Resources: Tools for students
|Below on this Page:||Off-Page, ON-Site:||OFF-Site:|
Being able to manage your time efficiently and effectively is the single most challenging part of university life. Most students complain about not having enough time. We all have exactly the same amount of time, 168 hours a week, but how we use it varies. Many people try to maximize their use of time by multi-tasking. I disagree. I think imagining you can effectively do two or more things at once is self-delusion. Indeed, it can be dangerous, since for example traffic accidents are considerably more likely when drivers are using a cell phone. It is better to focus intensely on one task at a time.
Let's apportion your week so you can see you really do have time enough to manage (given self discipline, of course). I've allotted time for sleep, buying/preparing/eating food, recreation, miscellaneous things like travel and banking, even before considering classes (assa full time load including tutorials or labs), and I have included time for study. Note that you have classes five days a week, but I have assumed everything else over seven days.
|study||3||21||12 hours remaining!|
- Why attend lectures?
- Two components to 'the right stuff' —concepts and facts
- How to take better lecture notes
- How to use lecture notes
Getting the most for your time and effort
When preparing for an exam, study the right stuff. The things that are most important to the course are those that are emphasized during lecture and those in specifically assigned readings. Learn these first and learn them best. General book assignments are important too, of course, and you are responsible for the broad general points that are made in them. But when time is limited, remember that most points on an exam deal with material discussed in lecture.
Why attend lectures? Can downloadable Powerpoint lectures compare to the 'real thing'?
It is an ongoing frustration and amazement to most faculty that a large portion of their students, particularly in early years, do not come to lectures. For some years I avoided posting my notes for 100- and 200- level classes in order to encourage lecture attendance, not that it was entirely successful. Why should you bother if the notes are available on line?
Most faculty spend considerable time and effort preparing lectures. As a result they feel that class attendance is valuable. Only during class time do students have regular opportunities for contact (passive) and interaction (active!) with people who have spent years learning about a particular topic. Make the most of this opportunity! In the late 90's I calculated that the cost of undergraduate education was about $2 per lecture minute calculated as tuition+books+room and board+wages from minimum wage job you could have had otherwise. Costs have increased since.
Concepts allow you to organize information from related aspects of a process. Facts are the details that many people mistake for knowledge. Knowledge of a subject means that you can distinguish concepts and facts, and relate different parts. Concepts give you a framework for cataloguing your facts and relating them to each other. Unorganized or isolated facts are merely trivia.
Good lectures introduce/explain/elaborate concepts and then furnish them with facts. As you review your lecture notes (discussed below) keep in mind that some of each lecture will be conceptual, and some factual. If you learn the concepts first, the facts will be easier to remember. But first, you have to make sense of the stuff you wrote down in class.
Since the lecture material is so important on the exam, it follows that your lecture notes are your most important single resource in studying for the exam. Therefore, accept this as a fact, and do not delude yourself:
They are so bad that even if you were allowed to look at them during an exam, you could not get an A, if that is all you had going for you. Your notes are messy, incomplete, unorganized, often wrong, and written in an impromptu shorthand that you can barely decipher later the same day, and that you cannot make sense of at all on the night before the exam, if that is when you start to study.
Given the stress I have placed on paying attention to your professor during lecture, it is worth considering what I mean by the term "notes". Most important: lecture notes are not a word for word transcript of what your professor says. This is impractical.
First, unless you are trained in shorthand, you cannot hope to write down everything said during a lecture. Most people develop an informal shorthand, but even then they probably will not be able to draw all the diagrams as well as indicate the emphasis the professor places on the subject at hand. If you feel that you need a transcript, invest in a tape-recorder. Most lecturers do not mind being taped, but it is extremely bad form to do so covertly. So, ask your professor for permission.
In the final analysis, the value of a lecture is in the professor's emphasis and interpretation of a particular subject. Therefore, your notes should include key ideas, definitions, topic headings, and particular emphasis. Generally, diagrams will be taken from your text (or another defined source) so you can make notations directly.
If your notes are to be useful for study purposes, rewrite them after class, preferably in the company of a study group but at least with your textbook handy. This is an informal group of students in a given course that has decided to pool resources to optimize their lecture notes. In my courses, the textbook is never wrong and the professor (me!) is always right.
If you find a disagreement, or have a question, clarify it as soon as possible. Ask between/during/before/after class, or phone, or email.
- Rewrite them in English as soon as possible, while the scribbles still make sense. Do it faithfully, as a regular part of your schedule, or you will not do it at all. Use complete sentences; label and explain diagrams even if you think they are quite clear already; try to organize things in sections or categories to show relationships.
- Group effort pays off:
It would be better if you did this after talking over your notes with a friend, or better still with two of them. Rewriting your notes by yourself makes it unlikely that you will catch missing or wrong data, or that you will correctly interpret a cryptic phrase or diagram. But if two of you are doing it cooperatively, the odds of doing it well are considerably higher. Picture this: One of you is responsible for reading/explaining his or her version of the notes that day, while others check theirs against it. Differences will arise: one student says, "Wait, my notes say "A leads to B in spite of C", while yours say "A leads to B because of C"." Then someone says, "C? What C?" Clearly when something like this happens, you are forced to discuss the material in order to arrive at the best possible set of notes. And if you can not agree on what is right, then at least you have identified something to check in the book or to ask about in the next class meeting.
This is important: do some of your studying in groups if possible. The object of this is more than merely to get the benefit of someone else's understanding of the subject. Far more important is the practice you will gain both through explaining what you think you know and through hearing and evaluating the explanations that others offer.
- Why should you learn to explain?
Because you will have to do it a lot on exams. Many exam questions are multiple choice and one word answers, but others require mini-essays of several well-chosen sentences. Essay questions (explanations) generally relate to conceptual questions, i.e. questions where you will be asked to relate facts to each other. You cannot prepare yourself for the exam without practice in explaining (in brief, clear, and accurate language) the things that you "know". That last word is in quotes because until you can do this, you do not really know the material well enough. Think of it—would you practice for a tennis tournament just by reading books and by watching others? All of that is important; but when the games begin you have got to do something, not just read about it. And of course the tournament is the wrong place to try your backhand for the first time.
You have to practice for a test—you cannot do it cold. In practicing for exams, make yourself give clear, accurate, and brief-but-complete explanations, entirely from memory. If working in a group, start by agreeing upon representative questions that might be on the exam, and then take turns answering them, while others point out what parts of the attempts are especially good and what parts need improvement. If studying alone, write out what seem to be good answers, based upon your reading, and then put those answers aside and see how well you can reproduce them from memory. Of course you probably cannot anticipate any of the exam questions verbatim (although often you will be told during lectures specific questions that are likely). What you are trying to do is ensure that you have a good active knowledge of a particular subject that has been emphasized in class. This is something that will stand you in good stead if the subject comes up in some form on the exam, and it will in the very least provide you with practice in the skills of organizing your answers.
It is hard to overemphasize your need for an "active" knowledge of the subjects. If all you do is read your notes, then all you will gain is a passive familiarity with the material. This will help you on the test - multiple choice questions, for instance, test that very form of knowledge, asking you to evaluate something you are reading as being correct or incorrect. But university exams go beyond that to examine your active knowledge, by asking you to provide something written, which someone else (the professor) will evaluate as right or wrong, complete or incomplete, clumsy or elegant. Doing this well takes practice, and the test is the worst possible place to practice.
- Logic: fundamental to scientific explanations
Check to be sure your answers employ the proper "logic" of science. Science concerns itself with how things work in nature, and not with what their purposes may be. Confusion over this point is most likely to occur when trying to answer questions in which the word "why" appears. If asked, for instance, why a certain chemical accumulates at a certain time in a cell, the correct answer would be one dealing with causes, rather than with consequences. That is, you are normally on sounder scientific ground if you say something like, "because the enzyme that ordinarily breaks the chemical down has been inactivated", than if you say "because the chemical will be needed to perform some particular function." The first answer deals with cause and effect - it is "mechanistic", which is one of the principles of scientific reasoning. The second deals with purpose - it is "teleological", and that is an inappropriate way of answering a "why" question in science. If you answer teleologically, you have answered the question wrongly, period.
When explaining causal connections, it is important to build a logical and adequate chain of connection between the initial cause and the final effect. For instance, if you were asked to explain why carbon monoxide kills, you might answer, "Because it stops respiration." That might be adequate in casual conversation, but it is not normally enough on a test. There are too many questions left unanswered. "How does CO inhibit respiration?" "Why does the stopping of respiration lead to death?" Depending on the course and the level of detail normally employed in it for matters of this sort, you might well be expected to offer an answer more along the lines of the following: "CO binds to hemoglobin, inhibiting its ability to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Oxygen is required as the terminal acceptor of electrons in the respiratory electron transport system, which ceases when oxygen is absent. Without respiration, no ATP is generated. And since ATP is the form of energy needed by numerous energy-requiring processes essential to life, death ensues." Notice how many logical links between CO and death can profitably be employed. Some courses would require fewer than these; some might require more. Naturally, it is up to you to have gauged what is appropriate for the course you are in.
