Why Write in the Sciences?

Author: 
Janet Batzli, Biocore, UW-Madison, and Michelle Harris, Biocore, UW-Madison
Description: 
In this excerpt from the Biocore program’s Writing Manual, Janet Batzli and Michelle Harris discuss the role of writing in teaching a scientific discipline such as biology.

The Biology Core Curriculum (Biocore) is a four-semester, laboratory-intensive, writing-intensive intercollege honors program. Each fall, approximately 160 students enter the sequence through Biocore 301/302. The combinations of Biocore 301/302 and Biocore 303/304 each fulfill the University’s Communication B requirement. In Biocore 301/302 and subsequent courses we provide opportunities for students to become actively involved in the process of science and for students to deal with the complexities of real problems. Writing is a key component in our courses because writing is a integral part of ‘doing biology’ which involves asking questions, proposing experiments, communicating results to other scientists, and exposing one’s ideas to discussion and review by peers. We feel that this process is essential in your training as a scientist to get familiar with and gain confidence in the conventions of the discipline. In addition, we feel strongly that writing helps students think about their science, organize their thoughts, and grapple with new ideas. Learning how to write well is empowering and will help you in any profession you choose.

Writing is an integral part of the process of science. The process usually begins when someone gets curious about a topic, asks questions, and forms an idea for an experiment. If the experiment is carried out and yields reproducible results and new knowledge, a scientist writes a paper and/or does an oral presentation to communicate those results.

Through this type of communication, the scientist explains the background and biological rationale for the experiment, presents the data, and generates conclusions using data from the experiment as evidence. The scientist submits the paper to a scientific journal, and the editor sends it to a small group of peer reviewers, 2 or 3 scientists doing research in the same field. The reviewers evaluate the experiment and the conclusions with such questions as: Has the author clearly stated the question being investigated and, if possible, posed a testable hypothesis? Was the experiment logically designed and does the experiment really test what the author claims it tests? Were experimental techniques appropriate and properly performed? Do the data show what the author claims they show; did she/he include appropriate controls that rule out alternative explanations for the data? Are the conclusions logical based on the evidence presented?

The answers to these questions determine whether the peer reviewers recommend to accept or to reject the paper for publication. They may recommend acceptance after the author has made suggested revisions. If published, peers in the larger scientific community evaluate the merit of the experiment. The experimental results may spark new questions or insights among members of the community and point to new directions of study, and the process continues. That is how knowledge is generated and accepted in science.

Scientists spend a tremendous amount of time writing. In addition to journal articles, they write grant proposals, progress reports, review articles, technical reports, lectures, textbooks, memoranda, evaluations, letters of recommendation, product descriptions, press releases, and news articles.

We provide many opportunities for you to write and receive feedback in Biocore, not only because writing will be important in your future career, but also because writing is one of the best ways to learn. In Writing to Learn (1988), William Zinsser notes, "writing is how we think our way into a discipline, organize our thoughts about it, and generate new ideas." Writing sharpens your thinking and reasoning skills. To write clearly you must think clearly. To think clearly you must understand the topic you are trying to write about. As you try to reason your way through a paper you find out what you know - and what you don’t know - about whatever you're trying to learn, and you begin to make it your own (Zinsser, 1988). If you need any further motivation, note that graduate and medical school admissions tests now include a section for assessing your writing ability.

Learning to write effectively is a process. Even experienced writers struggle to be clear and seldom achieve it on the first try. It takes practice and feedback and more practice. You will have many opportunities to have your writing reviewed by TAs and peers in all of your Biocore labs. Initially, the review process may be painful. Try not to be discouraged. It is the writing that is evaluated, not the writer. Use these evaluations as opportunities to help you improve your writing.