Essays On Science Writing

ECO 101

Scientific Writing Made Easy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Undergraduate Writing in the Biological Sciences

Authors

  • Sheela P. Turbek,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Taylor M. Chock,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Kyle Donahue,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Caroline A. Havrilla,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Angela M. Oliverio,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
    2. Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Stephanie K. Polutchko,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Lauren G. Shoemaker,

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Lara Vimercati

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
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  • Note: Charlene D'Avanzo is the editor of Ecology 101. Anyone wishing to contribute articles or reviews to this section should contact her at the School of Natural Sciences, Hampshire College, 893 West Street, Amherst, MA 01002. E-mail: cdavanzo@hampshire.edu

Abstract

Scientific writing, while an indispensable step of the scientific process, is often overlooked in undergraduate courses in favor of maximizing class time devoted to scientific concepts. However, the ability to effectively communicate research findings is crucial for success in the biological sciences. Graduate students are encouraged to publish early and often, and professional scientists are generally evaluated by the quantity of articles published and the number of citations those articles receive. It is therefore important that undergraduate students receive a solid foundation in scientific writing early in their academic careers. In order to increase the emphasis on effective writing in the classroom, we assembled a succinct step-by-Step guide to scientific writing that can be directly disseminated to undergraduates enrolled in biological science courses. The guide breaks down the scientific writing process into easily digestible pieces, providing concrete examples that students can refer to when preparing a scientific manuscript or laboratory report. By increasing undergraduate exposure to the scientific writing process, we hope to better prepare undergraduates for graduate school and productive careers in the biological sciences.

An introduction to the guide

While writing is a critical part of the scientific process, it is often taught secondarily to scientific concepts and becomes an afterthought to students. How many students can you recall who worked on a laboratory assignment or class project for weeks, only to throw together the written report the day before it was due?

For many, this pattern occurs because we focus almost exclusively on the scientific process, all but neglecting the scientific writing process. Scientific writing is often a difficult and arduous task for many students. It follows a different format and deviates in structure from how we were initially taught to write, or even how we currently write for English, history, or social science classes. This can make the scientific writing process appear overwhelming, especially when presented with new, complex content. However, effective writing can deepen understanding of the topic at hand by compelling the writer to present a coherent and logical story that is supported by previous research and new results.

Clear scientific writing generally follows a specific format with key sections: an introduction to a particular topic, hypotheses to be tested, a description of methods, key results, and finally, a discussion that ties these results to our broader knowledge of the topic (Day and Gastel 2012). This general format is inherent in most scientific writing and facilitates the transfer of information from author to reader if a few guidelines are followed.

Here, we present a succinct step-by-step guide that lays out strategies for effective scientific writing with the intention that the guide be disseminated to undergraduate students to increase the focus on the writing process in the college classroom. While we recognize that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to scientific writing, and more experienced writers may choose to disregard our suggestions these guidelines will assist undergraduates in overcoming the initial challenges associated with writing scientific papers. This guide was inspired by Joshua Schimel's Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals that Get Funded—an excellent book about scientific writing for graduate students and professional scientists—but designed to address undergraduate students. While the guide was written by a group of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, the strategies and suggestions presented here are applicable across the biological sciences and other scientific disciplines. Regardless of the specific course being taught, this guide can be used as a reference when writing scientific papers, independent research projects, and laboratory reports. For students looking for more in-depth advice, additional resources are listed at the end of the guide.

To illustrate points regarding each step of the scientific writing process, we draw examples throughout the guide from Kilner et al. (2004), a paper on brown-headed cowbirds—a species of bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species, or hosts—that was published in the journal Science. Kilner et al. investigate why cowbird nestlings tolerate the company of host offspring during development rather than pushing host eggs out of the nest upon hatching to monopolize parental resources. While articles in the journal Science are especially concise and lack the divisions of a normal scientific paper, Kilner et al. (2004) offers plenty of examples of effective communication strategies that are utilized in scientific writing. We hope that the guidelines that follow, as well as the concrete examples provided, will lead to scientific papers that are information rich, concise, and clear, while simultaneously alleviating frustration and streamlining the writing process.

Undergraduate guide to writing in the biological sciences

The before steps

The scientific writing process can be a daunting and often procrastinated “last step” in the scientific process, leading to cursory attempts to get scientific arguments and results down on paper. However, scientific writing is not an afterthought and should begin well before drafting the first outline. Successful writing starts with researching how your work fits into existing literature, crafting a compelling story, and determining how to best tailor your message to an intended audience.