To form the habits and instincts of offering "complete" answers, become like the pestiferous child who replies to every statement with the question, "Why?" Ask it always of yourself. It will help your thinking immensely.
A note of caution—the language of science varies somewhat with discipline: For an evolutionary ecologist, "purpose" is a useful concept. Organisms, populations, etc. are so complex that it is difficult to impossible to attribute a characteristic or a phenomenon to a cause(s). For a cell biologist (and particularly for a molecular biologist or a biochemist), "cause" is relevant, although even here there may be more than one. For an ecologist, a multiplicity of causes (and many levels of causation) is best encapsulated as a purpose. Survival value and developmental history are inappropriate for describing a chemical reaction or a biochemical pathway.
- About memorizing
There is nothing undignified about memorization. Often, it is the most efficient way to learn facts, especially if they are organized conceptually. No matter what the subject and no matter what the level, there will always be some things that simply must be committed to memory, especially in the beginning. Remember how you once had to memorize the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet, yet it was not long before you could recognize whole words at a glance, and take in whole sentences and reflect on their meaning even as you continued to read more. It is the same with any subject. At first there are some things you just have to memorize, yet in time you will find that you can reason with them automatically.
What is the best way to commit things to memory?
Like everything else, it must be active, not passive. Do not just read the facts over and over: you will end up dozing off. Instead, try this: make a list of memorizable facts from your lecture notes, placing blanks at the critical places. Then force yourself to go over the list again and again until somehow you can come up with the right word every time. ("The name of the region enclosed by the inner mitochondrial membrane is the __________.") Dozens and dozens of them. Over and over and over again.
- Do it now, and later, but not all night
Finally, do not put off all your studying until the night before the exam. No one will be impressed with your conscientiousness and maturity for having devoted "the entire night" before the exam to just this one subject. First, last minute cramming is not a mature strategy, so you will look poorly organized to your peers and to your professors. No one will care, even if it was two entire nights. Second, tired brains do not think as well as rested ones, and tired bodies perform poorly. Trying to do everything at the end is dumb: it does not work, and your grade will show it. Make sure that you sleep and eat well, so that you will have the best chance to use what you have learned.
After a test—you can draw a deep breath (hopefully, celebrate) and get back to the regular pattern of going to lecture and labs, writing reports and essays ...
But, what if your results weren't as good as you had come to expect from high school? Is it all over for you in your university career? Will you ever get into med school or law after this? Was your professor's expectation unreasonable? Did you just have a bad day? What now?
Are you going to lose heart but stay set in your ways, or are you going to learn from your 'growth' experience?
Don't give up—lots of us have had a bad test, or a bad year, and have gone on to interesting careers, even as professors! In fact, I think the high school-to-university transition may be particularly difficult for students who came in with "A" averages, because many of them (like me) had not learned the mechanics of studying or of preparing for exams.
At this stage, successful university students will be separated from the "merely" bright by how they adjust their high school work and performance strategies to meet university expectations. Remember, you and your classmates have all passed relatively strict admission requirements: the bar has been raised. In order to rank students across a broad grade spread, testing has to be at a higher level too.
This is not to say that professors want their students to do badly. Far from it! If I have a class where the average is justifiably high (which happens, but not often enough) then everyone wins. The class is happy, as I am, because this reflects well on me. My bosses (Department Head and Dean) are happy because this reflects well on the university. But I can't do it alone - freebie grades don't help anyone, since each course is a pre-requisite for a higher level. Also, I keep the final exams for at least a year in case I need to justify a grade.
Writing tests and exams requires a specific set of skills. Like taking lecture notes and studying, exams are easier to "ace" if you know what to expect and what to do.
- Is information in the course being understood?
- Are appropriate analytical skills are being developed?
- These two help the professor to improve their course.
- Am I understanding the content of the course?
- Can I analyze course-related problems satisfactorily?
- These two help students to rank themselves with respect to a absolute standard (e.g., A, B+ ... ) and to the rest of the class (individual grade with respect to the class average)
- Have individual students met a certain level of proficiency in the subject?
- Can students in the class be ranked by their relative proficiency?
- These two are required by the institution (to promote, or grant a degree or certificate) and are used in scholarship and some job competitions.
A consequence of point six is that tests have to be designed to distinguish between poor, adequate, good, and excellent performances. If everyone gets a great mark, then ranking is difficult. Imagine this: the very first test that you had to pass as a baby was extremely important—you had to be able to breathe. But now, since all of us can do that, we cannot use breathing for ranking purposes.
When I think about creating a test, I begin by reviewing my lecture notes and related text material, and listing the concepts I have covered. Note then, that lecture content is critical, since it defines the scope and emphasis of testing. I rank concepts by importance (related to lecture time allotted), and think about how to test for understanding in an interesting way. Facts are the details used to test for conceptual understanding. They are important, but meaningful only in context.
Hint: when you are compiling study notes, making your own concept list is a good way to ensure that you will cover the main points.
There are three major kinds of tests:
- Practical exams are typical for laboratories (Can you identify this? Can you purify that?) but they are also found in other situations. For example, if you are trying out for the local soccer team, you are having a practical test.
- Oral exams are particularly common in graduate school, where there are a series of questions about the student's research topic. Here, the examiners are able to follow a particular line of questioning until they know the depth of student's knowledge, and/or explore its breadth, and so on. Oral exams can be similar to job interviews.
- Written tests can take place over an extended time—these are term papers, essays and theses—or they can time-limited. The latter include the classic university mid-term and final exams.
Time-limited, written exams
There are several kinds of questions, such as:
- multiple choice,
- short answer, and
- essay questions.
Multiple choice questions provide a selection of answer from which the student chooses the best answer. Fill-in-the-blank questions are similar in depth/scope, but require that the student generate information. Short answer questions might ask for a series of facts related to a particular concept. Essay questions are the easiest to pose, but the most difficult to answer (and grade). Generally they require analysis of a situation, and discussion of concepts and related facts. Answers may be one to several pages long.
These are sometimes mistakenly imagined as being a way for the instructor to avoid work, which is inaccurate. Creating a good computer-graded exam takes a very long time, but can be worth the effort to the instructor. Reasons for using this format include that grading is impartial, and statistical information about the class' performance on individual questions can be used to improve the question for the next iteration of the test. The computer doesn't get mentally weary after reading a written answer on the same topic, sometimes several hundred times in a row. It doesn't have to interpret the squiggles we use as handwriting, which sometimes, literally cannot be deciphered, nor does it have to deal with misspelled words. Context in grading is important, since a mediocre answer gives a different impression after a series of good answers compared to a series of bad ones. Also, of course, they save time in grading, so the class gets feedback on their performance sometimes within a few hours, rather than days to weeks. Computer graded questions can be very sophisticated in how they test conceptual understanding as well as factual recall. For all these reasons, they are used for many entrance exams for professional and graduate schools (MCAT, LSAT, GRE...).
Multiple choice exams have standard formats. Typically, the question has a "root" which poses a problem, followed by a series of alternatives, which are the answer and related "distracters". Alternatives may be straightforward, or complex. Further, the root may ask for a choice which is true, or false, or there may be compound answers: for example, "a and b" or "none of the above". Sometimes a situation may be described which has several related questions. At their most trivial, multiple choice questions can be answered by recognizing the proper information. Good multiple choice questions are challenging to create.
Short-answer questions can be based on concepts, as illustrated by the student generating a selection of related facts. "Short answer" means what it says, expecting a concise, targeted answer to a precise question. Depending on the instructor (it is up to you to check!) full sentences might not be required, but correct grammatical usage and spelling. If the question permits tables or diagrams (check!) in the answer, these can summarize a lot of information in a brief space and time. When pressed for time, and always for optimum organization, tabular answers are useful summaries.
In contrast, essay questions are relatively general, allowing the greatest latitude for the scope and depth of the answer, covering conceptual, analytical, and factual information. Essay answers are expected to be in full sentence/paragraph form, with standard grammatical construction and correct spelling. Tables and diagrams, if any, may supplementary to the "real" answer, but these may get partial marks and are worth doing if you are short of time.
- Do not go back and check your work until you have answered every single question, for better or worse. Questions that you don't answer can give you no marks.
- Let your effort be consistent with the marks available, not the amount of space given on the test sheet. Some exams (particularly finals) are written in blank answer books, as many as you need, so there is unlimited space.
- Don 't panic. If you don't know the answer to a particular question immediately, work on the rest of the exam while your subconscious grapples with it.
- If we cannot read your handwriting, we cannot give you a grade on trust. And, if your spelling is erratic, that gives an impression of the quality of thought that went into your answer.
Strategies for multiple choice questions:
- Read the root question carefully, every word. Check whether you are looking for things that do or do not happen. Both are possible.
- Eliminate obvious distractors, to simplify your choices.
- If a compound answer is one of the possibilities, don't assume it will be the right one.
- If compound answers are available, evaluate each choice before making your decision.
- Don't second guess—more often than not your first instinct will be correct.
Strategies for time-limited, written tests—How to decode a question
- First, put your name on each page, in case the staple fails. Pages are normally numbered 1 of 10, 2 of 10 and so on. Did you get each sheet? While you are doing this, make sure you see which sheets have questions, how much they are worth, and how much time is allotted. For example: total for this section: 32 marks / 16 minutes.
