5.3: Writing in the Sciences
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Writing in the sciences fulfills one of two purposes:
- Inform the reader of new discoveries
- Assist the reader in clarifying the truth using new facts or perspectives
A comparison: While writing in the humanities is used to explore the human condition, writing in the sciences is used to examine nature, human experience, and/or technology.
This leads to the two major types of papers written in the sciences:
- Lab report
- Literature review
Writing in the sciences requires elements not necessarily needed when writing in the humanities. It requires data, evidence, facts, and precision, which in turn require intimate attention to detail. The goal of writing in the sciences is to clearly present what you have discovered or what you did. This generally requires the writing to be done in the past tense. The language used should allow no room for interpretation by the reader. The nature and subject matter of the ideas in your paper must be presented in a factual style, leaving out figurative or emotional language.
Besides lab reports and literature reviews, writing in the sciences also includes reviews for a peer or textbook, or grant proposals and equipment or facility requests. It is easy to get caught up using jargon and highly technical language. While this language may be appropriate in certain cases, you should know your audience and avoid using words they will not understand (also including definitions where appropriate).
Space occasionally becomes an issue when writing in the sciences. For example, grant proposal applications and abstracts require the text to be limited to a short paragraph. Therefore, an indispensable tool for the scientific paper is the ability to summarize quickly and get to the point. An example grant proposal may include the following sentences:
"Our preliminary research shows a high probability of success if allowed to develop. This requires us to find additional monetary help, as well as a facility to use long term. We are asking for your company's help."
Although you may include a few facts or numbers to back up your claim of success, this is the general format for such a request.
There are basic tips to keep in mind while writing your scientific paper.
- Be detailed
- Remain focused on your topic
- Leave figurative language out
- Be precise
- Define jargon based on assumed audience knowledge
There are two categories of sciences writing; social sciences and natural sciences.
When writing in the social sciences, the writer will spend less time in the library researching data, and a majority of time documenting actual events. Writing in the social sciences is the study of human behavior, the value systems of people, and the interactions between people, whether in the family unit or simply in a group setting.
Writing in this discipline can be a very challenging experience. Gathering the data and interpreting the information can be tedious. Interviews are conducted, and attitudes must be examined and recorded. But recording data gathered from studying human beings is difficult because the human mind is an ever-changing thing.
One key element to writing a paper in the social sciences is the art of taking a stand. Choose your topic, make your claim, provide evidence to support your claim, and finally, convince your reader that your claim is the one with which to side. Take a hard look at both sides of the issue you intend on addressing. Doing so will prepare you to defend arguments in opposition to your viewpoint. Because issues in the social sciences are subjective, the writer should expect some degree of opposing opinions and even, possibly, some controversy. This is why it is suggested that when you write a social sciences paper you choose a topic that you either possess first hand knowledge, know a great deal of information on, or simply a topic about which you are passionate.
Charts and graphs are common elements included in the social sciences paper. A valuable source of information for the social scientist is a government document. These documents contain the most up-to-date information in a variety of fields.
Writing in the social sciences uses a technical vocabulary.
Social sciences attempt to study and describe human behavior and societies. The social sciences can be broken down into further into the following categories:
The case study is one of the main writing choices in psychology. These are often studies of a patient seeking help through psychotherapy. These types of case studies can generally be divided into five sections:
- 1. Background Information
- This section describes the person based on information a therapist would get from the person during an intake interview. This would include, but is not limited to: demographic information, family history, and history of symptoms.
The following three sections will consider how a person would react to three general categories of psychotherapy. In each section, the following questions should be answered:
- What is the therapy like?
- What does the person talk about or do in that therapy?
- What is the therapist's role?
- How would this person react to that therapist role?
- Would the person benefit from this therapy? Why or why not?
- 2. Psychoanalytic Therapy
- This type of treatment could be a traditional or contemporary style of psychoanalysis. In other words, the typical patient laying on a couch and talking about his or her feelings, or a more contemporary approach of question and answer, or another setting in which the patient feels more comfortable. A form of psycho-dynamic therapy (changing up the environment for the patient) could also be used.
- 3. Behavioral Therapy
- This could be a form of behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, or a mixture of both.
- 4. Humanistic Therapy
- This could be existential therapy, gestalt therapy, Zen therapy, or whatever style seems to fit the patient. This is a very progressive form of psychotherapy.
- 5. Conclusion
- This section should draw an overall conclusion of how the person in question would react to each kind of considered therapy. The patient's feelings do need to be taken into account when recommending the best treatment, as no one can be helped when they do not want to be. A final recommendation is made, and the case study is usually reviewed by colleagues, or a board or some kind, to comment and recommend a course of action to the psychologist.
