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Nuts and Bolts of Scientific Writing. Why do I need to write? “A naturalist’s life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and never to write.”

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Presentation on theme: "Nuts and Bolts of Scientific Writing. Why do I need to write? “A naturalist’s life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and never to write.”"— Presentation transcript:

1 Nuts and Bolts of Scientific Writing

2 Why do I need to write? “A naturalist’s life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and never to write.” – Charles Darwin Goal of scientific research is publication Publications are correlated with grant funding success Publications are required for promotion, recognition, and salary increases No one benefits if results are not shared

3 Science is a “Social Disease” Never alone Communication vs. archiving Publication vs. notebook Advertising Your work is important only if others see it and build on it

4 Scientific Writing Organization of paper is as important as literary skill Bad writing dooms “good science” Simplicity and clarity Majority of scientists are NOT native English speakers The thinking is what really counts

5 Scientific Writing - History First scientific journals began in 1655 in France & England Until mid-1800s all papers of a descriptive style In the mid-1800s Pasteur introduced experimental papers that stressed reproducibility and which are now the rule

6 Important Questions What message do I want to convey? What question did I ask? What was my answer? NOT, What experiments did I do?

7 Organizing Your Thoughts The hardest part of the process Outlines? Everybody works differently Not an excuse to avoid writing!

8 Organization & Planning Help to: Identify the main points Identify missing or incomplete information Gather information efficiently Maintain continuity Establish a reasonable time-line

9 Finding the Pieces Never trust your memory Construct figures, graphs, and tables as soon as the data are available Consider establishing a personal literature retrieval database

10 Scientific Paper Definition Allow peers to: 1. Assess observations 2. Repeat experiments 3. Evaluate intellectual processes

11 The Reader Deconstructionism It does not matter what you write (say), only what the reader sees (hears) Shifting the focus from you to them Know your reader What should your writing say to the reader?

12 What should a paper say? Read me! Believe me! Care about me! Remember me!

13 IMRAD - What & Why Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results and Discussion A standard recipe for formal papers Variations not encouraged Saves space & $$$ for journals Facilitates review process

14 The Logic of IMRAD Introduction - What question (problem) was studied? Materials & Methods - How was the problem studied? Results - What were the findings? Discussion - What do the findings mean?

15 IMRAD Variations Descriptive field & clinical cases Unusual sections, e.g. mathematical derivations or computer analysis Journal alters order (usually M&M last) Combine M&M and Results (Experimental) Combine Results and Discussion

16 First Drafts Work with, not against, your tendencies Start with the easiest section Build momentum and keep it going If time is short, emphasize the first draft

17 The Introduction Provides background on research topic Contains a literature review (keep it focused) Identify approach and justify it if necessary Overall goal is to identify a significant problem and explaining how addressing it advances the field

18 Introduction: Last Paragraph An important paragraph Focus on three points: Objective(s) Hypothesis(es) Significance Mirrors the conclusion paragraph at the end of the Discussion Provides your measure of the criteria against which your paper should be evaluated

19 Materials Use sub-headers to guide the reader Do not include Results here Provide complete materials list Check journal policy on release of materials to other researchers Deposit critical materials and sequences in internationally accessible locations

20 Methods Give detailed methodology in general order used in Results, but group similar techniques If protocol or materials already published, then summarize general approach Evidence for reproducibility Identify statistical tests and data analysis protocols

21 The Results No materials; no methods Usually should not justify experiments being conducted Very little or (preferably) no discussion Usually written in the past tense Sub-headers often helpful Data may be presented in text, tables or figures Present information in only one form Often the shortest text section of the paper

22 Some Guidelines for the Results Focus on data related to stated objectives and hypotheses Be selective in terms of data presented Do not repeat table/figure titles; explain only points from tables or figures that are not obvious Make sure text/figures/tables are consistent!

23 But I Have So Much Data! The journal does not want your lab notebook! “The compulsion to include everything, leaving nothing out, does not prove that one has unlimited information; it proves that one lacks discrimination.” S. Aaronson (1977) “The Authors have clearly demonstrated that they can collect elegant data that they can neither interpret nor analyze.” Anonymous AEM reviewer (2003)

24 The Discussion Often the hardest section to write Does not simply recapitulate the Results Varies considerably in length Shows significance of work, often in the concluding paragraph Last paragraph may parallel the last paragraph of the Introduction – objectives, hypotheses & significance – and may look forward to future papers/experiments

25 Discussion Components Do not introduce new data Present the principles, relationships & generalizations shown by the Results Identify exceptions and unsettled points Place the results in the context of previous work Identify theoretical implications and practical applications as appropriate State the conclusions to be drawn Identify the evidence to support each conclusion

26 Acknowledgments Courtesy, not science “We thank …” Identify external financial assistance, e.g. grants Thanks for technical assistance, for providing materials or cultures, for access to special equipment Make sure names are correctly spelled!

27 References Cited List all significant published references All references in the text must be in the References section Check every reference against the original publication – content & citation information Follow the journal’s format very carefully

28 Supplemental Material Permitted by some journals Supplementary material only Format varies by journal Often web-site posting (usually managed by the journal)

29 When to do What Start writing while work is still in progress Identify the objectives Work from an outline or other organizational plan A common order: Materials and Methods Results (with Tables and Figures) Introduction and Discussion Abstract Make frequent back-ups

30 Now That You’ve Started… Write in blocks, but never stop at the end of one. Adding a few sentences or thoughts to the next section makes it easier to start again the next time. If stuck in one place, switch to another section, or even another paper Looking for a word – insert a placeholder Keep at it – regularly and often

31 The 2 nd Draft (The 1 st Revision) Allow time to pass before beginning First draft = rough draft – disjointed, wordy, grammatically incorrect, jargon First drafts are often conversation-style – written as we would speak Often organized in a historical manner Goal now is structural alteration

32 Overall Editing Three target areas (not equally important): 1. Editing for content (1 st revision) Is it accurate? Does it achieve its purpose? 2. Editing for organization (1 st revision) How well is the message presented and communicated? Organization may be as important as content 3. Editing for format (2 nd & subsequent revisions) Affects efficiency and authority of the message Find things that distract

33 Prose Style Minimize verbiage Avoid run-ons Subject-verb-object (SVO) matters Child eats bear Bear eats child

34 Voice Active voice - Subject of the sentence performs the action; more precise and less wordy Your friends wrote this sentence. Passive voice – Subject of the sentence undergoes the action; usually the scientist’s favorite This sentence was written by your friends. Active voice preferred form for scientific writing

35 The Third Revision How come I’m not finished? Scientific writing should keep reader’s interest Make the manuscript readable and interesting The writing should not interfere with the message “Good prose is like a window pane.” – George Orwell

36 Revisions Are the Rule Every writer must do them Want to have the reader think the same as you Revisions will be accompanied by new thoughts and insights Must also know when to stop More eyes the better


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