- There is a great tendency to read a question quickly and start writing immediately. After all, even imagining a time-limited test can be stressful. And, writing is doing "something" which feels as if you are productive. Still, it is better to think before you write. What should you think about?
- What type of question is it (e.g., short answer) and how many marks is it worth? It is important to make your effort equal to the reward—writing a great essay for a question worth 5% of an exam can only give you 5% of the marks. Generally, the number of marks is related to the number of facts or concepts you need to generate. But beware (and ask questions beforehand) that some professors give one mark per idea, while others give a half or quarter mark.
- Many questions are in two parts—the first defining the basic area, and the second setting limits to the area. What is the focus of the question, and what is required for the answer? Here are questions from a recent exam, which I will decode. I am including the section on concepts being tested so that you can learn more about how a test is designed. When you are writing, you only need think about the question's focus and what is required for the answer.
"Eukaryotic organelles can be grouped into functional categories. List the categories, and give an example of an organelle from each group. Some organelles are exclusively found in plant or animal cells—give an example of each of these. Which organelle(s) is/are found in both eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells?"
Focus: Eukaryotic organelles, their function, and common featuresConcepts being tested:
- What is a eukaryote, and how does it compare to a prokaryote?
- What is an organelle?
- General functions of organelles, with examples.
- How are animals and plants distinguished at a cellular level?
- List the categories of eukaryotic organelles.
- Give an example of an organelle from each category.
- Give an example of an organelle which is found only in plants, and one for animals (maybe include this in the previous section).
- Compare eukaryotes and prokaryotes by naming an organelle common to both groups.
Eukaryotic cells have membranous compartments called organelles, which are specialized for certain metabolic functions. The phospholipid bilayers in these membranes are highly impermeable to all but certain unchanged molecules like oxygen gas. How, then, are most biologically important molecules moved between compartments? Describe as many transport mechanisms as you can, remembering to indicate concentration gradients and/or need for metabolic energy where relevant. Which kind(s) of molecules move using each mechanism?
Note: This is a classic format for essay questions. Although the first two sentences are important for background, and look scary for making the question seem long, they actually focus the area and your answer. The question begins at "How, then, are most biologically ... "
Focus: Eukaryotic, intracellular transport mechanismsConcepts being tested:
- What is a transport mechanism?
- Types of transport?
- Active vs passive
- Molecular vs macromolecular transport -or- through membranes vs between compartments
- Basic mechanism of each type
- List and describe each kind of transport mechanism
- For each mechanism
- Give an example of a molecule that is transported—molecule vs macromolecule; soluble vs membrane component
- Does transport require energy input? What kind?
- Is transport with or against the concentration gradient?
As I am creating exam questions, I also write down sample answers. These are often broader or more detailed than I expect to get, so I also indicate what a minimal answer would be. This simplifies grading and also standardizes my expectations.
As I grade papers, I look for two types of information: the presence of correct answers, and the absence of incorrect answers. Why is the second part important? Imagine that an answer gives three correct points and five incorrect ones. Assuming that the student believed everything they wrote, the value of correct parts is reduced by the others. So, don't assume that writing whatever occurs to you will help you because the professor might find some random value in it. Also, avoid disorganized "data dumps" since they imply a poor grasp of concepts.
As I grade, I also get an impression of the care with which the answer was given. Spelling and grammar do count. Not only does a misspelled word often have a distinct meaning (different from intended) but also it contributes to a sloppy impression. Grammatical errors can change the meaning of the sentence. (Many books are available that cover basic grammar - get one! And read it!!) Finally, there is sheer silliness, for example: "Smoking kills. If you're killed, you've lost a very important part of your life." All of these can lower your grade.
If the test really was long, a standard factor might be added to the class results. However, more frequently, many students finish the test but others do not. Why?
Generally, this reflects differences in the quality and quantity of studying. I discuss study techniques in another section—it has some useful information! Ideally, you should study with a group: compare notes after each lecture, make a study plan, and challenge each other to explain concepts. Play games: who can name the most facts that fit a given category? You can also do this by yourself, but it takes more discipline. However, if you just read the text and lecture notes, or try to do all your studying the night before, you will not be prepared properly.
In all, studying a subject is no different from playing a sport or a musical instrument. The level at which you play is directly related to the effort and time you devote to practicing.
|Below on this page:||
Finding what you need in the scientific literature
When writing term papers in the natural sciences, or when planning and writing about your own research, it's important that you be able to use the scientific literature. I will assume that you can write in a style appropriate to your purpose, or that you will learn this skill elsewhere. The objective of this section is to help you find the scientific literature that you need, to guide your thinking and your writing.
When in doubt, ask! Reference librarians are fabulous resources for helping you to plan library research strategies, for finding specific books on site or through interlibrary loans, and for information management systems.
- To learn about unfamiliar areas. You may not yet know the important facts in an area or the ideas that are currently held. If you are planning to do original research, you may not yet know what research methods are being used by others in the field.
- To document important facts and ideas you wish to present, but for which you cannot claim authorship. You may know very well that all eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane, but if that is central to your argument or to your reasoning on a point, then you must cite an authority as your source, rather than common knowledge.
- To provide your readers with sources they can consult on their own, if they want more information on complex ideas, on a large body of facts, or on a technique. For example, it is typical and useful to refer briefly to certain experimental procedures, and also to use a citation to direct the reader to the original publication, where it is explained in detail.
- Managing your references: Once you find interesting papers, you will need to keep this information organized. Reference managing software enables you to keep a master list of articles (books, websites...), and to search it for items that are relevant for specific reports. As you will have noticed in academic articles (but not necessarily in textbooks) each statement or idea must be supported by data you present, or by reference to data or ideas from elsewhere. The latter are listed at the end of a scientific paper, and referred to individually within the text. This allows your reader to examine your sources, and decide for themselves if they agree with your (or your reference's) interpretation. Reference list format is usually specified by the scientific journal for a paper, by the university for a thesis, or by the professor for an assignment.
Refworks is an excellent software package for reference management, and is available on-line to students at the University of Saskatchewan. New users must create an account. Refworks databases are stored on a remote server, and so are accessible from any computer that has internet access. For off-campus access, you will need to use the group code, RWUSaskat. A detailed description of how to use Refworks is beyond the scope of this discussion; on-line tutorials are available from the Help menu once you have created your Refworks account.
Most papers in scientific journals (for both primary and secondary literature) have gone through a stringent scientific analysis process, called "peer review". Before a paper is accepted for publication, the methods, the data and its interpretation are checked by recognized experts in the field. These experts are chosen by the journal's editors, and their identity is kept secret from the paper's author(s), so that any comments are relatively impartial. The authors then have to correct errors or justify differences in interpretation before the paper is accepted. This process does not guarantee that all scientific papers are free from error, but it helps. Popular literature is not necessarily scientifically valid, so is not appropriate as a source for a scientific paper.
- Primary literature is a collection of articles (often called "papers") in scientific journals, where scientists report for the first time the results of their own research. Scientific journals are periodicals usually devoted largely or solely to this function. Some scientific journals are widely available, e.g. Science and Nature, but most have a relatively limited distribution.
Some journals announce their general content in their titles (e.g. The Journal of Cell Biology), but a great many have names that don't readily explain their contents to a newcomer. Mycologia, for instance, is a journal for the publication of research on fungi, whose name is derived from classical terminology for fungi (mykos) and study (logos). However, The Beaver is not about beavers at all, but instead is a general Canadian history journal.
Research papers describe why and how a piece of research was done, what was found, and what the researcher thinks it means. The research paper in which a particular fact was first reported is the most authoritative and most appropriate reference to cite when documenting or discussing that discovery. Research papers also can be the forums for the original presentation of important ideas, in addition to facts, because the authors who do the work usually know when their discoveries merit a new way of looking at things. Research papers are often the best source of information about various methods to bring to bear upon a research problem, and how to perform them. This is because authors must report their methods in sufficient detail to allow a reader to repeat the work.
Primary research papers are written in a standard format as a series of sections, usually in the following order: title, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, literature cited (references). The only way to know all that a paper contains is to read the whole thing. However, that can be time consuming and inefficient, unless you know that the paper merits the effort: perhaps the paper is assigned reading, or is by a noted researcher in the field. Fortunately, titles are generally crafted to give a clear indication of the major message of the paper. Further, most papers have an abstract (or summary), which summarizes the rationale, method, results and conclusions.
- Secondary literature is published as reviews of the facts and ideas in a particular area of the primary literature. Some scientific journals are exclusively for reviews, e.g. Current Opinion in Cell Biology, while other journals have sections for primary as well as for review literature. More on finding appropriate reviews later. Generally, reviews don't present new data - instead, they present concepts based on experimental results established in the primary literature. The value of a review is in its author(s) having selected important ideas and organized them in a way that makes their pattern clear. It often happens that in writing a review article an author gains a new insight, which is best introduced during an analysis of the existing literature. Therefore, many reviews are the original publication of very important ideas in a field, and so are the most appropriate reference for those ideas. Reviews often end by indicating new and/or promising research areas, if you should be looking for a good topic to study.
