Students and scientific writing – part III

Most of my scientific writing is in Earth Sciences, and most of my articles have been published in Earth Science journals. The BSc, MSc and PhD students who I had supervised and am currently supervising are Geology or Earth Science students. Most of my students were and are faced with similar problems in respect to scientific writing. One problem is the difficulty to write in a foreign language and to use terms that are not commonly used in an everyday language, and the other problem is how to composed a scientific text, i.e. how to make the text logic, place the text in the right order, separate results and discussion, and so on. I find myself repeating the same story over and over again when sitting down with a student to go through his/her text: what is an introduction, what should come in the methods chapter, what is a result chapter and what should be placed in the discussion; how should references be cited and used in a text, and much more. That is why I have finally come to the conclusion to write a blog about scientific writing, a blog that may give my current and future students some help and advice on how to compose their manuscripts or reports.

Part I and part II  of my earlier blogs dealt with how to write an introduction and how to cite text references. The next steps you would need to take will be slightly different depending on if you are writing (i) a manuscript about your latest research findings which will be submitted to a journal; (ii) an overview article summarizing the findings of the last decade or so in your field; (iii) a BSc or MSc thesis.
In case of (i) you would likely proceed to describe your study area; and in case of (ii) and (iii) you would provide a thorough review on the background literature, i.e. what had been done in your respective field and which results had been achieved.

Problem #5 – background
Background reviews can be really boring to read, but can also be made into a fascinating story on how ideas have evolved and how science has moved forward; the background can tell in a much greater detail than the introduction what contrasting views exist and why these exist; and what the outstanding issues in the field are. A text which just lines up that reference 1 has studied issue 1, reference 2 has analysed issue 2, and reference 3 has highlighted issue 3, is boring reading. It is much better to describe the major results that reference 1 has found and how they compare to those found by references 2 and 3. The absolutely best way of learning how to write a background chapter is actually by reading different people’s articles, and by doing so one can get a good perspective on what is a good and easy to read background review, and what is a not so good review. You will immediately get the difference!
Advice: read, read and read what others have written, and try to analyse the text! Then try to write the background to your story, read it, change it, read it again, and try to get a feeling for whether your text flows or not. Be critical to your own text and always keep in mind that you want to tell an interesting story to someone else!

Problem #6 – study area
Many articles in Earth Science deal with results of fieldwork carried out in a specific area – the study area. The persons who are reading your manuscript/article want to know where this area is, what its geology and geomorphology look like, what the climatic conditions are, and what type of vegetation there is. Why? Because it provides the reader with background information to being able to picture what your study region looks like. And, to illustrate what you are writing about, the location, geology, topography, climate and vegetation would need to be illustrated with maps. You almost always need a map showing where your study area is in relation to Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia, etc., and a close-up map of your study area/site that includes the topography of the area/site. If you have worked with a special outcrop in an area, or taken a sediment core in a lake, you would definitely want to mark the location of these on the map. Maybe you will need several maps, one to show where your area is, one to show a close-up of the study area, and one to provide a close-up of the section, or the lake. All three maps can be merged into one map. Depending on the focus of your manuscript, you may also need to add maps showing the geology, climate and/or vegetation of the area.
Advice: check out how other people have made their maps and how they present their study area. Moreover, make the maps before you describe your study area. It is so much easier to write about something that is in front of your eyes. And – don’t forget to make the maps readable – adjust the font size, line thickness, fillings etc so that the map/s can be reduced to the format of the journal. Don’t forget to include a legend, coordinates, and a scale!

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