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Gary Bortolotti, Biology Faculty

Style in the Sciences

Should undergraduates read journal articles to get a better sense of how to write for the sciences?

[Undergraduate students] should always be exposed to the primary literature ..., and we, at least in the sciences, always discourage people from using secondary sources. So we really want people to see how original research is presented. It does, although, vary with journals and whatnot. Some scientific journals, like "Nature" and "Science," have everything so abbreviated that it's hard for your average undergraduate to appreciate because so few details are presented, whereas most of the other journals have a much lengthier text where you can have some opportunity to write. It's interesting submitting something to those journals. Those journals, for example, "Nature" gives you...the most important thing to them is their summary at the very beginning. It's... I think it's called a summary or an abstract; I can't remember. They actually give you an example, and they tell you exactly how to write it: one sentence for this, one sentence for that, one sentence for your objectives, then state, "Here we show this." They actually tell you sentence by sentence what you're allowed to say. It's a template. Really, what that does, [is] it forces you to say "I have one sentence to give my entire methods. I just spent three years of my life studying this, from umpteen... How can I say it in one sentence?" Well, you have to. Those are actually really good exercises.