All professional scientists (and most other graduates) will have to be able to write coherently in a number of different styles. Academic research papers, internal reports in a company, development proposals, correspondence, and financial justifications are just some of the forms of writing that come to mind. Part of the degree course here should contain guidance and practice in this important skill.
The information that we provide here is based on materials presented in our JH module "Transferable Skills for Physicists". These students have whole-class, small-group, and individual work on scientific communication. Some of this material is being made openly available to all students, including particularly those doing final year project reports.When writing any piece of work you should be asking who is the intended audience, what is the message you are trying to put across, and what is the style in which the writing is required. Books, journals, funding agencies, etc may have different needs in terms of assumed knowledge, formatting, etc. They will all likely have similar needs in terms of the use of technical English, referencing, diagrams, etc. Depending on what you are writing, you are advised to read some journal papers, books, or general interest material such as that in Physics Today or Physics World. You should also look carefully at the specifications laid down by those asking for your writing. If you have any questions, please ask your supervisor or the member of staff who is asking for the work.
There are various books available on scientific writing. In the J F Allen library we have, for example
For a physics-educated audience a general review might usefully match the style of the articles in Physics Today. You are advised to read a few such articles from this magazine in our library or online. Depending on your interests, you may wish to look at one or more of the following published reviews:-
Doing the Reading and Research
You are likely to be making use of material from journals and from books. When doing this reading it is useful to take notes not just about the science, but also where you have read this science. This makes it much easier to find that information again if needed, and also allows you to give proper referencing in the report. You will have to ask yourself how much reading is needed, and how well you understand what is being read about. You should aim to be on top of all the relevant science before coming to write your piece, but you need not necessarily know everything there is to know about everything in each paper. You will have to judge what things it is important for you to understand fully. It is probably fair to say that unless you understand the relevant material well, it is very difficult to tell a coherent story without being tempted to copy the work of others to the level where plagiarism may be an issue. It may be that it would be helpful to discuss parts of your understanding, or questions about it, with your supervisor. Please use archival sources such as journals and books as well as any general websites that you may choose to consult.
If you are writing up your project work, you will also have been doing research in the area, and this is something that you should be discussing on a regular basis with your project supervisor. You may wish to cast your mind back to the formal reports on experiments that you wrote in earlier years, and think about what you were told then, and what feedback you had on that work. Those who have done PH3014 should consider what they found there, and what feedback hey had on their work.
Structuring the Writing
When starting on a piece of writing you will need to know who is the intended audience of your work, in order that you can write at an appropriate level. You will need to know on what subject you are writing, and do the relevant reading or research to find material. You will need to know how much space you have (or how many words you are allowed), and what is the style you have to follow. You are also likely to have deadlines to meet. If project studnets have questions about any aspect of your review essay or project report, please do ask your project supervisor. They are there to answer your questions. The same is true for other pieces of written work and the person or people who have asked for those.
Our students have done some formal writing in second year physics, and have had feedback on that -think back to what you did then and what suggestions you got from the feedback. Those who have done honours lab reports, and those who have done Transferable Skills for Physicists should likewise look back at what they did and what feedback they got from written assignments there.
Think about how you are going to present your "story" to your audience. In scientific writing it is often useful to have an introduction, a structured development of the topic, conclusions, and references, in that order. What are the main things you wish to put across? Are there competing theories to weigh up? How does your work contribute to the literature?
Your main development of the topic may well split up into various sections, possibly ranging from material expected to be familiar to the reader to stuff that is new. It is normally sensible to keep each of these sections to some extent self-contained, rather than writing for example ten sections on methods followed by ten sections on experimental results, etc.
Before starting the writing it is likely to be useful to plan out your piece. It may be useful to start with the main section headings, and then under each of those have a series of bullet points that you will later expand to give your arguments. Those writing project review essays and reports may find it useful to discuss this document with their supervisor, going to them with a list of questions that you may have about your structure.
The amount of use of equations will depend on your topic area. Most project reports will have a substantial theory section, but reports from theoretical physicists will typically have a large amount of theoretical development. Most project reports will benefit from the use of diagrams and illustrations that are relevant to the text.
Items more specific to Project Reports
Please look again at the instructions that you have been given for the content and style of the project reports.
Although much of the scientific literature is in the third person, eg "This was done", when you are writing a report on the research or development that you have done it is entirely acceptable to use the first person. If you have done something clever in the lab or in a theoretical derivation, it seems reasonable to let people know that you were the person who achieved this. Examples might be:-
"Due to the high levels of light scattering I decided to put an interference filter in front of the photodiode, and this resulted in a factor of ten increase of signal to noise."