Places you may want to look for current information include psychology encyclopedias and abstracts and mental health journals.
(Further resources to consider follow at the end of this section.)
Presenting a case study is a common form of presenting the anthropology paper. The writer is looking at and analyzing the past.
There are specific guidelines to follow when writing an anthropology paper. Stick to the facts and document these thoroughly in the reference list. Quotations are important, but not as important as data.
Because anthropology is such a specialized field, be sure that you re-read your paper several times to be sure that it is comprehensible to a person who may not be a specialist in the field. In other words, can your average college student understand what you are talking about? The trick here is to find a balance in this paper; it must be scholarly, yet understandable.
Writing case studies is the main type of writing in this discipline. When writing a paper in political science, you will probably be analyzing how different political organizations function, both individually and as a group. While many of the other categories of the social sciences involve directly observing the group dynamics, writing a paper for political science involves indirect observation. You will pick one specific behavior to observe and focus your paper on that chosen behavior.
Writing for political science can include any level of the government; city, state or federal. Places you may want to look for current information include government documents and newspaper articles. You should expect to be able to support and defend the chosen topic or argument that is the subject of your paper, and do so in a convincing and scholarly manner. If you accomplish all this, and make it a sound political argument, you have then written a solid political science paper.
Writing a good sociology paper includes a clear thesis statement. While this is important in all papers requiring a thesis statement, the field of sociology carries with it a potential danger; taking sides.
Writing about sociology is about studying human behavior and the interaction between individuals or groups. An effective sociology paper will analyze these interactions and remain objective. The pitfall that many writers fall into when writing a sociology paper is that they take sides, and as a result they will slant their terminology toward one view or another. This is the trick to a successful sociology paper; staying on the median.
The case study to be the primary focus in sociology writing. In this discipline, writing about group dynamics is a key element.
Many topics are covered in the education section of the social sciences, including students with special needs and child development. The instructor may choose to assign a topic for each individual student or the class as a whole. This gives the group the opportunity to work together and developed a more refined paper. The case study is a common type of paper chosen for a group assignment. Other times, the education instructor may allow each student to choose his or her own topic related to the education field. If that is the case, choose a topic that is of interest to you. You may not have a lot of knowledge about your chosen topic, but if you are genuinely interested in it, the information will be easy to come by and just as easy to understand.
Some of the possible types of papers you may be required to write include literature reviews, an analysis paper, case studies, research papers and lab papers. There are many more types of papers to write in this discipline, so be sure to clarify with your instructor what he or she expects.
When writing a paper in the economics discipline, the goal is to provide the reader with a clear understanding of the general or specific fields of economics. It also seeks to define the many areas of economics, such as goods, services, and simple the state of economics in our society.
The economics paper may be as simple as a journal review (the Wall Street Journal, for example). Academic journals will be used often, as will statistical data from government sources.
One important thing to remember when writing in this discipline: be sure your vocabulary reflects the nature of the subject. Use topic-specific words and avoid personal observations. Be as factual as possible, avoiding jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions.
Elements of the Social Sciences Paper
When it comes down to actually writing your paper, be sure to include the following elements: an introduction, a thesis statement, the body of the paper, and the conclusion. Many social scientists use these headings in their paper.
One element of the social science paper that greatly differs from the humanities paper is that it should be written in such a way that the reader can take any section from the paper and read it independently from the rest of the paper, without having to look back at any other section. It is this type of technical writing that sets the social sciences paper apart from the humanities paper; each section is its own mini-paper. Knowing your audience members will greatly assist you in writing your social sciences paper.
A social science paper include many elements such as a title page, an abstract, thesis statement, introduction, body, conclusion and bibliography.
Your title page should include the subject or title of your paper, your name (and, if required, your address and phone number), and the current date. Some instructors also require you include the name of the course along with course number. An abstract is a short summary of the ideas you will be proposing in your paper. It is the place to state the argument you intend to address. You can do so by writing an outline of the background information for the paper. When writing your abstract, consider what experiments you did and what kinds of interviews you conducted. The abstract will be set aside from the rest of the paper, usually in the beginning. It will be the only element of the paper on its own page. An effective abstract will be able to summarize the paper with anywhere between 100 and 300 words.
The thesis statement will also come at the beginning of your paper. It will state the purpose of your argument and will introduce your claim to a specific type of human behavior. Your thesis is generally a part of your introduction. Your introduction will introduce your paper's main ideas. Keep them succinct, but make them interesting. Some questions to answer in your introduction may include: Why did you choose this topic? Is there a need for the general public to know about this issue, and why? How does this issue affect you, if at all? Define the problem clearly. Give examples so the reader knows exactly why this is a problem and how it affects society. Your instructor may want your introduction to be a separate element of the paper or a part of the body of your paper.
