Students and scientific writing – part I

Writing reports, articles, conference abstracts or research applications is not an easy task and needs advice and quite some practice. Many students have, unfortunately, had very little time to practice writing during their undergraduate studies, and when they are finally faced with writing their BSc or MSc thesis, or their PhD thesis they get into problems.
During the past months I have read and corrected many student reports, BSc, MSc theses and manuscript drafts, and all of these had the same recurrent issues. So here is a blog about writing for students.

Problem #1
Many students are not aware of the fact that it actually takes time to write a report or manuscript, to make all necessary illustrations and tables, and to correct the draft once the supervisor has read it and made comments.
Advice: give yourself time to write and to make your figures; give your supervisor time to read and correct your text; write one chapter and give it to your supervisor to read, so that you can get feedback and can make the next chapter better.

Problem #2
Many students are not aware of the fact that copying someone’s text and pasting it into their work is strictly forbidden. Have they never been told, or did they not listen to what the teachers told them? Written words are a property, and one cannot just steal a text because it is ‘so nicely and elegantly formulated’. Those who wrote the original text have spent hours and days to get it so nice and elegant! Internet access to journal publications, easy copy/paste from all kinds of documents and other sources clearly invites to do the copy/paste thing! But whenever a student presents an elegant formulation and a perfectly written English or Swedish text, he/she can be sure that it is only too clear that the text is stolen and a copy/paste thing!

Problem #3
Building up a story in a logical way seems to be another real obstacle for many students. I find it difficult to explain how to make a story logical, and my best recipe is to imagine that one tells the story to a friend who does not know anything about the background, the methods, and how to interpret the results. This means one has to carefully guide this friend through the whole thing, from one step to the next so that he/she really can follow and hopefully understand.

Let’s take an introduction chapter as an example. What should the introduction contain? It should introduce a reader to the problem, i.e to your work. It should provide enough background information to allow the reader to understand and evaluate the results of your study without having to consult previous publications on the topic. In the introduction you state the hypothesis that was addressed or the rationale for the present study. The context of your work, the focus/questions of your work and how you have answered these questions. I often find it helpful to focus on some of the following questions: Why? What? Where? When? How? Who? Which?
What is the issue/problem and why? – Describe and explain the problem, context. How can it be addressed/solved/approached? – Describe how your study helps understanding the problem better, which methods have you used and what are your hypotheses? Try to guide the reader from one step to the next, don’t jump from one thing to the next, don’t repeat things, and do not exaggerate.

Advice: So much advice is already available in respect to scientific writing on numerous good webpages – take a look at these and read through them! It does help!

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