Research how your work fits into existing literature

It is important to decide how your research compares to other studies of its kind by familiarizing yourself with previous research on the topic. If you are preparing a laboratory write-up, refer to your textbook and laboratory manual for background information. For a research article, perform a thorough literature search on a credible search engine (e.g., Web of Science, Google Scholar). Ask the following questions: What do we know about the topic? What open questions and knowledge do we not yet know? Why is this information important? This will provide critical insight into the structure and style that others have used when writing about the field and communicating ideas on this specific topic. It will also set you up to successfully craft a compelling story, as you will begin writing with precise knowledge of how your work builds on previous research and what sets your research apart from the current published literature.

Understand your audience (and write to them)

In order to write effectively, you must identify your audience and decide what story you want them to learn. While this may seem obvious, writing about science as a narrative is often not done, largely because you were probably taught to remain dispassionate and impartial while communicating scientific findings. The purpose of science writing is not explaining what you did or what you learned, but rather what you want your audience to understand. Start by asking: Who is my audience? What are their goals in reading my writing? What message do I want them to take away from my writing? There are great resources available to help science writers answer these questions (Nisbet 2009, Baron 2010). If you are interested in publishing a scientific paper, academic journal websites also provide clear journal mission statements and submission guidelines for prospective authors. The most effective science writers are familiar with the background of their topic, have a clear story that they want to convey, and effectively craft their message to communicate that story to their audience.

Introduction

The Introduction sets the tone of the paper by providing relevant background information and clearly identifying the problem you plan to address. Think of your Introduction as the beginning of a funnel: Start wide to put your research into a broad context that someone outside of the field would understand, and then narrow the scope until you reach the specific question that you are trying to answer (Fig. 1; Schimel 2012). Clearly state the wider implications of your work for the field of study, or, if relevant, any societal impacts it may have, and provide enough background information that the reader can understand your topic. Perform a thorough sweep of the literature; however, do not parrot everything you find. Background information should only include material that is directly relevant to your research and fits into your story; it does not need to contain an entire history of the field of interest. Remember to include in-text citations in the format of (Author, year published) for each paper that you cite and avoid using the author's name as the subject of the sentence:

“Kilner et al. (2004) found that cowbird nestlings use host offspring to procure more food.”

Instead, use an in-text citation:

“Cowbird nestlings use host offspring to procure more food.”

(Kilner et al. 2004)

Upon narrowing the background information presented to arrive at the specific focus of your research, clearly state the problem that your paper addresses. The problem is also known as the knowledge gap, or a specific area of the literature that contains an unknown question or problem (e.g., it is unclear why cowbird nestlings tolerate host offspring when they must compete with host offspring for food) (refer to the section “Research how your work fits into existing literature”). The knowledge gap tends to be a small piece of a much larger field of study. Explicitly state how your work will contribute to filling that knowledge gap. This is a crucial section of your manuscript; your discussion and conclusion should all be aimed at answering the knowledge gap that you are trying to fill. In addition, the knowledge gap will drive your hypotheses and questions that you design your experiment to answer.

Your hypothesis will often logically follow the identification of the knowledge gap (Table 1). Define the hypotheses you wish to address, state the approach of your experiment, and provide a 1–2 sentence overview of your experimental design, leaving the specific details for the methods section. If your methods are complicated, consider briefly explaining the reasoning behind your choice of experimental design. Here, you may also state your system, study organism, or study site, and provide justification for why you chose this particular system for your research. Is your system, study organism, or site a good representation of a more generalized pattern? Providing a brief outline of your project will allow your Introduction to segue smoothly into your 'Materials and Methods' section.

A hypothesis is a testable explanation of an observed occurrence in nature, or, more specifically, why something you observed is occurring. Hypotheses relate directly to research questions, are written in the present tense, and can be tested through observation or experimentation. Although the terms “hypothesis” and “prediction” are often incorrectly used interchangeably, they refer to different but complementary concepts. A hypothesis attempts to explain the mechanism underlying a pattern, while a prediction states an expectation regarding the results. While challenging to construct, hypotheses provide powerful tools for structuring research, generating specific predictions, and designing experiments.
Example:
Observation: Brown-headed cowbird nestlings refrain from ejecting host offspring from the nest even though those offspring compete for limited parental resources.
Research question: Why do nestling cowbirds tolerate the presence of host offspring in the nest?
Hypothesis: The presence of host offspring causes parents to bring more food to the nest.
Prediction: Cowbird nestlings will grow at a faster rate in nests that contain host offspring.

