Reflections on Scientific Writing ISCI610B

Final papers are a recurrent element within academics.  But there are few classes where the final product has external relevance.   In many cases demonstrating competence is the main utility involved in writing papers and any relevance to external parties is secondary.  Of course, from a metacognitive standpoint, all of the artifacts produced as coursework can serve as external indicators of internal development.  But this utility is still within the context of the writing reflecting something about the student as opposed to the student contributing and original discussion that is useful for peers.

This class was different in that the main learning goals were focused on becoming an effective communicator to external stakeholders, specifically in the context of scientific writing.   I think the class was effective at facilitating development in this area.

Science writing is both similar and distinct from other types of narratives.  It is similar in that it relies on competency in the same basic skills associated with any narrative form such as proper grammar.  It is also similar in that scientific writing must be coherent and facilitate reader comprehension.  But scientific writing is distinct because it requires that additional layers of rigor and synthesis be applied to the narrative.  Hyperbole and rhetoric, which are powerful tools for persuasion in other areas of narrative become potential sources for the introduction of bias.   Scientific writing also relies heavily on the passive voice and when done well, directly addresses any limits of research or inconsistencies in research even if they constitute an uncomfortable presence to a clean and tidy discussion.   In this way, scientific writing is more cautious than other types of persuasive writing, but it is also ultimately more honest.

Another way that this course shaped my perspective on writing is the new awareness that elegant writing can be simple writing.  Effective scientific writing needs to actively synthesize complex information and then leverage the reader’s anticipated concept of how information “should” flow to enhance comprehension.  This is distinct from other forms of writing where the emphasis is placed more on producing a comprehensive narrative and expecting the reader to synthesize their own meaning from the text.  Many examples of profoundly important professional writing are, by design, open to many interpretations.  Effective science writing avoids this level of ambiguity and it should be capable of this specificity irrespective of the intended audience.

Despite it’s continued flaws and amateur provenance, I think the small literature review that I completed over the course of this class is an effective example of original science writing.   I think in hindsight, this project served as an important moment in the transition from “writing as student to relay information about myself” to “writing as professional contributing to the global body of science.”   There is a rubicon like element to this transition too.  I have noticed that in the other classes I am taking the way that I write and the way that I use citations has transitioned from one that reinforces my existing bias to one that strives to eliminate it.

I do want to continue building skills related to writing scientifically.  I have decided to participate in the poster symposium and look for other methods of writing scientifically while at MUIH.