Toward the beginning of the body of your paper you will put your hypothesis. If you conducted experiments, what did you think would happen when you first began them? Working through the body of the paper you should cover the testing of the hypothesis, along with the discussion of any research conducted. The body of the social sciences paper will include many elements: the background of the problem or issue you are addressing (which addresses the issue of topic importance), your rationale (which justifies your choice of topics), your statement of qualification (which outlines why you, as a writer, as qualified to write on the subject), a survey of literature (which denotes the sources you used in forming your hypothesis), the methods of research used, the time estimate outline (for completing your experiments/projects), and any information about budget limitations. The body is where you will include any charts or graphs that will assist you in reporting your information. Supporting discussion should be written to explain these elements.
In the conclusion of the social sciences paper, you should recap the information you addressed in the body of the paper, keeping in close contact with the thesis. Did your test results differ from your hypothesis? If so, why? The conclusion should explain how the data supported or did not support your hypothesis. During your entire conclusion, you should always back up the main theme of your paper.
You will certainly need to include a works cited page (bibliography) to credit any sources used in your paper. Also, many education research papers include an appendix. You may include charts, graphs, and definitions. Most social sciences papers use the APA (American Psychological Association) format for documentation style, however, you will want to discuss style with your instructor before you begin your paper.
Resources to Use
Different resources you will use in order to complete your social sciences paper will provide different levels of information. An encyclopedia will provide basic information in pretty general terms. The information here will be in a the form of a summary, and will not be very comprehensive in nature. This is where books, a better source for information, will be beneficial. When you search for one specific book, this search may lead you to several other valuable books that you find you will want to reference in your paper. Finally, journal articles should be the final source you should rely on for information. Journal articles will provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date information in the subject you are researching. This is one of the reasons that it is important to use the journal article as your last source of information; the journal article is written in such a way that it assumes the reader has prior knowledge on the subject matter. So read your encyclopedia first (general and summative information), then research your subject in books (dedicated material), and finally in journal articles (comprehensive and scholarly).
In any case, you should steer yourself away from the mainstream media for your information. Stick with the scholarly print sources.
Writing in the natural sciences means writing about the natural aspects of our world. Theories are tested in order to solve problems. The natural sciences paper is used to evaluate and conclude from this testing.
Writing in this discipline is a detailed, tedious process. Specific steps must be taken to ensure you have gathered accurate data. Once you have gathered enough data, you must organize it into a coherent flow of ideas, ending with your evaluation or conclusion. One of the critical parts of the natural sciences paper is the presentation. You have your data, you have organized it, so now it is time to present it in a factual, knowledgeable way.
Natural Sciences can be broken down into 2 categories; pure sciences and applied sciences.
Pure Sciences include the life sciences, physical sciences, and earth sciences. Life sciences focuses on how plants, animals, and organisms (living things) relate to each other and how they interact with their surroundings. Biology is one area of the life sciences. Others include ecology, molecular biology and genetics, and food sciences.
To write about the physical sciences is to write about matter (anything that occupies space) and energy (what causes matter to move), not living things. There are many topics in the field of physical science. The list includes aerodynamics, thermodynamics, chemistry, and even astronomy.
Earth science, quite simply, is the study of the earth and its history. There are four main areas of earth science: geology (the study of the structure of the earth and how it formed), meteorology (the study of weather), oceanography (the study of the ocean and the creatures living in it), and space science (the study of the planets, stars, and everything else out there). Possible earth science topics may include volcanoes, tornadoes, the study of rocks, our atmosphere, earth minerals, or the solar system.
Applied Sciences include medical sciences (i.e. forensics, pharmaceuticals), engineering sciences (i.e. electrical/mechanical engineering) and computer science.
Elements of the Natural Sciences Paper
Keep in mind that when writing in the sciences, fact is preferred over flair. Write about the facts - the experiment outcomes, the process of information gathering, or a succinct hypothesis. Focus on the "what" and keep away from describing the "what."
It is good pedagogic practice to require student write ups to be near in style to what would be expected in a published paper. There is a tradition in science of using a neutral tone, the third person and the passive voice, and some institutions may require this style for high marks. It can however lead to rather stilted writing and other institutions encourage the use of the 1st person in write ups. It is necessary to be aware of the requirements of the course, the potential audience of the article and perhaps even the personality of the marker.
There are seven steps to writing in the Natural Sciences:
- The problem being addressed must be stated in an objective fashion.
