10 September 2010

Science writing as seen by students

In one of my technical writing classes this week, I conducted an informal poll. I gave students the first page of a new article in Cell, and the first printed page of author Carl Zimmer’s blog post based on the selfsame paper.

Then, I asked them what was different about the two styles of writing. Here’s the list they came up with, in the order they arrived at them, with only the last one being my addition.

Journal article Blog post
Rare words Common words
Divided into sections Continuous
Dull Interesting
Scholarly Opinions
Few examples Many examples
Specific General
Forum for scientific debate Not intended for debate
Supported by authors’ credentials Supported by author’s reputation
Concise Expansive

I was interested by the issue of rare words. There were at least eight words on the first page of the journal article that at least one student had no concept of what it meant. From memory, some were “protostome,” “olfactory,” “prebilaterian,” “topology,” “errant.” There wasn’t one word in the excerpt of Carl Zimmer’s article that they didn’t recognize.

Some of the students also thought that scientific journals required people have doctorates to publish in them – which I’ve never seen listed as a requirement for any journal. It was kind of fun to tell them that I’d co-authored a journal article with someone who was in high school at the time we did most of the work.

That students brought out the idea of a journal as a place for debate stands in contrast to this morning’s post at The Scholarly Kitchen about how little debate there is in journals.

Finally, I’m a little worried. Point #3 on this list suggests I am supposed to teach the students how to be boring.


Tomer R, Denes AS, Tessmar-Raible K, Arendt D. 2010. Profiling by image registration reveals common origin of annelid mushroom bodies and vertebrate pallium. Cell 142(5): 800-809. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2010.07.043


Lucas Brouwers said...

What a great idea! Aside from educational benefits, they also get to seem some of the finest science writing out there..
Did you also ask the students whether they thought journal articles should be written more like Carl Zimmer's posts and what the potential disadvantages could be?

Zen Faulkes said...

After one of the students suggested journal articles were dry / dull / what have you, I did ask, "Should it be that way?", but didn't explore it in any detail.

The advantage of a semester long course is that I have 13 more weeks for them to think about some of these ideas.

Diane said...

Students need to "slow down" when they first begin reading a scientific paper. Each sentence needs to be broken down and analyzed.
The difference between scientific papers and the typical student blog is a scientific paper is built from many scientists and their research and a blog is a collection of mostly unrelated statements and opinions.
In my opinion, most blogs are boring (with the exception of NeuroDojo since you insert links to cool research papers and discuss science in general).