Good Science: Why Academic Writing should be an Essential Part of any B.Sc. Degree

Science Image by Sean Loosier, Flickr

Image by Sean Loosier, Flickr

The scientist and the writer could not be more different. The former is concise and rational, while the latter often verbose and artistic. Therefore, it should not be surprising that many science students, especially at the university level, shy away from any kind of intensive writing. Others still take every measure to avoid it entirely, painstakingly building their course schedules around classes that assess performance solely based on multiple choice examinations. Though this might be an alarming fact (considering that most of these young people are studying to become our future doctors and scientific leaders) it is not really that surprising.

Speaking from experience, to excel at any scientific discipline (at least in the classroom) you learn early on that memorization and mathematics are more important than coherent prose. You get marks for what you know, not how well you communicate it. One word answers are best, bullet points are rewarded and sentences unnecessary. Beware of being stylistic or using advanced syntax; these practices are likely to lower your mark regardless of whether or not they enhance your work.

You could argue that this lack of emphasis on writing is an inherent quality of the scientific study – and you would not be wrong. The humanities and social sciences by the very nature of their subject matter not only lend themselves more easily to written evaluations, but quite often they require it. Therefore, the ability to write, and write well, is unintentionally cultivated in students of these disciplines because it is often the key to getting higher grades. Complex arguments and new insights are almost impossible to assess using multiple choice questions, whereas you don’t need an essay to confirm that a biology major knows what the genetic material is (Answer: DNA).

Though a good explanation for this anti-writing trend in science, it by no means justifies it. Writing is an essential part of our existence, especially in the modern global society. Face to face communication will only get you so far, but to really have an impact you need to be able to clearly transfer your ideas to paper. What good is all of this knowledge if you can’t communicate it in a way that will get people to sit up and take notice? Many researchers are doing brilliant work and publish incredible findings on a regular basis, but their prose is so convoluted, confusing or technical that their genius gets lost in translation.

As a result, the term “scientist” has almost become synonymous with “poor writer”. While this is by no means true of everyone pursuing this profession, it is quickly becoming a stereotype. Though not fundamentally negative, this label is not one that should be allowed to persist and I commend the various educators that are personally making an effort to remedy the situation. However, a lot of the interventions come too late. By the upper years, students have become used to a certain style of assessment and they are reluctant to change. Academic writing needs to be a priority from the start in order to allow science majors a chance to improve and gain confidence in their ability. The importance of good writing should never be an afterthought.

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