A Student Handbook for Writing in Biology

Karin Knisely, Bucknell University
Karin Knisely, Bucknell University

A Student Handbook for Writing in Biology

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Description

This book provides practical advice to students who are learning to write according to the conventions in biology. The first chapter introduces the scientific method and experimental design. Because the scientific method relies on the work of other scientists, Chapter 2 provides instructions for finding primary literature using article databases and scholarly search engines. Journal articles have a well-defined structure, but are typically...

This book provides practical advice to students who are learning to write according to the conventions in biology. The first chapter introduces the scientific method and experimental design. Because the scientific method relies on the work of other scientists, Chapter 2 provides instructions for finding primary literature using article databases and scholarly search engines. Journal articles have a well-defined structure, but are typically hard to read because they are written for specialists. To help students read and comprehend the technical literature, Chapter 3 describes scientific paper tone and format, provides strategies for reading technical material, emphasizes the importance of paraphrasing when taking notes, and gives examples of how to present and cite information to avoid plagiarism. Using the standards of journal publication as a model, students are then given specific instructions for writing their own laboratory reports with accepted format and content, self-evaluating drafts, and using peer and instructor feedback to refine their writing. Besides writing about it, scientists communicate scientific knowledge through posters and oral presentations. How these presentation forms differ from papers in terms of purpose, content, and delivery is the subject of the last two chapters of the book.

Scientific communication requires more than excellent writing skills—it requires technical competence on the computer. Most first-year students have had little experience producing Greek letters and mathematical symbols, sub- and superscripted characters, graphs, tables, and equations. Yet these are characteristics of scientific papers that require a familiarity with the computer beyond basic keyboarding skills. Furthermore, most first-year students are used to doing calculations on a handheld calculator. When they learn how to use Excel’s formulas to do repetitive calculations, their time spent on data analysis decreases markedly. For exactly these reasons, almost half of the book is devoted to Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint features that enable scientists to produce professional quality papers, graphs, posters, and oral presentations effectively and efficiently.

In the Fifth Edition, the appendices have been updated for Microsoft Office 2013 and Office 2016 for Mac. Separate video tutorials for Mac and PC (Windows) replace many of the screen shots in the previous editions. Video support not only makes the book shorter, it reflects student preference for visual learning materials. Specific video instruction is provided on formatting documents in Word; applying formulas, making graphs, and saving graphs as chart templates in Excel; and preparing multi-purpose oral presentations in PowerPoint.

In Chapter 2, the advantages and disadvantages of the most commonly used databases are highlighted. An approach is described for using the databases strategically to find and access scholarly information. Proquest Refworks is used as an example of how reference management software facilitates in-text and end reference formatting. In Chapter 3, the sections on reading journal articles and textbooks have been expanded to reflect best practices recommended by university teaching and learning centers. In particular, strategies are provided to help students improve comprehension and retention of what they read. When applied effectively, these same strategies also help students avoid plagiarism.

Chapter 4 provides step-by-step instructions for writing lab reports. The prominent headings throughout the Fifth Edition make it easier to find the important concepts and highlight the specific kinds of problems encountered by students who have little experience writing scientific papers in biology. Many examples of faulty writing and how to correct it are given. The sections on writing the Introduction and Discussion sections have been expanded to help students decide how much and what kind of background information is needed in the introduction and how to structure their discussion to build a strong case for their conclusions. Documentation style has been updated in accordance with the latest edition of the CSE Manual (2014). Chapter 5 describes a systematic approach to revision. A new section on instructor feedback has been added, which illustrates how grading electronic versions of student lab reports can save time and improve consistency. For instructors who prefer to grade assignments on paper, Chapter 6 has a short list of proofreading marks as well as abbreviations and explanations for comments on the kinds of errors typically made by beginning writers. These tables are available on the website as a Word file so that instructors can customize them for specific assignments. Students will also find these comments useful to avoid making these errors in the first place. On the flip side, the expanded Biology Lab Report Checklist and the numerous shorter checklists throughout the book show students what content should be included in their lab reports. In response to user feedback, a “lab report in need of revision” has been added to Chapter 6. The annotations in the margin of this and the “good” student lab report illustrate characteristics of scientific writing that pertain to both content and style.

Chapter 8 on preparing oral presentations has been updated to reflect the fact that PowerPoint slide decks often serve multiple, not necessarily compatible, functions. These functions include visual aids for the audience, prompts for the speaker, and reference material for those who cannot attend the talk. Some options for structuring slide decks to meet these different needs are described. In addition, Chapter 8 has a new section on dealing with lapses in audience attention during a talk.

While some users of this book may enjoy reading it cover-to-cover, the majority will use it primarily as a look-up reference. Most of the sections are designed to stand alone so that readers can look up a topic in the index and find the answer to their question. Those who want to learn more about the topic have the option of reading related sections or entire chapters. The Fifth Edition is also available in an e-version for those who prefer to “pack light” and search rapidly and efficiently.

The book is augmented by ancillary materials available on the Sinauer Associates Web page. A biology lab report template in Microsoft Word provides prompts that help students get used to scientific paper format and content. The Biology Lab Report Checklist can be printed out to help students self-evaluate or peer review lab reports. Both instructors and students may find the Proofreading Marks and Laboratory Report Comments tables handy for use in both the revision and feedback stages. The Evaluation Form for Oral Presentations enables listeners to provide feedback to the speaker on things that he/she is doing well as well as areas that need improvement. Similarly, the Evaluation Form for Poster Presentations can be used as a checklist for the presenter and an evaluation tool for visitors during the actual poster session. All of the above documents are available for downloading from the download page for A Student Handbook for Writing in Biology, Fifth Edition.

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Karin Knisely is Lab Director of Core Course Biology at Bucknell University. She earned a B.S. in Biology from Bucknell, (where she was a three-sport athlete and is now enshrined in the Athletics Hall of Fame) and an M.S. in Zoology from the University of New Hampshire. She then completed a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) fellowship at the University of Konstanz (the German equivalent of a Fulbright fellowship). Bilingual in German and English, she sometimes works, outside of the academic year, as a freelance translator.