Review papers are a wonderful introduction to current concepts in an area, and usually they have extensive lists of citations leading you back to the best of the primary literature. When you find a good review dealing with a subject you're interested in, you have a gold mine.
If you are citing information from a review article, remember to distinguish between data originally presented elsewhere and new concepts developed in the review itself. Data originally presented elsewhere should be cited from its source, but only after you have read the original papers, to make sure that you agree with the review author's interpretation!
That depends where you are to begin with. If you have access to even a single paper or review on the subject of your interest, you are already in. Like the Internet—if you're at one website, you can link from there to anywhere else. How?
- Literature cited
Both primary and review publications end with a section called "Literature Cited" or "References", which provides the complete bibliographic information on every source used. If an article refers to a fact or a study or an idea that isn't fully described in the article itself, this section will tell you where to find it.
A typical form is something like: Forster, Helga and Kurt Mendgen. 1987. Immunocytochemical localization of pectinesterases in hyphae of Phytophthora infestans. Can. J. Bot. 65: 2607-2613. Once you figure out the abbreviation for the journal (which is fairly intuitive, in this case, Canadian Journal of Botany), you would look for the article in volume 65, beginning on page 2607. There are lists of accepted journal abbreviations, e.g. World List of Periodicals, in most library reference sections.
If you're new to the literature in a particular area, you are better off starting with a review article, which usually has more references than in a research paper. Don't worry either way. The introduction section of most research articles begins with a brief summary of the current state of the field. The introduction sets you up to understand why they did what they did, and so that you will be able to follow their reasoning when they say what it meant. Introductions often include citations of review articles. If not, read the references from your source paper, which will be the relevant research papers, and on through their references, until you discover what is important.
So, you can use review articles to find research papers, and you can use research papers to find other research papers and to find reviews as well.
- Science citation index
All the references I have been discussing so far have come at the end of published papers, and must, therefore, be for articles that were already in existence when your "source" article was published—i.e., using its Literature Cited section only lets you look backward in time. But there is also a way to look forward.
Many libraries have a reference publication called Science Citation Index (SCI). With SCI, you can learn which of the thousands of articles that were published after your source article, have cited it in their own Literature Cited sections. So, if you already have an older article on a particular topic, and you want more recent papers and reviews, these can be found using SCI. This type of tool is now available electronically. If you visit a library with SCI, you can ask the reference librarian to show you how to use it. Generally, source articles are listed by first author, journal, volume and page, followed by all the articles that cited it. Then, you can look through those papers, and their literature cited/reference lists.
- What if you're really just starting?
What if you don't yet have your first review or research paper in hand? What if you don't have anything but a subject in mind? What do you do? Do you go to the library and start leafing through primary research articles in journals whose names sound like they're related, and hope you get a hit? NO. That would take forever.
- Find a review article. This assumes that there are reviews in your field of interest—if it isn't currently interesting (to somebody) or broad, then there well may not. Still, be hopeful, and look for a review.
Where are reviews published? Lots of places.
- Books are reviews, and scientific books generally have reference lists. Use the library catalogue, making sure you have a broad search pattern (see below). If you're interested in "the Golgi apparatus of HIV-infected lymphocytes", after you find that (naturally) there isn't a book with that exact title, look for HIV, or for AIDS, or viral disease, etc.
- Reviews are published in series of books with names like "Annual Review of ____", "Current Advances in _____", etc. These are often published annually. Each chapter has a separate author and is devoted to some topic generally related to the title of the series. Each volume has an index.
- Reviews are published in specific periodicals, such as "Current Opinion in ______", and "Trends in ____". These are often relatively short articles, focused on a particular topic. Periodical reviews are shelved with the journals, not with the books.
- Some reviews are published in the same journals that are mainly devoted to primary research articles. If so, one way to find them, aside from a computer search (discussed below) is to go to the "index issues" of journals (usually the December or January issue) and look for the word "review". Some journals use that word in their index, and others don't, in which case you can only find the reviews by scanning the "contents" page of each issue—reviews, if there are any, usually come first.
- Reviews vary in their SCOPE, from relatively broad to focussed, which is often reflected in their length or where they are published. Reviews in books, or book series, are generally more comprehensive. Reviews also vary in IMMEDIACY, how long it takes to get them published. The literature covered in a book review may be a year out of date as soon as a book is published, but somewhat less in a periodical review.
- Computer searches from the terminals in the libraries, or any U of S computer. Start at http://library.usask.ca/
- I like the Alphabetical List of Indexes, Abstracts and Full Text Sources (...Go), which gives a list of electronic databases, and allows you to target your search relatively precisely. This shortens the computer search time, as well as your own, by giving fewer false hits. If you do a lot of literature searches, you can bookmark this page and go there directly. For mycology, Biological Abstracts, Current Contents and Medline are the most useful databases, but there are others.
- Otherwise, if you select: the Catalogue (lots of other choices on a pull-down menu—check them out!)...and...Go... The catalogue gives you have a series of choices—books, journals, newspapers and so on, to focus your search
- * Uof S now has a large selection of electronic journals, so that you can get full text/illustration access/printouts from computers on campus.
- WebSPIRS: This will give you access to a database of authors and subjects that can be configured to your interests. Abstracts are readily available, and some entries have links to the electronic journals.
- Other search engines
Google and Google Scholar: These are excellent sites, the latter focused on academic sites. They may give you .pdf files of articles, and possibly lead to electronic journals, but in addition, it will lead you to websites of people currently involved in your field of interest (leads to check out through WebSPIRS, etc.). Remember: a website is not a peer-reviewed source, and cannot be given the same weight as a refereed article.
First, type in your search terms using Boolean logic and ... Search... Boolean logic is not as scary as it sounds, since basically it means using "and", "or" and "not" to combine or distinguish between terms. On-screen help is available. For example a very specific search for articles on the "Golgi apparatus of HIV-infected lymphocytes", would be "Golgi and HIV and lymphocytes" but you could broaden it to "Golgi and HIV". Just "Golgi" or "HIV" would give you thousands of hits.
You can also search parts of words with a wildcard character, so that swim* will match swims, swimmer, swimming, etc. You can choose between searching for 'words anywhere' or limit your search to 'title', 'Author' or 'subject'. If you choose 'subject' you will search the abstract of the articles in the database you have chosen. The beauty of this system that it is so well designed that most of it is intuitive once you see the screen.
Search terms can include general and specific keywords, author names (initials help here), certain years of publication, review articles, and sometimes language of publication. It is easy to be too general, and tag thousands of references, or too be specific and get none. If you choose more than one database, you can also "hit" the same reference more than once. One useful strategy for streamlining the results of a WebSPIRS search is to start with two or more broad searches, like Saccharomyces and morpho* and cycle, and then "combine" the results.
Once you have found interesting papers, you can read their abstracts electronically (very convenient), choose the most appropriate ones, and then head for the library, if you're not there already. Electronic pdf (portable data format) files may be available from your library website. If not, check the senior author's home page, the journal's home page, and PubMed. Otherwise, libraries are worth exploring and have vast collections that perhaps may never be available electronically. Do not just read the abstract and assume you have read the paper. Remember to keep track of interesting articles with a management system like Refworks.
Most biological references are shelved in the Main Library or the Health Sciences Library or the Veterinary Medicine Library. Details are available through the library catalogue, which also gives you the CALL NUMBER. Call numbers and which library has the journal are also provided on WebSPIRS searches.
The stacks (where the books and journals are shelved in a library) at Uof S are arranged by CALL NUMBER using a system devised by the U.S. Library of Congress. Another common numbering system is called the Dewey decimal system, used in public libraries. Library of Congress call numbers for biological titles generally begin with Q, some with R or T. Books and journals are arranged using the Library of Congress system in the Uof S Main library. Journals in Health Sciences library are arranged alphabetically by title. Books may be in the same stacks as the older volumes (also called back issues) of the journals (Main Library) or shelved separately (Health Sciences). Current issues (usually the latest year) of scientific periodicals are generally shelved in their own section.
Abstracts have two serious limitations: most of the details are omitted, and they depend on the authors' interpretation of their results. Despite the peer review process, and everybody's best intentions, results and/or interpretations can be ambiguous or just plain wrong. So, if you are going to base some of your work on published results, make sure that you believe what those papers say. Some of the most interesting research comes from people not believing a published report, and setting out to test it.
- Reader's needs
- Sections of a report
- Common stylistic problems in scientific reports
- See also Writing Research Reports by Bernard Brown
There are many books devoted to writing and to scientific writing in particular. This is to give you ideas about what scientific writing is, and a simple plan for how to do it. Early on, you may be writing a lab report or a term paper for a course. Later, you may want to submit a manuscript to a journal for publication, or apply for a scholarship or a job. Remember, there are many books on style and composition—here we are discussing the form and function of a scientific report.
Reader's needs: the most important consideration for any writing
What does this mean? Imagine for a moment, now, and then as you write and revise your report, that you are reading it for the first time. Is your information in a logical order? Are your sentences understandable and your paragraphs well organized? Have you described your ideas and results and analyses fully enough, or is there needless detail? Your goal is to teach your reader something, perhaps even to surprise or delight, but never at the end to puzzle, mystify or frustrate.