Materials and Methods

The 'Materials and Methods' section is arguably the most straightforward section to write; you can even begin writing it while performing your experiments to avoid forgetting any details of your experimental design. In order to make your paper as clear as possible, organize this section into subsections with headers for each procedure you describe (e.g., field collection vs. laboratory analysis). We recommend reusing these headers in your Results and Discussion to help orient your readers.

The aim of the 'Materials and Methods' section is to demonstrate that you used scientifically valid methods and provide the reader with enough information to recreate your experiment. In chronological order, clearly state the procedural steps you took, remembering to include the model numbers and specific settings of all equipment used (e.g., centrifuged in Beckman Coulter Benchtop Centrifuge Model Allegra X -15R at 12,000 × g for 45 minutes). In addition to your experimental procedure, describe any statistical analyses that you performed. While the parameters you include in your 'Materials and Methods' section will vary based on your experimental design, we list common ones in Table 2 (Journal of Young Investigators 2005) that are usually mentioned. If you followed a procedure developed from another paper, cite the source that it came from and provide a general description of the method. There is no need to reiterate every detail, unless you deviated from the source and changed a step in your procedure. However, it is important to provide enough information that the reader can follow your methods without referring to the original source. As you explain your experiment step by step, you may be tempted to include qualifiers where sources of error occurred (e.g., the tube was supposed to be centrifuged for 5 minutes, but was actually centrifuged for 10). However, generally wait until the Discussion to mention these subjective qualifiers and avoid discussing them in the 'Materials and Methods' section.

• Site characterization:
Study organism used, its origin, any pre-experiment handling or care
Description of field site or site where experiment was performed
• Experimental design:
Step-by-step procedures in paragraph form
Sample preparation
Experimental controls
Equipment used, including model numbers and year
Important equipment settings (e.g., temperature of incubation, speed of centrifuge)
Amount of reagents used
Specific measurements taken (e.g., wing length, weight of organism)
• Statistical analyses conducted (e.g., ANOVA, linear regression)

The 'Materials and Methods' section should be written in the past tense:

“On hatch day, and every day thereafter for 9 days, we weighed chicks, measured their tibia length, and calculated the instantaneous growth constant K to summarize rates of mass gain and skeletal growth.”

(Kilner et al. 2004)

While it is generally advisable to use active voice throughout the paper (refer to the section “Putting It All Together,” below), you may want to use a mixture of active and passive voice in the 'Materials and Methods' section in order to vary sentence structure and avoid repetitive clauses.

Results

The Results section provides a space to present your key findings in a purely objective manner and lay the foundation for the Discussion section, where those data are subjectively interpreted. Before diving into this section, identify which graphs, tables, and data are absolutely necessary for telling your story. Then, craft a descriptive sentence or two that summarizes each result, referring to corresponding table and figure numbers. Rather than presenting the details all at once, write a short summary about each data set. If you carried out a complicated study, we recommend dividing your results into multiple sections with clear headers following the sequence laid out in the 'Materials and Methods' section.

As you relate each finding, be as specific as possible and describe your data biologically rather than through the lens of statistics. While statistical tests give your data credibility by allowing you to attribute observed differences to nonrandom variation, they fail to address the actual meaning of the data. Instead, translate the data into biological terms and refer to statistical results as supplemental information, or even in parenthetical clauses (Schimel 2012). For example, if your dependent variable changed in response to a treatment, report the magnitude and direction of the effect, with the P-value in parentheses.

“By day 8, cowbirds reared with host young were, on average, 14% heavier than cowbirds reared alone (unpaired t16 = −2.23, P = 0.041, Fig. 2A).”

(Kilner et al. 2004)

If your P-value exceeded 0.05 (or your other statistical tests yielded nonsignificant results), report any noticeable trends in the data rather than simply dismissing the treatment as having no significant effect (Fry 1993). By focusing on the data and leaving out any interpretation of the results in this section, you will provide the reader with the tools necessary to objectively evaluate your findings.