- Unbiased relevant information must be gathered.
- The information gathered must be analyzed.
- A hypothesis is formulated.
- Experimentation (the fun stuff) to prove your hypothesis. Remember that keeping a journal of experiment outcomes is important for your final steps, so be detailed.
- Analyze your journal notes.
- Arrive at your conclusion, which may or may not prove your original hypothesis.
When it comes down to actually writing your paper, be sure to include the following elements:
- The title of the natural sciences paper is very important. It should be concise and clearly describe what your paper is about. You may choose to introduce what you tested. For example:
Sample title for a natural sciences paper
"Synthesis of 2-phenyl-2-butanol via a Grignard Reaction"
- This title describes the molecule of interest and the reaction of interest, making it easy for the reader to determine if this paper is one they would want to read.
- This is a brief description of your paper. Take the main ideas and summarize them in 250 words or less. For example, this is an abstract for a paper written in the organic chemistry field.
Abstract containing 80 words
"This experiment synthesized 2-phenyl-2-butanol using a Grignard reagent under reflux conditions. Learning to utilize Grignard reagents is an important skill for any future chemist. After performing the experiment, it has been concluded that there was a moderate to poor yield of 2-phenyl-2-butanol produced. Unwanted oxidization of Magnesium metal during the formation of the Grignard reagent is a possible explanation. However, the characterization of the product using IR spectroscopy and 1H NMR spectroscopy has reinforced the production of a pure product."
- There is little to no explanation of the details of the experiment or results. If the reader is interested in this synthesis, they now know that this experiment showed a poor but pure yield, and used both IR and NMR spectroscopy to analyze the product. This is important in scientific writing because of the massive amounts of information available to a researcher. The nature of modern computer searches has meant that the abstract of a published paper is of paramount importance. There may be a hundred people reading the abstract for every single one who actually ever reads the full paper. Anything useful which the paper contains therefore must be mentioned in these 250 words. Abstracts help research scientists to weed through papers to find information pertinent to their specific interest.
- The paper should begin by introducing and forming a question in the introduction. The introduction should include relevant theories and equations used in your experiment. If other scientists have conducted similar experiments, give recognition to these predecessors of your work. Any hypotheses you have formed should be stated here. A brief description of the experiments conducted should be outlined in the introduction also, saving the intimate details of the experiments for the body of the paper.
Sample Introduction Text
"The reaction itself was developed by Victor Grignard of France in the late 1800s. His preparation of magnesium alkyl halides (now referred to as Grignard reagents) was first presented to the Académie des Sciences in France on May 11, 1900. (Nobel Prize.org) The reaction uses Magnesium metal to create an electron rich carbon atom from an alkyl or aryl halide. This is the Grignard reagent. The electron rich carbon atom becomes a nucleophile, attacking any other molecule that is electron poor. If placed in solution with a molecule containing a ketone, the Grignard reagent will attack the ketone carbon, creating a new carbon-carbon bond connected to a negatively charged oxygen atom. That oxygen is then easily turned into an alcohol using any weak acid. ...
- This introduction goes into detail regarding the synthesis used and what is synthesized in the experiment. This provides ample background information for the reader who may not be an expert in the experiment performed.
- Thesis Statement
- The thesis statement of a scientific paper is a clear and concise statement of your topic of study. This could be included in your introduction.
Thesis Statement for Sample Paper
"The compound synthesized in this reaction, 2-phenyl-2-butanol, is a chiral molecule."
- This thesis statement clearly defines what is being accomplished (or trying to be accomplished) through this experiment. Notice that this particular example does not include a hypothesis. For a synthesis-type experiment, there may not be any predictions to be made. Not all scientific papers need to include a hypothesis.
- Since the goal of the scientific paper is to present facts supported by evidence, there are general rules to follow in the paper. Avoid adjectives and adverbs (being descriptive), and instead focus on the nouns (the focus of the paper) and the verbs (how it acted).
- Structure your sentences so that they are clear and easy to understand. Keep your audience in mind when using technical jargon. Limit yourself to words and jargon that your audience should be familiar with. Overuse of unfamiliar jargon will not make you sound smarter, it will only thoroughly confuse your readers.
- The body of the paper will include the following
- This section contains all of the reagents you used in your experiment, most likely accompanied by any hazard warnings they might carry. If a colleague wants to reproduce your experiment, they need to know what they are getting themselves into. Also described here should be all of the equipment used in your data collection process, including specific equipment names and numbers.