Who is your reader? For now, your reader is probably your professor or your lab demonstrator. These readers will know a lot about what you are trying to say, but they need to see if you do. The easier your paper is to read and the more complete it is, the better your grade. Later, your reader may be a colleague, or another student, or maybe an editor or a potential employer. These readers might not know much about what you are trying to say, but you can assume that they are bright enough to keep up with you, if you give them understandable information in a sensible sequence. Here, ease of reading can translate into a higher grade, better acceptance of your ideas, publication of your paper, or getting a scholarship or a job.
Regardless of your audience, a beautifully typed paper whose content lacks clarity or intellectual merit will not help you. A useful strategy, unless your paper is for academic credit where you are supposed to be working alone, is to have a friend (preferably more than one!) read a draft and make written comments on it. If they are puzzled or unsure of your meaning, then assume you have not been completely clear. Rewrite that section(s), even if you think your draft-reader was just being obtuse. Your object is to make your thoughts generally understandable, and it is more likely that you could not see your writing objectively. A friend, who takes the time to read your draft, and criticize it rigorously, is doing you a great service. So, be thankful when they point our your errors and inconsistencies. Another strategy, if working alone, is to leave yourself time between drafts (ideally 1-2 days) so that your errors will be easier for you to detect by yourself. This is not always possible, but it is more likely if you do not leave things to the last minute.
On the other hand even the most brilliant ideas and prose will seldom be given their due if poorly presented. Whenever possible, type your reports and have them printed on a good quality printer. Even neat handwriting is more difficult to read than type. It makes for a physically longer report and, since people's script develops quirks (even if stylist or artistic) this requires an extra decoding step. Since your goal is to make life easy for your reader, typed copy is essential. A typed report will not give you higher marks by itself, but anything that puts your reader into a better mood cannot hurt. Remember that your reader is likely to have dozens of papers to grade, and other commitments. Furthermore, I recommend typing it yourself, for several reasons. Most people can type faster than they write neatly, and those that cannot yet do so will improve with practice. Secretarial help is expensive, and is becoming uncommon even in many businesses. Word processors simplify editing, and most have spell check; the best also have grammar check.
When trying anything for the first time, there is no substitute for a good example. For report writing, you should consult scientific journals, to compare advice here to what scientific writers actually do. Notable for their clarity of format are biological journals like the Canadian Journal of Botany and Canadian Journal of Microbiology.
Scientific papers are divided into sections, for efficient communication of your work and thoughts to your reader. Most commonly these are (in order):
- Abstract (or Summary)
- Materials and Methods,
- Results (or Observations)
- Literature Cited (or References) .
Essays and review papers do not have standardized sections. Nevertheless, generally there is an abstract, introduction, middle section, conclusions, and references. Headings are useful for organizing your thoughts, and for allowing your reader to skip to relevant parts.
Headings can be hierarchical, for example I, II, III; A, B, C; 1, 2, 3; a, b, c; i, ii, iii. I have used a less formal system in this article. Blank lines help, too.
The title might indicate the topic you will be discussing, for example: Lab 4—Dependence of photosynthetic activity on wavelength of incident light. OR, it might summarize the take home message of your paper, for example: hyp loci control cell pattern formation in the vegetative mycelium of Aspergillus nidulans. Either way, the title gives your reader their first clue of your paper's contents, and sets up an implicit contract that your report must then fulfill. Currently, titles are often a one-sentence summary of the main message.
Although it is the first section, the Abstract should not be written until the rest of the paper is done because it is a brief summary of everything else. It should be understandable by itself, and briefly tell your reader the main messages in paper.
For example: Aspergillus nidulans grows by apical extension of multinucleate cells called hyphae, which are subdivided by the insertion of crosswalls called septa... This requires coordination between localized growth, nuclear division, and septation. I searched a temperature sensitive mutant collection for strains with conditional defects in growth patterning and identified six mutants...which we called hyp for hypercellular. Phenotypic analyses...of hyp mutants... suggest a mechanism for coordinating apical growth, subapical cell arrest, and mitosis.
Here I described my question, methods and major conclusions, but without details. The ellipses ( ... ) show that I have not reproduced the entire abstract, generally 200-250 words.
The principal functions of the introduction are to put your work into a general context and to define the particular question(s) you will address. First, you must provide a theoretical, practical, and/or historical background so that your reader will be able to understand what you did and why it was worth doing. Second, you must identify your particular topic.
The first part of the introduction is a mini-review where your statements must be supported by references. For example in the hyp paper, you would discuss what is known currently about fungal morphology and about nuclear division and growth controls, each time referring to published work. This can help you to clarify your ideas. You should be finding and reading appropriate references from early on, and jotting down ideas as you go. However, leave writing this section until after you have a good draft of the discussion. Your ideas about your work and its significance might change considerably.
A 'statement of purpose' comes after the 'review' part of the introduction. For example, "Here we describe the characterization of ... five genes that appear to play roles in mycelial cell pattern formation... The hyp mutants have abnormally short subapical cells...but complete the asexual life cycle at restrictive temperature suggesting that they mislocalize growth cues that are required to establish wildtype mycelial growth patterns."
There are several methods for citing your sources, one of the most common is called the "name-date" method. For example, "Septa are formed with a uniform spacing along vegetative hyphae (Fiddy and Trinci, 1976), and septum formation is dependent on mitosis, nuclear positioning and attainment of a critical cell size (Wolkow et al. 1996). For each reference, the complete citation must be given in the Literature Cited (Reference) section, discussed later. Papers with three or more authors are given an abbreviated format in the text: et al. meaning "and the rest".
You must avoid extensive use of direct quotations from your references, which are out of place in scientific writing. A citation is not an excuse to let another author speak for you. Instead, you should state in your own words what you have learned from your reading, while crediting the ideas and facts by use of citations. You can learn how to do this by reading the literature.
Here you describe how you did your experiments and analyzed your results. This is the easiest section to write, and is generally done first. You need not describe every detail if you used a method that was published elsewhere; you cite your source. For instance, "Nuclei in fixed hyphae were stained with the DNA specific stain, mithramycin, following the method of Heath (1980)." Remember to have full details of where to find Heath (1980) in your reference list.
Try to get a good balance between detail and citation. Even if every thing you do has been done exactly like the cited method, it helps to give a short description. This makes your paper easier to read, which you will remember is the most important rule of writing. So for example, although if you followed Heath's (1980) method exactly you might say, "Briefly, fixed hyphae were stained for 5 min in 100µg/ml mithramycin (a gift of Pfizer, Pointe Claire-Dorval, PQ) in PIPES buffer, rinsed in plain buffer and mounted in Citifluor (Marivac, Halifax NS)." If your reader wants more information, it is in Heath's paper. You would need to describe any changes from your published "standard", and explain substantial ones. The first time you mention a chemical or piece of equipment you must give its source, which helps those repeating your work. In my example, mithramycin and Citifluor were mentioned for the first time, unlike PIPES.
If you have no reference to cite for details of your methods, you must state every essential step so that your reader could repeat your experiment. Give recipes for solutions, how and when they were applied, for how long. Following a published example will help with style. Avoid shopping lists for standard glassware and equipment. Be sure to indicate aspects of your procedure that, if done otherwise, might well have caused the results to be different. These facts will be important in comparing your results to what others may have seen when using similar procedures.
Generally, you will have to explain how your data were collected. How were your specimens grown and/or what growth phase were they in.? If cell numbers were monitored, how was this done and at what intervals? If morphology was examined, what aspects were considered and how were they described or quantified? For experimental reports, quantification is a more rigorous form of reporting than description, but often they are combined. Avoid 'many', 'some', or 'a few' in favour of '>80%', 'half', or '=10%'.
Finally, write this section in the third person, past tense, and passive voice. Do not say, "I boiled three flasks." Do say, "Three flasks were boiled." Above all, do not write this like a cookbook. Do not say, "After 24 hrs, examine the tubes for growth." Do say, "After 24 hrs, tubes were examined for growth."
Here you state and show what you saw or measured. Do not make conclusions or discuss the data. That comes in the next section. Data are not presented "raw"; they are analyzed so that they are meaningful.
For example, if you monitored growth rates by taking four cell samples every hour, then average the counts, don't use each of the four individual counts. Most important here are the final values, expressed as the average number of cells per ml, plus or minus a measure of variation like standard deviation. You must also state what measure of variability you used, and the overall statistical significance.
What about photographs, a special kind of raw data? They must be typical or representative (or occasionally exceptional)—depending on the point you are trying to make—and indicated as such.
Generally, scientific data should be given as tables and figures (graphs and photos), each with a number and a title. The text in the Results section should act as a tour guide, leading your reader from item to item (every figure or graph must be referred to, and in order), and drawing attention to the highlights, especially to those that will be important in making conclusions. What, if anything, all this means is given in the discussion.