Discussion and conclusion

The Discussion section usually requires the most consideration, as this is where you interpret your results. Your Discussion should form a self-contained story tying together your Introduction and Results sections (Schimel 2012). One potential strategy for writing the Discussion is to begin by explicitly stating the main finding(s) of your research (Cals and Kotz 2013). Remind the reader of the knowledge gap identified in the Introduction to re-spark curiosity about the question you set out to answer. Then, explicitly state how your experiment moved the field forward by filling that knowledge gap.

After the opening paragraph of your Discussion, we suggest addressing your question and hypotheses with specific evidence from your results. If there are multiple possible interpretations of a result, clearly lay out each competing explanation. In the cowbird example, a higher feeding rate in the presence of host offspring could indicate either (1) that the parents were more responsive to the begging behavior of their own species or (2) that the collective begging behavior of more offspring in the nest motivated the host parents to provide additional food (Kilner et al. 2004). Presenting and evaluating alternative explanations of your findings will provide clear opportunities for future research. However, be sure to keep your Discussion concrete by referring to your results to support each given interpretation.

Intermingled with these interpretations, reference preexisting literature and report how your results relate to previous findings (Casenove and Kirk 2016). Ask yourself the following questions: How do my results compare to those of similar studies? Are they consistent or inconsistent with what other researchers have found? If they are inconsistent, discuss why this might be the case. For example, are you asking a similar question in a different system, organism, or site? Was there a difference in the methods or experimental design? Any caveats of the study (e.g., small sample size, procedural mistakes, or known biases in the methods) should be transparent and briefly discussed.

The conclusion, generally located in its own short section or the last paragraph of the Discussion, represents your final opportunity to state the significance of your research. Rather than merely restating your main findings, the conclusion should summarize the outcome of your study in a way that incorporates new insights or frames interesting questions that arose as a result of your research. Broaden your perspective again as you reach the bottom of the hourglass (Fig. 1). While it is important to acknowledge the shortcomings or caveats of the research project, generally include these near the beginning of the conclusion or earlier in the Discussion. You want your take-home sentences to focus on what you have accomplished and the broader implications of your study, rather than your study's limitations or shortcomings (Schimel 2012). End on a strong note.

Putting it all together

No matter how many boards you stack on top of each other, you still need nails to prevent the pile from falling apart. The same logic applies to a scientific paper. Little things—such as flow, structure, voice, and word choice—will connect your story, polish your paper, and make it enjoyable to read.

First, a paper needs to flow. The reader should easily be able to move from one concept to another, either within a sentence or between paragraphs. To bolster the flow, constantly remind yourself of the overarching story; always connect new questions with resolutions and tie new concepts to previously presented ideas. As a general rule, try to maintain the same subject throughout a section and mix up sentence structure in order to emphasize different concepts. Keep in mind that words or ideas placed toward the end of a sentence often convey the most importance (Schimel 2012).

The use of active voice with occasional sentences in passive voice will additionally strengthen your writing. Scientific writing is rife with passive voice that weakens otherwise powerful sentences by stripping the subjects of action. However, when used properly, the passive voice can improve flow by strategically placing a sentence's subject so that it echoes the emphasis of the preceding sentence. Compare the following sentences:

“The cowbird nestlings tolerated the host nestlings.”

(active)

“The host nestlings were tolerated by the cowbird nestlings.”

(passive)

If host nestlings are the focus of the paragraph as a whole, it may make more sense to present the passive sentence in this case, even though it is weaker than the active version. While passive and active voices can complement each other in particular situations, you should typically use the active voice whenever possible.

Lastly, word choice is critical for effective storytelling (Journal of Young Investigators 2005). Rather than peppering your report or manuscript with overly complicated words, use simple words to lay the framework of your study and discuss your findings. Eliminating any flourish and choosing words that get your point across as clearly as possible will make your work much more enjoyable to read (Strunk and White 1979, Schimel 2012).

Editing and peer review

Although you have finally finished collecting data and writing your report, you are not done yet! Re-reading your paper and incorporating constructive feedback from others can make the difference between getting a paper accepted or rejected from a journal or receiving one letter grade over another on a report. The editing stage is where you put the finishing touches on your work.