- This section contains the steps taken during your experiment. If you used a procedure previously recorded elsewhere, feel free to simply reference that procedure to save time and precious space for data. If you are using a self-written procedure, you need to meticulously write every step down so that your experiment could be repeated in exactly the same way by a different team of scientists.
- Here you would record all of the numerical data you generated during your experiment. Refrain from drawing conclusions. Simply enter tables, graphs, and numbers that are pertinent to your conclusions.
- In your conclusion, you should focus on the data you presented. Share and discuss your results. Here you are allowed to give your opinion on what the results mean. Although you are given the freedom to interpret your data how you see fit, avoid linking your findings with other, unexplored subject matter. If you didn't cover it in your introduction or experiment, leave it out of the conclusion!
- Sometimes, but often not, you will need to put this section in. Examples are if you have used a service to run spectra or analysis for you, or someone has given you help by lending some part of their apparatus made for a different experiment. Acknowledgment sections are very appropriate and recommended for academic writing, as all equipment utilized usually belongs to the university. Some scientific service providers require a specific form of words in the acknowledgment as part of their regulations. These will be provided along with the results of your submitted sample.
- References Cited Page
- Follow the specific documentation style chosen or required. If citing, for example, a huge reference book of analytical and preparatory chemistry, give the page or chapter number so the reader stands a chance of finding the text you used. It is a good idea to make sure you cite any important references already cited for you in the laboratory instructions and add some more to show that you have looked further than just reading your assignment brief.
- This section is reserved for boring calculations and notes that you made during the actual experimentation process. No one really wants to see your hand written notes, but you are still required to present them to prove that you did observe what you claim in your paper. This section, therefore, usually contains a photocopy of the laboratory notebook page, or pages, that contain data and comments relevant to your paper.
Resources to Use
Seeing as writing in the natural sciences is technical in nature, you will find that your resources are going to have to be scholarly, comprehensive, and up-to-date (the only time you should use a reference that is several years old is to do comparisons). The first step is to educate yourself on your topic by locating information through a simple search. Information and data can be compiled by doing a search and writing down the information you find to familiarize yourself with the subject. When you feel comfortable with the level of knowledge of this information, you can move on to the next step in the research process.
That next step is finding encyclopedias, textbooks, reference books, and the like to continue filling in the details on your topic. These resources will be dedicated to the chosen topic. They will provide more detailed information and help you fill in any holes in your research or to simply answer questions that may have popped up during the information gathering stage. A good way to find if there are newer articles than your favorite reference is to use the citing references feature of many search systems. These might well give you a link to a more comprehensive and up to date reference.
Finally, you will turn to review articles, lab reports, and research reports to get the most up-to-date information. This is the most important resource you will use, and the most challenging. These articles and reports provide information that reveal the most recent discoveries on the chosen topic. However, they also tend to be technical in nature and are written in a way that assumes the reader is familiar with technical jargon associated with the field or subject. While keeping this in mind, review articles and research reports will round out your resource selection nicely.
Don't be afraid to search the Internet for information. There is a great deal of good stuff out there, but you should be careful in what you use. Be sure to gather any Internet information from a scholarly source, such as an educational site or a non-profit site. Use the Internet as a secondary or even better a tertiary source and preferably cite a review article or a journal of record. The citing of either the Internet or encyclopedias is sometimes expressly forbidden so you need to check on institutional policy here. (Despite this some book series, though they have encyclopedia in the title, such as Wiley's The Encyclopedia of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance are actually review journals and are eminently citable.) Internet articles change and so a citation should include the date accessed, for example:
Example citation for internet article. Note that the date accessed has been included.
EDEXCEL http://www.edexcel.org.uk/Qualifications [accessed 27th October 2004].
Acronyms and Abbreviations
Science abounds in acronyms and abbreviations, which can be very irritating if you are not in the know. Even common ones like IR for infrared spectroscopy or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) should be named in full followed by the abbreviation the first time they are mentioned and then the abbreviation used from then on.
Correct use of an Acronym
...the first sessions on Computer Aided Design (CAD) come in the General Computing Laboratory in year 1 (GCLy1). Subsequently CAD teaching is embedded in the course work.
Acronyms do not always mean the same to different people. A RAS can be either a Reusable Asset Specification, or in a system performance context Reliability, Availability and Serviceability or many would guess it is a Random Access Something-or-other
Longer reviews in subjects like biochemistry which have to name numerous macromolecules and cell constituents might require a separate acronyms glossary after the references and bibliography.
- Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students
- The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing
- Online Technical Writing: Online Textbook
- EServer Technical Communication Library
- Writing Lab Reports
- The National Academy of Sciences
- Exercises in Science: A Writing Course
- Standard and Descriptive Sample Lab Reports