Results are written in present or past tense, preferably active voice. Present tense is more appropriate when describing results that you think represent absolute values. (The size of human red blood cells is about 7 µm, and you would expect any other researcher to find the same number.) Past tense is more appropriate when describing unique aspects of your results, such as a percentage increase in reaction rate at an elevated temperature. It is possible after all, that if someone repeats your work they may not find quite that exact percentage increase, although you expect them to find enough of an increase to agree with you that temperature has a stimulatory effect.
This section has two purposes:
- to draw conclusions from your results, and
- to compare your results to:
- what others have seen, or
- what might have been expected in light of theory or hypothesis.
It is impossible to fully interpret your own data without referring to related work. If you are writing a paper describing the differences between certain cells in two tissues in your own research, you must refer to what others have seen before in that or other species. If nobody has looked at these particular cells before, still there is work on what some other cells look like, and so you should be comparing your cells to those. Where your results are different from what is expected, you should be proposing possible explanations. This, of course, might well involve you even more deeply in the literature, as you research the different functions of various organs or in the metabolism of separate species.
Of all the sections, the discussion offers you the greatest opportunity for creativity. Use it, but do so wisely—remember, scientists must be constrained within the facts and laws of nature.
Often, shortcomings in a paper can be traced to inadequate amount or quality of reading. It is distressing to read a 15-page report and see that only two sources are referred to over and over again. Your ideas must be supported by a variety of authoritative sources. For details on how to find these sources, see Library Lore. For details on how to manage references, see Refworks at the library.
Wherever possible, use original research literature, articles or books in which ideas and data are presented for their first time. If you are reporting on experiments on the effect of light intensity on photosynthesis, and are stressing in your discussion the similarity (or difference) of your results to those expected, you should cite the original articles from which those data come. Such articles are found in journals with names like "Plant Physiology" or "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences", but not in "The World Book Encyclopedia" or in your first or second-year textbook. Original research papers are good models to study for the format you are now reading about.
Another kind of reference is a review article, either in certain books (such as "Annual Reviews of ..." or "Current Progress in ...", etc.), or sometimes in journals which also have original research results. Review articles analyze current knowledge on a certain topic. These papers are invaluable for the new ideas authors often propose, as well as for their extensive reference lists. Monographs are books devoted to a single subject and are like long review articles, and they should be used in the same way. Of a distinctly lower order of value are textbooks, except for texts in advanced courses, which may actually be monographs.
Finally, there are websites. These are increasingly popular with students, since they are easy to find and access, but less so with academics, since they are difficult to validate. I expect my students to read refereed articles, and become skeptical of their diligence when I see references to websites. What about journals that are exclusively published electronically, and electronic preprints of forthcoming journal articles? These are legitimate, but will say "published on-line on …" and will have a standard journal format.
In writing this section, include only those sources to which you have already referred to in your report. Above all, do not use this as a place to mention papers that you have not cited but only read along the way. List each reference alphabetically by first author, and use the "hanging indentation" form of indentation (shown below) to make it easy for your reader. Be consistent!
- Sample standard format for a journal article:
Hunsley, D. and J. H. Burnett. 1970. The ultrastructural architecture of the walls of some hyphal fungi. Journal of General Microbiology, 62: 203-218.
- for a book:
Alexopoulos, C. J. 1962. Introductory Mycology. 2nd. Ed. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New York.
- for a chapter in an edited book:
Grove, S. N. 1978. The cytology of hyphal tip growth. In, The Filamentous Fungi. Vol. 3. Edited by J. E. Smith and D. R. Berry. John Wiley and Sons. New York. pp. 28 50.
- Topic sentences
- Active vs passive voice
- Sentence order and structure
- Be prepared to edit
- Use spell and grammar check
Poor or missing topic sentences:
- are paragraph titles, and should be understandable on their own
- should be enticing.
"The flow of information does not stop at the hippocampus. Instead ... "
"Memory permits animals to acquire, retain, and retrieve many kinds of information. Without memory ... "
- "Simply put, no one is sure what memory is."
- This statement reduces the force of all that follows. If no one is sure, why bother writing about it? Furthermore, we can define memory in broad and functional terms; it is the neuronal and biochemical basis of memory that is not understood fully.
- "This is passive decay which dictates ... "
- This depends on something from the last paragraph.
Active voice is more vigorous, more engaging, and so it is more interesting to read. Generally it requires fewer words, which is a kindness to your reader. This may be critical for reports or grants with a rigid word limit. Nevertheless, passive voice is traditional for Materials and Methods.
- Passive voice:
- Germination of spores results in the formation of hyphae.
- Active voice:
- Spores germinate to form hyphae.
Memory systems have been seen to have to ability to evolve over time in response to certain environmental pressures. —OR— Memory appears to be an adaptive response
In this paper, current models on the cellular mechanisms of memory will be presented. —OR— Here, I will examine current models of the cellular mechanisms on memory.
- Parallel Construction
- Write simply, and eschew obfuscation!
Word order does not necessarily affect sentence meaning. However, a phrase placed before the main clause is temporarily in limbo. Inverted sentences require extra effort to decode. They give emphasis to the initial phrase, but are problematic if that phrase is overlong. In these examples, the main clauses are underlined.
Example: "To monitor polarization kinetics, spores were inoculated ...."
Example: "To determine the effects of various inhibitors such as cytochalasin A, nocodazole, or calcium channel blockers on the kinetics of germination tube emergence, a marker of polarization efficiency, spores were inoculated ... "
Before information can be stored as memory, sensory data must first be processed. —OR— Sensory data must be processed before it can be stored as memory.
The stations are connected such that a sequential pathway, one for each sensory system, is formed. —OR— The stations are connected as sequential pathways, one for each sensory system.
Present information in grammatically similar form. Ensure that ideas linked by 'and', 'or', 'but' are equivalent in form or type. 'Bad' examples:
Declarative memory is the ability to consciously recall facts, events, or specific stimuli. Implicit memory operates automatically and controls behaviours. —OR— Declarative memories are those which can be consciously recalled, whereas implicit memories are skills and habits.
"First, the development of ... Second, it has been argued that ... "
"Comparing humans and other invertebrates ... " implies that humans are a type of invertebrate.
"It is easy, for example when writing down complex thoughts (reports and essays), to make your sentences as complex as your thinking about your topic (particularly using multiple related modifiers [sometimes called boxcars] and/or subordinate clauses [worse yet: parenthetical asides!]) in your quest for precision—a clever reader may still grasp your meaning, but perhaps 'get' only part of it."
"Although the study of memory in living organisms is exceedingly difficult, the precise understanding of cellular mechanisms of memory would be invaluable in describing the differences between types of memory (Young and Conchar 1992), in tracing the evolution of memory (Campbell 1993), in understanding the development of memory in the individual (Tice and others 1996), and in the development of treatments for neural diseases such as Alzheimer's (Brinton and others 1997; Graf and Kater 1998)."
The above sentence is 75 words, 497 characters—far too long to be read without effort.
This can come from passive vs active voice, or arise spontaneously. How many words you can dispense with, while retaining the meaning? Strive to be concise.
- Inverted sentences are useful for focusing the reader's attention by emphasizing the importance of the initial phrase.
- Inverted sentences give emphasis to the initial phrase.
A question worth asking is whether ... —OR— Does ...
Numerous studies have collectively brought about the conclusion that the hippocampal system is ... —OR— The hippocampal system is ...
"It has been found that" can generally be deleted without loss.
It can be seen from this evidence that ... —OR— Thus ...
The hypotheses that have been postulated in an attempt to explain the expression of LTP are as follows ... —OR— Current models include ...
Be precise, not relative. Avoid overstatement.
- How many? More than half? Smith and Jones (1989) and Brown et al (1997)?
- How many who? Researchers are implied, but trivial nonsense has not been ruled out.
- Apprehensive—uneasy in mind, fearful. Try "unwilling"
- Implicate—deduce from incomplete data
Example: "Many are still apprehensive to implicate LTR as an explanation for memory formation."
Some abbreviations are generally accepted, such as "km" for kilometres. Others are typical for a discipline: FITC for "fluorescein isothiocyanate". All but generally accepted abbreviations should be defined on first use, and/or be listed in a footnote. It is convenient for your reader to have both. Journals have instructions on their required style.
For brevity's sake, an author may choose to define an abbreviation for a frequently used term or phrase, such as FSEM for "freeze substitution electron microscopy". Remember, abbreviations require an extra decoding step from your reader. Use them sparingly.
e.g. and i.e.
- e.g., means "for example" from the Latin, exempli gratia.
i.e., means "that is" from the Latin id est.
Colons ( : ) direct the reader to consider a list; semicolons ( ; ) separate related but independent clauses.
With planning and practice your first drafts will require less and less editing. However, seldom will they be flawless. Spell and grammar check routines will identify simple errors, but you must read your paper for scientific content and sense, continuity, and proper order of thoughts. It is easy to edit on-screen, but surprisingly difficult to identify errors other than the trivial. Since your paper will likely be graded after it is printed out, edit it on a printout. Double-spaced copy helps with editing and is accepted (or even required) for many types of report. Check what format is preferred.
