ournal-Style Scientific Writing
A critical aspect of the scientific process is the reporting of new results in scientific journals in order to disseminate that information to the larger community of scientists. Communication of your results contributes to the pool of knowledge within your discipline (and others!) and very often provides information that helps others interpret their own experimental results. Most journals accept papers for publication only after peer review by a small group of scientists who work in the same field and who recommend the paper be published (usually with some revision).
The format and structure presented here is a general one; the various scientific journals, and oftentimes specific disciplines, utilize slightly different formats and/or writing styles. Mastery of the format presented here will enable you to adapt easily to most journal- or discipline-specific formats. While this guide (a others like it) is a necessary tool of learning the scientific writing style and format, it is not sufficient, by itself, to make you an accomplished writer. This guide will not teach you how to write in the English language, i.e., it is not a grammar book. You, the writer, must practice writing and thinking within this structure, and, learn by example from the writings of others; learning the nuances of this style and format will be enhanced as you read the scientific literature - pay attention to how professional scientists write about their work. You will see improvement in your own scientific writing skills by repeatedly practicing reading, writing, and critiquing of other’s writing.
The guide addresses four major aspects of writing journal-style scientific papers:
(1) fundamental style considerations; (2) a suggested strategy for efficiently writing up research results; (3) the nuts and bolts of format and content of each section of a paper (part of learning to write a scientific paper is learning how to follow instructions precisely), and, (4) basic information regarding peer critiques of scientific writing. ALL journals have a set of instructions for authors which explicitly state how their paper should be formatted for submission. Consider this guide to be your instructions when writing lab reports for Bio 201, 270, and s42. We encourage you to follow the directions carefully and to make full use of this guide and the writing support system (TWAs, instructors, and Writing Workshop staff tutors) as you prepare your papers. Please ask for help if you have questions about format, style, or content. Above all, remember to write with precision, clarity, and economy.
The first task to accomplish as you begin the process of writing is to order and organize the information you wish to present. Some people work well from an outline, others do not. Some people write first to discover the points, then rearrange them using an after-the-fact outline. Whatever process you may use, be aware that scientific writing requires special attention to order and organization. Because the paper will be divided into sections, you need to know what information will go into each. If you don't normally work from an outline, this may be an occasion when you'll at least want to develop a list of the major points to be included in each section, before you begin to write. If the paper has multiple authors, then this is a good time to work (and negotiate!) with your collaborators to insure that all the points the group wants to make get listed.
Audience: Who will be reading your paper? Usually you will be writing to your peers. Simple advice: address your paper to another interested biology student, or lab group, in this course or major, and assume they have at least the same knowledge and expertise base as you. Knowing your audience helps you to decide what information to include--you would write a very different article for a narrow, highly technical, disciplinary journal vs. one that went out to a broad range of disciplines. Similarly, you would write a paper for an audience of other biology majors very differently than one you would write for a cross section of the college. Do not write your paper specifically for your instructor.
Your writing should be in complete sentences and easily understood. It should conform to the conventions of standard written English (sentence form, grammar, spelling, etc.). Your ideas will have little impact, no matter how good the research, if they are not communicated well. Remember always that scientific terminology very often has precise meaning. Be certain you choose your words correctly and wisely.