Science Writing Bookshelf

 Library titles photographed 11/13/2017

Library titles photographed 11/13/2017

Communicating science clearly and effectively is an essential part of the research process.

Strong writing skills are especially important because at the heart of science communication is the exchange of ideas.  Sharing research findings with colleagues, scientists worldwide and even the public can have a big impact on your work.  Yet in a study posted on bioRXiv in 2017, articles from 122 biomedical journals published over the past 130 years indicated a steady decrease in readability [1].  If writing is so important, why are so many academics bad at it?

Writing well takes time.  In the journal Science Communication, Professor David Roy Smith says that as a graduate student he discovered that, “In addition to performing experiments, I was expected to spend hours a week at the library writing—writing thesis proposals, essays for graduate courses, scholarship and conference applications, poster presentations, and most important, peer-reviewed papers, which are the hard currency for any graduate degree” [2]. He continues, “The transition from PhD to postdoc only reinforced my belief that great writers make great scientists, and that most professional scientists write a lot. As a postdoc, I was required to write more than I ever had before and with less guidance from mentors and less time to complete the assignments” [3].

Science writing isn’t just about primary research articles.  Undergraduate and graduate writing includes lab reports, posters, research proposals, grant applications, essay questions, term papers, presentations, reviews, cover letters and more.  Your ability to write effectively may affect your grades, funding and career options. Science writing in college and in your future career may also include writing for the public: blogs, newspaper articles and social media posts.

This article doesn’t share tips on how to better communicate science through writing, but points you towards resources that will.  Consider improving your writing skills by studying other scientists who write well.  Learn to write by reading. If you are looking for non-academic science writing look at the Best American Science & Nature Writing series that is published each year.  In terms of writing research articles, consider all the articles you read in your daily work.  Which ones are easy to understand and follow? Which ones are unnecessarily obtuse?  See if you can identify what the ‘good authors’ are doing well and what mistakes the ‘difficult authors’ keep making.

Take advice from the experts.  Use Purdue University's OWL for help with the nuts and bolts of writing using specific style guidelines.  Science writer for the New York Times Carl Zimmer

recommends Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and many other tips for communicating effectively with a general audience [4]. Ask your professors for their opinions on what makes a good paper.  Professor Stone, who teaches a science writing course here at UIC, recommends the book Writing Science in Plain English by Anne Greene.  Below are more recommendations.

Some of the more recent titles either in ebook or print:

Books on academic writing:

●     Writing in the Biological Sciences: A Comprehensive Resources for Scientific Communication (2016) 2nd Ed. by Hoffman focuses on style and composition for various types of writing and includes help with literature reviews, data analysis and creating tables and charts.
●     How to Write and Illustrate a Scientific Paper (2003) by Gustavii is a quick guide to the mechanics of writing with brief easy to reference chapters.
●     How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (2016) by Gastel and Day provides guidance for each section: title, abstract, methods, results, discussion, etc.

Other science writing:

●     Metaphor and Knowledge (2003) by Baake is an in depth examination of the art of science rhetoric and how to craft meaningful analogies.
●     Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (2016) by Wilcox, Brookshire and Goldman explores popular science blogs, successful bloggers and advice on how to craft a post.
●     Science Journalism: An Introduction (2017) by Angler discusses how to find and pitch science stories with an emphasis on successful storytelling for different media outlets.

Many of you might rush to the library to check out a few of these books only to find they have been already checked out by other Science Cafe readers.  Check the I-Share catalog to see if there is copy in another library that you can borrow.  I-Share is the consortium of academic libraries in Illinois and contains over 32 million items.  Create an I-Share account to request and renew books.

For more titles check out the Science Writing portion of the Biological Sciences Research Guide. Do you have another book that has helped you communicate science clearly and effectively?  Email me (clantz@uic.edu) the title and I might be able to purchase it for the library.



[1] Plavén-Sigray, P., Matheson, G. J., Schiffler, B. C. & Thompson, W. H. Preprint on bioRxiv at http://doi.org/10.1101/119370 (2017).

[2 & 3] Smith, D. R. (2016). One Scientist’s struggle to be a better writer, and a plea for undergraduate science-writing engagement. Science Communication, 38(5), 666-674. doi:10.1177/1075547016664737

[4] Zimmer, C. (2016). Staying afloat in the rising tide of science. Cell, 164(6), 1094-1096. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2016.02.042