Sloppy spelling is ongoing frustration for many faculty - even if it doesn't matter to you, it does to us, to editors, and to scholarship and grant selection panels. Sloppy spelling and poor grammar are distracting, and detract from the quality of thought and effort that you put into your writing. This is the easiest part of your writing to perfect (there are lots of books available on basic grammar, as well as resources available at many institutions) so it is critical to the overall impression you create.
Spell and grammar check are two of the most useful word processing tools that have been developed, and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated. They can be trained to recognize words that aren't included in the default dictionary, and they can correct common typos as you work. But, remember that they are tools, and not infallible. Check every instance where the program flags your text. Equally important, check where the program doesn't flag, since a correctly spelt but inappropriate word will not be queried.
Summer (in particular, but not exclusively) is high season for scientific conferences! Conferences are where you tell the world about your fascinating research, learn about the latest developments in your field, and establish personal contacts that can lead to a future job or a collaboration. One of the first ways that students present their work in public is by making a "poster"—a condensed, visual, summary of their work. Posters should be stand alone summaries, and should also stimulate conversation at "poster sessions". Given the importance of conference presentations, it is critical to put effort into your poster presentation. Many conferences these days have invited talks and contributed posters, so don't assume this is a stage you will be able to skip.
What are the needs of your audience? The goals of a poster are to present your work, yourself and your lab in the best possible way. But, circumstances often work against this. Poster sessions are generally one or two hours long with two hundred or more contributions—the posters themselves may be up for longer, but untended. During the session there will probably be crowds of people, talking as well as reading. In all, it can be difficult to get the take-home message from any poster.
What does this mean when preparing your poster? Give your essential message in as few words and images as possible—you could have less than five seconds to attract your viewer. Notice that I said "viewer", not "reader". Many people will glance over your poster without really reading it, and in that brief scan you have to convince them that it is worthy of more attention. If your poster is long or complicated, few people will go to the effort of deciphering its message. Having attracted an audience, your poster will still compete with the "scrum" and time pressure.
Keep your message simple. Make one main point and give the data that support it. Finish with a list of your take-home message(s) for people from other disciplines and/or in a hurry. What if you have two main points? Consider making two posters!
Give your main message as a single sentence title. "On the origin of species" is not a good poster title. But, "Species originate from natural selection followed by reproductive isolation." encapsulates a message. By the way, the second version was adapted from Darwin's complete title for this book. Give a summary, which should be related to the one you submitted with your conference application, but never with a nebulous "will be discussed". Remember that many journals limit abstracts to 250 words, in which you must describe your question, method, main result and significance. You can do this, but it takes work. Provide your email address along with your name. Better that you "talk" after the meeting, than never. Sometimes, people print their entire poster on a standard letter size sheet, and leave copies for interested members of the audience (expensive!). If you can do this with your text still legible, then the font is large enough
Keep text to a minimum. Sadly, many posters look like a manuscript mounted on Bristol board—lots of words in a tiny font. If your poster looks like this, print out a fresh copy and submit it to a journal. Posters have a different role. Although they are stand alone descriptions of a piece of research, they are also advertisements to lure viewers to stop and talk. Conversations can lead to exciting new insights or approaches. When confronted with a text-rich poster, I might say to the presenter "Can you walk me through this?" to save time. And, generally, they can summarize their work in a few sentences. It's so much easier to write those sentences on your poster.
Try writing your poster using a very large font. This encourages brevity. How big is big enough? Start with 24 point. You should be able to read it easily using the "page preview" function of a word processor, or the "sorter" function of a presentation package. You should also be able to print out your pages, lay them on the floor, and read them while standing. Use a serif font like Times, which is easy to read on a printed page. Sans serif fonts are better for on-screen legibility. Lower case letters are better for both formats because they have more varied top halves.
A picture is worth a thousand words. If you have a picture of your organism, show it! Don't assume that we remember what "Generis speciorum" looks like—but it might help in understanding your work. Give your data graphically and avoid tables since they take longer to assimilate. If you must show an experimental protocol, use cartoon form. Each picture or graphic should have a stand-alone caption that does not depend on the rest of the poster (like in a journal). Captions should be in big font, too!
Use color as an accent, sparingly. Colour is a great way to draw attention to an important aspect of your work, but a lot of color is distracting. Make sure that your poster "works" in grayscale as well. This ensures that you have chosen a good palette, and helps the 5 10% of viewers whose colour vision is impaired.
Production time is important. Suggestions:
- compose a poster with a powerpoint, inserting pictures as needed (keep a file of images!), print it on a color printer, and then laminate a series 8.5 x 11 inch sheets. Small format sheets cost relatively little (figure your time into the total) and fit in a briefcase without creasing.
- large single sheet posters look professional, but are correspondingly expensive. I make mine in Photoshop at 150 dpi, using layers for each section so I can shift them easily. Convert to jpg for printing, to keep everything as you intended. Remember to convert the colour format to CMYK for printing; the colour balance will look slightly unusual on screen (which uses RGD) but better for the final product.
Estimate cost as height + width in inches, with the total in dollars (a 36" x 36" poster will cost about $72); optional laminating and not-optional tax will be extra. Most conferences have a maximum poster size of 4 x 4 feet, but I recommend keeping width to 3 feet for ease of transport, especially on airplanes. Get a proper tube to transport your poster, and to add to the professional effect. There are models that telescope to accommodate posters of different widths.
Make sure you know where you can get your poster printed well in advance of the inevitable time crunch. Some outfits have fast turnaround, maybe even while you wait (a 1 metre square print takes about 30 min), while others ask for several days just in case.
Typically, people are afraid of public speaking—I was. I couldn't think straight when standing in front of an audience, and every lurking speech impediment got worse. Even practicing speaking aloud on my own, with no one around, was unnerving. Now, quite beyond my expectations when I was in school, I regularly lecture to large classes, and I enjoy it most of the time. But I'm always nervous before I start. I learned because I had to, but it wasn't easy. I should have joined Toastmasters, which has active groups available in most cities. Their goal is to make public speaking easier and more effective.
There is increasing emphasis on having students give presentations in class. In the sciences, these typically involve PowerPoint (from Microsoft) or similar software. Public speaking is a skill set that can be acquired. It requires preparation, attitude adjustment, and mechanics.
Background preparation is related to the facts you are going to present—this is up to you. Assume that the people you see speaking in public have put a lot of work into it. Typically one lecture hour (50 minutes of speaking time) can take 10 or more hours to prepare.
Attitude adjustment is a trick I learned to play on myself, and because I am fairly gullible, I still do this: I pretend that I am not shy, and then act that way. It is like putting on a mental outfit, assuming a role like an actor (which I had never done because of shyness and speech impediments) and then presenting myself as I wished I could be.
This section is mostly on using PowerPoint as a presentation tool, since there are excellent resources regarding seminar structure available elsewhere (e.g. Tackle that Talk! by Bernard S. Brown). PowerPoint is a presentation tool just as word processors are a writing tool. A beautifully typed essay with inadequate content will not get you a good mark, nor will PowerPoint be able to rescue a poorly prepared talk.
- Start with a strong storyline. This will help your audience to remember your content. Once you have the story straight, or at least your interpretation of the story, everything else becomes easier.
- Keep your visual background simple. If you use a graphic, as for example, on this web page, keep it muted.
- Don't rely solely on colour for emphasis. Five to ten percent of your audience will have some colour vision deficit. There is a toggle control that allows you to switch to grayscale, so you can check whether your images still work. Also important because many presentations are made available on a website and most printers are black and white.
- Most screen displays in my experience give superior brightness and contrast to most data projectors, and the illumination in some rooms is less than ideal. So, the bright colours you chose when making the presentation will be muted.
- Human colour vision is optimized for green, but many people have some difficulty distinguishing green from red. What we perceive as yellow is a combination of green and red light, so it looks pale if you have trouble seeing red and green. For everyone, dark red is particularly difficult to see in dim light .
- Colour choices: People used to think that it was easier to see light print on a dark background for presentations, but that might have been a sentimental holdover from an earlier photographic slide production method. At any rate, the pre-set colour combinations have high contrast, so choose one and then concentrate on content.
- Beware animation overuse. If you use slide transitions, make them fast and smooth. Otherwise, they'll hold up your talk, and your audience will become impatient and distracted. Avoid fancy transitions, especially whirling, which personally makes me queasy. Flashing can trigger migraines.
- Title each slide with its main point. Provide content with bulleted text and images.
- Keep the number of words to a minimum or your audience will be tempted to write them down rather than listening to what you are saying. If you need to transmit text in a lecture, make handouts.
- Humans are exquisitely adapted to the visual, so make images the core of your PowerPoint presentation. You're there to provide context, content, and integration.
- Don't go over your allotted time—that's being discourteous and self-absorbed. Practice your talk, and make sure that you cover the major points. Have a timer visible to help with pacing. It is far better to cut your talk short than go over. People can always ask questions afterward.
Excellent resources include Bernard Brown's articles:
The difference between a job and a career
- A job is the position you hold currently (or will soon; now, your main 'job' is to be a student).
- A career is a series of jobs with increasing difficulty, expertise, responsibility, creativity, remuneration. For example, an academic career might involve the following jobs: graduate student, postdoctoral fellow (PDF), assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, department head, dean, ...