"My project supervisor and I determined that this function was not well behaved as psi tended to 3, so we decided to ...."
A well structured piece of writing with good use of English makes it easier for others to take on board your ideas or what you have done. Please bear in mind that the main purpose of your scientific writing is to educate, not to entertain. However, a well written piece of work that explains and discusses the science involved can also be enjoyable to read. Please consider who is your audience, what they should know already, and what they expect to see in a piece of writing that you have been asked to do.
An interesting set of pages on common errors in the use of American English is available from Washington State University.
Please use the spell-checker (UK version) on the word processor to check your article. But you also need your own intelligence to get rid of problems such as those in the following examples of student work
A few grammatical and typographical reminders are below. Parts of this piece were originally written by Prof Andrew Cameron for the benefit of those submitting PH3014 proposals for telescope time. However, much of what is here is also good food for thought for physicists, wherever they are writing. Prof Cameron noted that "I have been on several international telescope allocation committees, and have been distinctly unimpressed by proposals containing the common writing errors [including some of those] below. A proposal has to be interesting, readable, and free of linguistic bloopers."
References and Plagiarism
If you are using published (or otherwise) ideas or information (eg text or images), you must credit the author for them specifically. You are additionally reminded that copying and pasting chunks of material from web-based sources into your article is a serious form of plagiarism, which will when detected be punished. Note that if you do wish to use text verbatim from a source, that is fine as long as it is obvious that it is a quotation. For this to be the case the text should be enclosed in inverted commas and the source acknowledged beside it. In many instances you will be submitting your work to the Turnitin tool, which will compare your text with a wide range of published sources and work from other students. You should check that you have understood the University rules on good academic practice, and that the words you are using are yours unless specifically stated and enclosed in quotation marks.
As noted above, you are expected to reference your sources. While most physics-specific literature uses numbered references in the text, some astronomy literature uses the Harvard (name, year) system (see below).
If, for example, you state that "iron complexes are important in the survival of rice crops4", you should cite a reference such as that shown to indicate where the reader can get the information to verify this statement. If you find much of your material more generally from say a couple of books or review papers, you can include these by some introductory statement such as "..and a number of good reviews5,6,7 are available on this topic". You are normally expected to use material from a number of sources in your writing.. It would usualy be appropriate to reference both primary and secondary sources of information. Although it may not be against the University's regulations on academic misconduct to make up your work as a series of acknowledged quotes from other papers, this would be assessed as showing little evidence of academic input on your part, and would get a very low mark. Please note the difference between a bibliography and a specific reference list.
Internet resources are becoming increasingly useful. However, by their very nature they may be non-permanent, and may not have been checked for accuracy in the same way as in traditional publications. I would always advise taking at least some of your information from "archival journals". Such journals include information and explanations that have been passed by referees as "good" and that are published in a form that will be stored in many libraries for many years to come. Good internet resources should reference such publications. Note that journal articles are increasingly becoming available online, and that these have the same credibility as the paper-based versions, as long as you give the full journal reference.
Any diagram or picture in your article that has not been drawn by you MUST have its source specifically acknowledged in its figure caption. This can be via a reference number, eg "Three moons of Jupiter. Picture taken from NASA website3", with reference number 3 at the end of the article giving the URL and date accessed.
There are various different ways in which references can appear in the scientific literature. In much of the physics-specific literature specific numbered references1 are used in the text, and they appear in numerical order. In some of the astronomy literature and some of the broader science literature the "Harvard" referencing convention (Murray and Hughes, 2008, p 68) is used, where the author and year appear in the text as shown. At the end of the piece then the reference list contains full information about the sources. In the number system these are listed in numerical order in a forms such as
1. N Murray and G Hughes, Writing up your university assignments and research projects, McGraw Hill, 2008
In the Harvard system the sources are listed in alphabetical order of first author, for example
Murray, N, and Hughes, G (2008) Writing up your university assignments and research projects, McGraw Hill.
Different journals and books may request
slightly different styles of referencing,
even if all requiring a numbered set of references. You may wish to
look at the style guides for
Review and the
Optical Society of America.
and the reference to a book should include the publisher and year, for example
a reference to a web-based article should be similar to
The University library provides some information on referencing, and plans to include on that pages in due course the style often used in the physics-specific literature.
University information on good academic practice and academic misconduct, including plagiarism.
Why this fuss about referencing? Good referencing ....
Last modified by Bruce Sinclair 3.14