Start by taking some time away from your paper. Ideally, you began your paper early enough that you can refrain from looking at it for a day or two. However, if the deadline looms large, take an hour break at the very least. Come back to your paper and verify that it still expresses what you intended to say. Where are the gaps in your story structure? What has not been explained clearly? Where is the writing awkward, making it difficult to understand your point? Consider reading the paper out loud first, and then print and edit a hard copy to inspect the paper from different angles.

Editing is best done in stages. On the first run-through of your paper, make sure you addressed all of the main ideas of the study. One way to achieve this is by writing down the key points you want to hit prior to re-reading your paper. If your paper deviates from these points, you may need to delete some paragraphs. In contrast, if you forgot to include something, add it in. To check the flow of your paragraphs, verify that a common thread ties each paragraph to the preceding one, and similarly, that each sentence within a paragraph builds on the previous sentence. Finally, re-read the paper with a finer lens, editing sentence structure and word choice as you go to put the finishing touches on your work. Grammar and spelling are just as important as your scientific story; a poorly written paper will have limited impact regardless of the quality of the ideas expressed (Harley et al. 2004).

After editing your own paper, ask someone else to read it. A classmate is ideal because he/she understands the assignment and could exchange papers with you. The editing steps described above also apply when editing someone else's paper. If a classmate is not available, try asking a family member or a friend. Having a fresh set of eyes examine your work may help you identify sections of your paper that need clarification. This procedure will also give you a glimpse into the peer review process, which is integral to professional science writing (Guilford 2001). Don't be discouraged by negative comments—incorporating the feedback of reviewers will only strengthen your paper. Good criticism is constructive.

Conclusion

While the basics of writing are generally taught early in life, many people constantly work to refine their writing ability throughout their careers. Even professional scientists feel that they can always write more effectively. Focusing on the strategies for success laid out in this guide will not only improve your writing skills, but also make the scientific writing process easier and more efficient. However, keep in mind that there is no single correct way to write a scientific paper, and as you gain experience with scientific writing, you will begin to find your own voice. Good luck and happy writing!

Additional resources

For those interested in learning more about the skill of scientific writing, we recommend the following resources. We note that much of the inspiration and concrete ideas for this step-by-step guide originated from Schimel's Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals that Get Funded.

  1. Journal of Young Investigators. 2005. Writing scientific manuscripts: a guide for undergraduates. Journal of Young Investigators, California.
  2. Lanciani, C. A. 1998. Reader-friendly writing in science. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 79: 171–172.
  3. Morris, J., T. Jehn, C. Vaughan, E. Pantages, T. Torello, M. Bucheli, D. Lohman, and R. Jue. 2007. A student's guide to writing in the life sciences. The President and Fellows of Harvard University, Massachusetts.
  4. Schimel, J. 2012. Writing science: how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Acknowledgments

We thank Nichole Barger and the University of Colorado, Boulder 2016 graduate writing seminar for helpful discussions that greatly enhanced the quality of this essay.

Potential Conflicts of Interest

None.

Ancillary

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© 2016 The Authors. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., on behalf of the Ecological Society of America.

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Literature Cited

  • Baron, N.2010. Escape from the ivory tower: a guide to making your science matter. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Cals, J. W., and D. Kotz. 2013. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers, part VI: discussion. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology66:1064.
  • Casenove, D., and S. Kirk. 2016. A spoonful of science can make science writing more hedged. Electronic Journal of Science Education20:138–149.
  • Day, R., and B. Gastel. 2012. How to write and publish a scientific paper. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Fry, J. C.1993. Biological data analysis: a practical approach. IRL Press Ltd, Oxford.
  • Guilford, W. H.2001. Teaching peer review and the process of scientific writing. Advances in Physiology Education25:167–175.
  • Harley, C. D., M. A. Hixon, and L. A. Levin. 2004. Scientific Writing And Publishing-A Guide For Students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America85:74–78.
  • Journal of Young Investigators. 2005. Writing scientific manuscripts: a guide for undergraduates. Journal of Young Investigators.
  • Kilner, R., J. Madden, and M. Hauber. 2004. Brood parasitic cowbird nestlings use host young to procure resources. Science305:877–879.
  • Nisbet, M. C.2009. Framing science: a new paradigm in public engagement. Pages 40–67inL. Kahlor and P. Stout, editors. Understanding science: new agendas in science communication. Taylor and Francis, New York, New York.
  • Schimel, J.2012. Writing science: how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Strunk, W., and E. B. White. 1979. The elements of style. Third edition. Macmillan Publishing Co, New York, New York.

