitative (that is, relating to data, chiefly numerical), while in the humanities and social sciences there is more of a balance between quantitative and qualitative data (that is, relating to information, chiefly textual). Qualitative data often consists of quotes from interview subjects. This type of data is obviously necessary to write out in full. Quantitative data, on the other hand, absolutely requires that the author knows how to break from the flow of their text and present things visually in a table or figure.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 10. Being Critical

Abstract
Critical analysis is something that any university lecturer will tell you is a primary skill that they hope their students develop. They might also say that it is often the distinguishing factor between an acceptable assignment and an exceptional one. Despite this emphasis, many students have never been properly told what it really means.So, what is critical thinking? ‘Criticism’ is a word that usually suggests negativity when we use it in everyday life. For example, when you hear a journalist say that one politician is ‘critical’ of another’s policy, it usually means that they’ve found fault with it. As a result of this, when students are asked to analyse something critically in their coursework, they often think that they’ve to look for problems and weaknesses. However, in higher education, ‘critical thinking’ does not carry this negative connotation. In this chapter, you’ll be given the essential skills you need in order to be critical of others’ work in your own writing. Learning how to be critical of others’ work will, in turn, give you the skills required to assess your own work rigorously – both vital abilities in undergraduate study.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Getting Down to Writing

Frontmatter

Chapter 11. Producing a Draft and Building Your Argument

Abstract
You’ve selected your question and deconstructed it, looking for command words and limiting factors. You’ve searched the library for resources. You’ve decided which resources are most relevant, and you’ve analysed them. You’ve taken all the notes you need. You’ve considered how your work relates to the wider literature. The good news is that you have already made a substantial start on writing, since the mental process of writing is, by this point, well underway. This chapter will take this further, into the production of your first draft. From our experience, we’ve found that science students sometimes lack confidence in their writing abilities. This is often because writing was part of subjects that they didn’t enjoy at school. Consequently, this made them find writing boring or difficult. This can sometimes leave students with the impression that they are ‘bad’ at writing. It might surprise you to learn that having worked with students from all disciplines, our experience is that science students’ writing skills are on a par with their fellow students in the arts and social sciences.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 12. Sounding Like a Scientist

Abstract
When we use the word ‘tone’ in terms of writing, it describes the writer’s attitude towards their topic and their reader. For example, you are likely to speak in an relaxed tone to your friends, but probably use a more business-like tone when you are speaking to a tutor. An unfavourable review of a film might have a hostile, cold, or dismissive tone, while a favourable review is likely to be respectful, or congratulatory in tone. Word choice, subjectivity and formality all play a role in the overall creation of tone. Trying to master proper academic tone is something that students tell us they have difficulty with at various points in their academic career, whether they’re writing their first essay, dissertation, PhD, or even journal articles. This usually has to do with a lack of understanding of what tone is, and how it is created. It also often has to do with a sense of lacking confidence and ownership over your writing, which results in the idea that you have to write as someone else in order to sound convincingly academic. This is completely understandable in the early years of your degree, where you are still getting to grips with key concepts, and taking an authoritative tone can feel inappropriate.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 13. How to Say Exactly What You Mean

Abstract
When you’re talking to someone, and you want to make sure you get your point across, you have a variety of different ways at your disposal to help you do this. You might try to speak especially slowly and clearly at key points. You might raise your voice for emphasis, or hold eye-contact, or use gestures. If, while you’re talking, you happen to notice that the person you’re talking to seems confused by one of your points, then you can rephrase it. If they really don’t understand something, then they might ask you a question, which would allow you to clarify your point. In writing, punctuation carries out all of these tasks. You can use punctuation to emphasise your points, to guide your reader through complex information, and to make sure that you communicate your understanding clearly and logically. This chapter will make sure that you feel completely confident using punctuation to achieve this goal. Punctuation will be discussed in practical terms, in order to let you see exactly how and when to use it. After this, we will then move on to basic sentence structure. Again, practicality is key, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each type of sentence, and when you might want to use each kind in your writing to help you express yourself.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 14. Editing and Proofreading Your Work

Abstract
While students often see ‘checking their work’ as one task, editing and proofreading are actually two very different activities. You will find that you will work more quickly, more effectively, and produce cleaner final drafts if you keep them separate. Let’s look at each in more detail, and how they can benefit your work.Editing involves looking at several different aspects of the assignment. It doesn’t look at the fine detail in terms of wording and punctuation, but instead examines the work on a deeper level. It deals with how the content has been conveyed via your structure. Editing might reveal that the work could be better organised in order to effectively present your ideas. Before you begin to edit, we recommend taking a couple of days away from your draft. It can be difficult to be objective and look at it as a whole when you’ve been focused on details. After you’ve taken a break, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look at the following. First of all, no matter which type of assignment you’ve been set: have you actually done what was asked of you? Check the question again. Make sure you have fully responded to the command in the question, and not just written generally on the topic. The content needs to be entirely relevant to the question/task set.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 15. Making the Most of Feedback

Abstract
Writing is part of learning. We’ve found that students have the tendency to treat each assignment as a discrete experience, instead of thinking reflectively about how their skills are developing over the course of their studies. This chapter will encourage you to think carefully about the feedback you receive on your written work, and how you can use it to shape your next assignment and develop as a writer. By the time you have completed and submitted a piece of coursework, it can be difficult to be objective about your work. You’ve spent a lot of time researching this subject and planning and writing the assignment. As a result, you are very close to the topic. You are also likely to be very focused on what grade you are going to achieve, and what kind of feedback you might receive. When you get your assignments back, it can be tempting to simply look at the grade, read over the written feedback, and then set it aside before moving on to the next piece of coursework. However, feedback is a valuable way for you to develop your skills and improve your grades at every stage in academic life, from first-year undergraduate level to PhD studies and professional academic life. While we find that students are often keen to read the feedback on their assignments as soon as they get it back, we also find that students can often have a tendency to view each assignment in isolation, failing to recognise that the feedback they receive on one report can be useful for other pieces of work too.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay

Chapter 16. Conclusion

Abstract
We started this book by expressing the hope that by giving you a thorough working knowledge of how scientific writing works, you would feel confident enough to take control of your writing, and see yourself as a scientific writer. In order to do that, we led you through all the stages of producing a piece of written work, from deconstructing the question to dealing with feedback, providing background information along the way to help you understand how and why certain conventions are in place. Each section of the book, Understanding Scientific Writing, Preparing to Write, and Getting Down to Writing, was designed with practicality as the key principle: giving you information you could put into practice immediately. Central to our approach is reminding you that writing is a two-way street, with you at one end, and your reader at the other. Writing is about communication. Keeping in mind the principles behind all forms of good communication, clarity, concision, and coherence should help you to build the foundation of the development of your own writing style.
Jennifer Boyle, Scott Ramsay
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