A. When and how to prepare for a job hunt
- begin 1-2 years before you feel ready for the next stage (grad school, post-doc, permanent employment) which is just about the time you get comfortable in the current stage
- be prepared to think broadly and outside of typical job classifications—this is the hard work
- think about where you want to be in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 years
- do you prefer:
- working with people or objects?
- variety or routine?
- heading a team or being part of one?
- indoor or outdoor?
- there is nothing wrong with not wanting to have a powerful job—far more important to be happy with what you do than to be bored/stressed out by something you do't enjoy
- different places to work
- academia: variety, flexibility, relative autonomy but far from complete, $
- industry: less autonomy for project choice, often more $$
- self-employed: small (relatively high risk, high work load), medium, large
- government: relative security, ± autonomy depending on position, ± $$
- I recommend the following book, if you can find it: Wishcraft, how to get what you really want, by Barbara Shier and Anne Gottlieb; Ballantine Books; ISBN 0 345-34089-2
- back pages of Science, Nature, Cell, other journals in your field
- internet—see web sites listed on the biology club page
- conferences—word of mouth
- personal contacts—may know of jobs in their dept's, or can alert you to adverts
- head hunters
- classified ads in newspapers—unlikely
- CAUT Bulletin
- contacts in your field—networking is essential for:
- reference letters—it's not just what you know, but who
- source of new ideas and future collaborations
- go to conferences; attend poster sessions, and every presentation session you can manage and talk to lots of people
- give presentations (talks are better than posters, where you have a choice) at every conference you attend—these are good for your cv and good practice
- Curriculum vitae (Latin for 'course of life'), often abbreviated cv
- this is an academic resume, and typically includes sections: address, phone number, email (make sure you have a formal email address for formal use—whimsical names are embarrassing), education, scholarships and awards, publications, presentations, teaching, additional activities.
- keep a running file of everything you do, and edit for particular applications
- "have a life"—you'll be hired for your entire self, not just your professional self:
- o applies to intellectual pursuits, extracurricular activities, recreational outlet
- your future colleagues want someone interesting to work with (person described as "as penetrating as an arrow, and almost as broad" might be brilliant but boring) and a willing colleague
- develop a professional manner:
- you should go to an interview looking as if you are already what you are trying to become—regarding appropriate clothing, accessories, behaviour—this takes practice. Identify role models.
- join a group like Toastmasters (there are chapters almost everywhere) to hone your presentation skills.
- get used to introducing yourself and have a prepared 1-2 sentence summary of your research interest. Just because you might feel shy does not mean you have to act that way.
Most higher level jobs require a cv, cover letter, and for research-based jobs (maybe others, too) a statement of research interests.The goal of your application package is to get an interview, not to tell your life story, not to get a job offer.
- have friends/colleagues/mentors read a draft(s) and make suggestions on format, content, scope—if they say you are confusing, believe them, and rewrite until it is right!
- read job advertisements very carefully, and give them exactly what they ask for: organization and number of pages for research interest statement and cv; number of reprints; letters of reference vs names of potential referees; submission date
- laser printed applications, not ink jet (water soluble ink can smear)
1. Curriculum vitae
- organize—personal info, education, awards and grants, employment, research (include goals) and publications and presentations, teaching (include goals), administration, additional/community
- your cv should begin with your name, not with "Curriculum vitae", and have your name in the header of every page. Staples sometimes fail.
- don't pad, it always shows. If you have an accepted or published paper(s), they go in a different section from submitted manuscripts (which are lower status since they mightn't be accepted). Do not include manuscripts in preparation. Published abstracts should go in the presentation section. Contributed preparations (higher status) should be distinguished from invited ones. Underline your name in multi-author publications or presentations, but do not change the author order.
- use a simple font, consistent format, don't crowd
- spell and grammar check
2. Research statement
- keep it short, preferably no longer than 2 pages. Organization is key to impressing a search sub-committees, who may have many dozens of packages to assess.
- organize—research objective, background, experimental approach, present research, proposed research, funding potential, teaching
- always use spell and grammar check
3. Cover letters
- organize—paragraphs should begin with topic sentences: I am applying for...; I am well qualified for...; I am eager to teach...; It is my intention to develop an externally funded research program to study...; copy of cv and names of refs
- always ask at least four people for reference letters (extras don't count against you) since some people say yes and don't/forget to write; check first to make sure they will write a positive letter; check the format for reference letters (email, paper copy, name/contact information only)
- use spell and grammar check
1. The goal of an interview—to get a job offer
- what employers/departments want
- knowledge about and interest in your future colleagues (do your homework using web pages, getting lists of recent publications, reading papers!)
- enthusiasm: listen, interact, make eye contact especially when someone is talking to you
- for academic jobs - depending on the job type:
- interest in teaching, and ideas for offering new courses, preferably something that the department doesn't offer, that could strengthen their program
- excellence in research; Ability and interest in getting external funding; interest in collaborating with your future colleagues
- preparation and attitude
- get lots of rest—fatigue makes you stupid
- don't drink alcohol (also makes you stupid), or, accept a drink if offered and then play with it but don't drink much of it
- act as if you already are what you want to become (appearance, behaviour)
- in the interview, everything is wonderful—you are prepared to commit yourself entirely to your new department. Don't quibble about trivial things—save this for negotiating the job offer
- don't worry about minor problems (like being a day late for an interview, if there is a good reason like a snowstorm—but then tell them a.s.a.p.)—show that you can cope with the unexpected
- professional quality seminar (maybe also a teaching lecture!)
- assume your audience is bright but ignorant
- cover the background quickly but with enough detail that people don't feel lost
- avoid the temptation to say 'everything' and go over time
- this is annoying and amateurish
- prepare extra slides for your question period, if you leave hints of fascinating details you don't have time to cover in your talk
- become proficient with PowerPoint, which is quickly becoming the most common presentation format
- practise on your colleagues before you go to the interview
- get comments on pace, quality of slides/overheads, quality of presentation
- graphics slides are very effective; text slides should be simple (max 5 lines)
- know how to use a laser pointer effectively and bring one with you
- don't wave the thing around, which can trigger headaches and at the least is distracting—be precise and use it only to highlight a particular points
- An offer is legally binding on the institution but not on you, so don't be afraid to bargain
- the institution is trying to sell themselves to their chosen applicant (also in the interview)
- this is your main chance to negotiate for things that really matter to you, but note that negotiations seldom give you everything you ask for. Institutions have constraints of their own.
- What can you ask for? Remember you will have to justify your requests, or you will leave a bad impression on your future colleagues (who have long memories):
- more salary
- more set-up $
- structural renovations to lab and office space
- reduced teaching in first year(s)
- if possible, avoid teaching first year courses in your first year, a tough combination
- second visit with spouse/family
- help with spousal relocation and job hunt—this is increasingly important as the 'two body problem' becomes more common. If it is so for you, ask at the time you're setting up the interview whether you can schedule meetings with appropriate department(s) on your spouse's behalf. It is better to be up-front about these issues, rather than blithely proceeding as if all will be well, and then withdrawing later if the issue doesn't work out smoothly. From having been on the Search Committee side of the process, I know the institution would rather know early on, and won't think less of you for having a life outside of work.
- generally institutions have relocation and house-buying packages for faculty but not for post-docs, technicians, or students.
- Dr. Jekyl / Mr. Hyde "If you don't ask, they won't offer; if they don't ever say 'no' you haven't asked for enough."
- generally it costs at least $250k to hire one tenure track faculty in the sciences for one year (mounting the job search, salary, benefits, startup)—once the institution has offered the position, they are trying to protect their investment.
- You don't have to accept any given job offer, but:
- if you accept an offer, do it in good faith—you are committing your future to them as they have to you.
- if you're unhappy later on you are not bound to stay, but you are (I think) morally committed to trying to make the situation work, to tell your administration if you are having problems so they can have a chance to help
- remember that transitions are not necessarily entirely smooth, and you could be embarking on a steep learning curve.
- If you have multiple job offers, or a job offer while you have interviews pending:
- do the institution the favour of telling them when you will be able to make a decision, and stick to it. Once you have an offer, they will usually be flexible (to a point) if you tell them up-front.
What is meant by Academic Honesty? The Guidelines for Academic Conduct are the governing principles for ethical behaviour in the teacher-student learning environment at the University of Saskatchewan. They were adopted by University Council in 1999, and reaffirmed by Council in November 2005. University Council is the academic governing body of the University of Saskatchewan. These guidelines include sections on:
In particular, in the context of proper referencing, it is worth noting from the guidelines:
"When pertinent, a teacher should remind students of the need for independent work on assignments, of the need to acknowledge the work of others, and of the definition of plagiarism and its implications."
From Dictionary.com, plagiarism is "the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work."
As a community of scholars, we expect academic honesty from everyone, at all times. Academic misconduct is subject to sanction, which can range from a penalty on an assignment to expulsion. Sadly, the effort involved in being dishonest is often less than in doing the work properly.
- What Happens if a Student is Caught Cheating?
- Student Appeals of Evaluation, Grading and Academic Standing
- Student Discipline