A student’s perspective on student writing skills in science

Science journals for undergraduates that allow students to publish their work and experience peer-review process have been around for a while. Now they are becoming more abundant than ever and last ten years have seen first European undergraduate science journals kicking off.

It is interesting to see what they state as their aims in the light of Richard’s blog and recent discussion about science writing skills of scientists that stemmed from that blog. I didn’t see any that say that they are there to teach students how to write clearly and effectively. Most say they are there to allow students to learn about peer review, to reward students for hard work they’ve done doing the research or to showcase the quality of undergraduate research at the university.

Although undergraduate research journals are popular in the USA, they have only recently started publishing in the UK, based at the University of Chester (Origin), University of Leeds (Biolog-e), University of Surrey (SURJ), University of Nottingham (>BURN), and nationwide by Oxford Journals (Bioscience Horizons).

But are these not perfect places for students to learn how to write clearly both for other scientists (undergraduate journals) and for the public (student popular science magazines)? I would say I learned a lot while writing and editing for student science magazine BlueSci. Initially I was very upset with the changes editors made to my, as I then thought, perfect articles. Later on, with experience in editing I realized that when student scientists write about something they’re passionate about they can make a fallacy of thinking that their writing is as good as their understanding and passion for the subject. This is often not true even when they try to write for popular science outlets.

Going back to learning writing as part of the science degrees; at Oxford we had tutorials each week which meant writing at least an essay or two per week. For keen students this was an ability to really review the topic and write solid 2-3,000 word articles. For the less keen this meant a hassle of putting together a 1,000 word essay. Apart from this, writing experience was minimal. A few lab reports and a dissertation at the end, none of which we were specially trained to write before we actually had to do it.

As a graduate student I had an opportunity to supervise some undergraduates for some of their biology courses. I was horrified to find that second year and even some final year students were never told to list references at the end of their essay. Since many of these supervisions are often similar and somewhat boring for students, I thought I’d make it interesting and get them to read some science blogs and practice writing about their course in blog style article.

The task was to read some blogs on specific topic and then choose the one that really intrigued them and comment on it as they would on a blogging site. Then they should attempt writing a brief blog on the topic from their course. Unfortunately my enthusiasm somewhat surpassed theirs when it came to doing this…Only two of the five students I set this assignmet actually did it. Even these two didn’t submit it thinking this was not important and more or less irrelevant to their course. They were there to get some facts out of me, not to learn about how great blogging was for science. Is this why web 2.0 is failing in biology as Martin reports?

It is nice to know that some people work to encourage science writing even in schools. For a good example of this see the Canadian science journal for school kids Eye on Science.

More on these journals here

Mićo Tatalović

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5 thoughts on “A student’s perspective on student writing skills in science”

  1. I understand your point that students tend to believe that their masterpiece is as perfect as they imagine since they have the dedication and passion on that area of study. But they have to admit that being on a Science degree won’t mean that their publication would be perfectly written. Essay writing is not about Science, publication of their works should still be edited for a clearly information

  2. Yes, I definitely wasn’t aware of these publications before. I wish there’d been something around when I was doing my PhD, it sounds like an excellent way of gettinga a foot in the door and building a portfolio!

  3. I agree with you Cath. Actually, I find if I come back to an article after a week or longer I often make similar editing changes myself.. But I find it fascinating that there is this whole world of student science publishing out there going pretty much unnoticed by the general community.

  4. I share your experience with learning to accept others’ changes to my “perfect” work. I used to get very defensive about edits to my writing, but I quickly realised that the changes usually made my work better. I always put a lot of myself into everything I write, and I sometimes still have to remind myself not to take criticism too personally!