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Citing Literature

Writing essays and dissertations

The basics of scientific writing are always the same, whatever the task. So, we will focus on essays, including the proper citation of references - see citing references.

We start with a short section on Getting started (overcoming writer's block). If you don't have this problem then go straight to How to write an essay.

Getting started

Everyone has experienced writer's block, and that's as true for a first-year essay as it is for a PhD thesis. It is a psychological hurdle - the task ahead seems daunting, and you spend ages trying to decide how you will produce the perfect, polished, final product. Meanwhile you have produced nothing; you are no further forward! Or perhaps you do start - you write the first few paragraphs, you don't feel happy with them, so you rewrite them again and again, and never make progress. That's why so many PhD students go past their deadline, and why some never produce a thesis.

The solution is simple, and it always works. Let's assume that you have done all the preparation - you know more or less what you want to write about, and you have accumulated lots of rough notes or experimental results, etc.

Start writing, keep going, and don't look back until you get to the end!

Remember that this is your first draft, and no-one else will see it. Don't worry about the finer points of structure. Don't worry about the order of your sentences - sometimes the order will be sensible, sometimes not. Don't worry about your spelling or punctuation. Don't worry if you can't find the right word or phrase - just use dashes (--------) or a reminder such as (say something about dogs here) and keep going. Don't even worry if something you have written is not strictly true or will need to be checked. Just keep going!

Once you have produced this rough draft you will have broken the back of the job. Then you can rearrange whole sections or blocks of text, putting them where they fit best. And then you can go through the text, correcting anything you need to correct, and inserting anything you need to insert.

Everything that I have ever written (including two books, more than 100 scientific papers, and even this web site) was produced initially as a rough draft from start to finish, and then rewritten or rearranged at least 3 times. The Cut, Copy and Paste buttons on word-processors make the job easy when you have got the basic content in place.

How to write a good scientific essay

[See important guidance on PLAGIARISM]

Good writing requires preparation, organisation and structure.

We don't really need these things in an email message (although it helps!). We certainly need them for anything that we want to "put on record" - an essay, a scientific report, etc.

'Far too many relied on the classic formula of a beginning, a muddle and an end'

Philip Larkin
New Fiction

Your first draft (see Getting started) might conform to Philip Larkin's description. Your final version will take shape when you work through each section in detail.

What makes a good scientific essay?

The answer is: good structure and good content. Look at your favourite textbook, or one of the good review journals such as "Trends" (Trends in Evolution and Ecology, Trends in Microbiology, etc.). Why do you like it? Because its structure guides you through the subject in an accessible way:

  • the Introduction sets the scene;

  • the separate sections have headings;

  • the longer sections are divided into sub-sections, with sub-headings, so you don't have to plough through long sections of text;

  • the tables, diagrams and photographs illustrate or summarise key points, while also breaking the text (textbook editors are skilled at making the pages appear interesting);

  • the Conclusion puts everything in perspective, and typically suggests where further work is needed;

  • the References cover key areas referred to in the text.

Your essay should have the same features. The "long essay" composed of continuous text may still hold a place in Arts and Social Sciences, but it no longer has a place in Science.

(i) The Introduction

Any piece of writing should have an Introduction. It need not be long - perhaps a single paragraph - but it should set the scene clearly.

For a scientific paper it is usual to give an overview of previous work in the field, then state why you did your work - e.g. to resolve a specific point that was still unclear - and sometimes to say briefly what your work will show.

For an essay it is usual to define clearly the subject you will address (e.g. the adaptations of organisms to cold environments), how you will address this subject (e.g. by using examples drawn principally from the Arctic zone) and what you will show or argue (e.g. that all types of organism, from microbes through to mammals, have specific adaptations that fit them for life in cold environments).

The Introduction will be the first section that you write, but it will probably be one of the last sections that you revise, to make sure that it leads the reader clearly into the details of the subject you have covered.

Check-list for the Introduction

  • Does your Introduction start logically by telling us what the essay is about - for example, the various adaptations to habitat in the bear family (Ursidae)?

  • Does your Introduction outline how you will address this topic - for example, by an overview of the habitats of bears, followed by in-depth treatment of some specific adaptations?

(ii) The main body of text

The main body of text should have a clear, obvious structure. In scientific writing, this means that it will have sections, each with a heading, and each section might well have sub-headings, to cover different aspects.

You will need to think about the hierarchies of headings, so that the reader doesn't get lost. There are several ways of doing this, but one example is:

MAIN HEADINGS IN CAPITALS (INTRODUCTION, CONCLUSION, ETC.)
Section headings in bold lower case (Mammals of the temperate zone, Birds, etc.)
Sub-sections in italics (The arctic fox, The polar bear, etc.) or underlined.

You should include tables, diagrams, and perhaps photographs in your essay. (See tables, diagrams, photographs). Tables are valuable for summarising information, and are most likely to impress if they show the results of relevant experimental data. Diagrams enable the reader to visualise things, replacing the need for lengthy descriptions. Photographs must be selected with care, to show something meaningful. Nobody will be impressed by a picture of a giraffe - we all know what it looks like, so the picture would be mere decoration. But a detailed picture of a giraffe's markings might be useful if it illustrates a key point.

All the points above refer to structure and presentation. But, of course, the most important point is that an essay must have substance. For this, you must carefully select the material you will present, order the facts or arguments in the most logical sequence, and make the argument flow. For example, if you are writing an essay about adaptations to cold environments, it is not enough to just piece together a series of examples - a cold-adapted bacterium, a cold-adapted moss, a cold-adapted bear, etc. Instead, you should have chosen your examples to illustrate the adaptations that they have in common, or the contrasting ways in which they achieve the same result, and make these points as you go through the essay.

Useful tips:

1. Often you will have a word limit - say, 2000 words. Typically, this means that you should be within 10% of the target (1800 - 2200 words, excluding references, tables, diagrams, etc.). Anything much more, or less, is likely to be penalised.

2. How can you cover anything reasonably in 2000 words, when you could write at least 10,000 words on the subject? That's just the point - we (the markers or readers) don't want to read 10,000 words, and there is no guarantee that it would be any better than 2000 words. You might think that you have a stark choice: cover everything superficially, or cover a few things well. But there is a "third way" (if that expression has not been wholly devalued by New Labour). We can call it "breadth with depth": cover the main elements of the subject, then focus on one or two key issues for more detailed consideration. These issues should be selected carefully - and say so - for topicality, for the particular depth of study they have received, etc.

Checklist for the main body of text

  • Does your text have sections with headings and sub-headings?

  • Does the text follow a logical sequence, so that the argument flows?

  • Does your text have both breadth and depth - i.e. general coverage of the major issues, with in-depth treatment of particularly important points?

  • Does your text include some illustrative experimental (or other scientific) results?

  • Have you chosen the diagrams or photographs carefully, to provide information and understanding, or are the illustrations merely decorative?

(iii) The Conclusion

An essay needs a conclusion. Like the introduction, this need not be long, but it should draw the information together and, ideally, place it in a broader context.

Unfortunately, the conclusion is often the most difficult part of an essay. Student essays all too often end with some bland statement such as "As can be seen by the examples I have discussed, organisms that live in cold environments usually have specific adaptations that fit them for these conditions."

That's just words: an excuse for a conclusion. On the other hand, a conclusion should not introduce more facts. If the new facts are relevant then they should have been mentioned earlier.

The best conclusions are those that show you are thinking further. For example, it might be interesting to transfer cold-adapted organisms to more moderate environments and see whether the "cold-adapted" traits are still expressed. Or, it might be interesting to look for sequence homology in the genes of cold-adapted organisms and organisms of more moderate environments. As a last resort, you might use a nice, short quotation - preferably a witty one to put the marker in a good mood!

[A note on conclusions in exam answers. Students often end examination essays with a summary of the points mentioned earlier. This is a total waste of time. You can only score the marks once, no matter how many times you repeat a point.] Click here for more guidance on examination technique.

(iv) References and citations

In all scientific writing you are expected to cite your main sources of information. Scientific journals have their own preferred (usually obligatory) method of doing this. The piece of text below shows how you can cite work in an essay, dissertation or thesis. Then you produce an alphabetical list of references at the end of the essay.

Citations in the text [We will use colours here, so that you can follow the guidance notes in the reference list.]

Jones & Smith (1999) showed that the ribosomal RNA of fungi differs from that of slime moulds. This challenged the previous assumption that slime moulds are part of the fungal kingdom (Toby & Dean, 1987). However, according to Bloggs et al. (1999) the slime moulds can still be accommodated in the fungal kingdom for convenience. This view has been challenged by Deacon (1999).

In the reference list at the end of the essay: [List the references in alphabetical order]

Bloggs A.E., Biggles N.H. & Bow R.T. (1999)The Slime Moulds. Academic Press, London & New York.

[Guidance: this reference is to a book. We give the names of all authors, the publication date, title, name of publisher and place of publication. Note that we referred to Bloggs et al.(1999) in the text. The term "et al." is an abbreviation of the Latin et alia (meaning "and others"). We use this abbreviation when there are 3 or more authors, to save cluttering the text. Note also that "Bloggs et al." is part of a sentence in the text, so we put only the date in brackets.]

Deacon J.W. (1999)The Microbial World (http://helios.bto.ed.ac.uk/bto/microbes/microbes.htm) [accessed 15 November 1999]

[Guidance: this reference is to a website. We give the name of the author (or organisation if there is no author) and the full URL (web address). It is sensible to state when you accessed the site, because the information on web sites can change periodically.]

Jones B.B. and Smith J.O.E. (1999). Ribosomal RNA of slime moulds. Journal of Ribosomal RNA12, 33-38.

[Guidance: this is a reference to a published scientific paper. We give the names of all authors, the date, title of the paper, the journal, volume number (in bold) and page numbers (first and last) of the paper.]

Toby F.S. & Dean P.L. (1987). Slime moulds are part of the fungal kingdom. In A. E. Edwards & Y. Kane (eds) The Fungal Kingdom. Osbert Publishing Co., Luton.

[Guidance: this is a reference to a chapter in a book edited by Edwards & Kane. We give the names of all authors, date, title of the article, editors of the book, title of the book, publisher and place of publication. Note how we cited this reference (Toby & Dean, 1987) in the text. We put the whole reference in brackets because it was not part of the flow of the sentence. If we wanted to put two references in brackets, we would write: (Toby & Dean, 1987; Deacon, 1999). Typically, we would use chronological order (1987 before 1999) and separate the two references by a semicolon.

(v) Tables, diagrams, photographs

Technicalities. Tables, diagrams and photographs can be (1) xeroxed into spaces which you leave in the text, (2) scanned onto a disk, using a flat-bed scanner, then imported into a Word document, (3) copied from a WWW source and imported into a Word document, or (4) xeroxed and simply glued into your text. [Click here for guidance on saving and importing images from WWW sources]. Remember that almost anything you use will be covered by copyright. It is wise to ask (email) the owner of a website for permission to use the image in an essay. In my experience few would refuse such a "one-off" request.

Labelling, legends and acknowledgment. Whenever you use a table, diagram or image in your essay you must:

  • cite the source (e.g. from Bloggs, 1989)

  • use your own legend and explanation, not the original one.

For example: Figure 1. The pathway of synthesis of the amino acid alanine, showing...From Bloggs (1989). [Never use the original legend, because it is likely to have a different Figure number and to have information that is not relevant for your purposes. Also, make sure that you explain any abbreviations or other things that your reader needs to know about the Figure]

vi. Quotations

Often in a scientific essay you will need to quote sections of other people's work. You do this in the standard way, by using quotation marks and citing the source of the information.

For example: Mansell (1999) stated that "The World is round."
Or: "The World is round." (Mansell, 1999).

Be careful not to over-quote. The best advice is to quote only highly significant sentences or phrases, not "The world is round" or "All mammals have fur", nor points that could be made equally well in your own words. See the guidance on Plagiarism.

When quoting other people's work, a few rules must be followed. They are stated here, then illustrated in an example.

  • Always quote the words exactly as the person gave them.

  • If you need to miss out parts of the quoted section because they are not relevant for your purposes, then use an ellipsis (three dots). Note that there are no spaces before or after an ellipsis.

  • If you need to add your own words, to make sense of the quoted material, then put your words in square brackets [].

  • If there is an error in the quoted material then write '(sic)' after it, to show that the error is not yours. But this is most unlikely to arise. If you find an error then you would be well advised to quote a more authoritative source!

An example:

One of the students wrote "...the world is like a giant balloon...[that] spins about it's (sic) axis...[and] orbits the sun."

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