Term paper 2016 Introduction
– Good writing is an essential part of science. If you cannot write well, you cannot be understood. If you cannot be understood, your ideas and contributions will languish in obscurity and your impact will be limited. This component of the course is designed to help you write better about evolutionary ecology in particular, and science in general.
– Choose a recently published paper from the primary literature in evolutionary ecology and write a ~1000 word opinion piece (excluding title and nut-graf – for an explanation see below) assessing its value to the field. Your goal here is to produce a thought-provoking piece that critically assesses the article’s contribution to knowledge in evolutionary ecology.
Guidelines for preparing your paper
– Your paper should be written in the style of a ‘Dispatch’ for the journal Current Biology. Dispatches are commissioned by the editors to help readers understand why a research article (which typically appears in the same issue) is important for the field. Examples of a Dispatch piece and the article that motivated it, are given here and here.
– Your piece, like those published in the journal, should be written for an educated reader – someone, like yourself and your peers, who has some training in biology but not necessarily in evolution or ecology. Aim for writing that is lively and accessible by explaining key concepts in plain language and avoiding unnecessary jargon.
– Your piece must be accompanied by an interesting title, a ~35 word ‘nut graf’ that summarizes the main point of your essay to help draw readers to your piece, and full list of references cited in the text. The body of a Dispatch has a fairly typical structure, which you should aim to follow:
– 1-3 paragraphs introducing the topic, conceptual theory, and providing relevant background. This section may include, if necessary, a display figure to aid explanation
– 1 paragraph describing the study
– 1 – 3 paragraphs describing the key results
– 1-2 paragraphs outlining how the results advance our understanding of the theory and why this paper stands out as important
– 1-2 paragraphs describing future directions for research, in light of the results
– Consult the example provided or go to the journal itself and see more examples for yourself.
– Research is essential to this assignment. The more reading you do, the richer your ideas will be and the more compelling piece you will write. A typical Dispatch cites ~6-10 papers from the peer-reviewed primary literature. You should aim to do at least the same, with no more than three papers from the assigned reading in the course. Websites (like Wikipedia) do not count as peer reviewed primary literature. You may use the Dispatch style (superscript numbers in sequence they are cited, with full references provided at the end in the same order) or the style of the journal Evolution (lead author last name followed by year published, with full references given at the end in alphabetical order) for your citations and reference list.
– You may choose to write on any article in the field of evolutionary ecology, not just those from Current Biology. Good journals to scan for articles include PLoS Biology, PLoS Genetics, Evolution, Ecology Letters, PNAS, Proc Roy Soc B, Nature, Science, American Naturalist, and Journal of Evolutionary Biology, as a start. Aim to write on something that was published recently, ideally within the last three (3) years. Do not write on an article that itself has already had a Dispatch (or equivalent) written, unless you have something particularly novel to say.
Some tips on writing well in science
– As explained earlier, you are writing for an educated lay person. You should aim for lively and engaging writing with enough scientific depth that your piece will be interesting to someone working in the field. (An aside: Dispatch articles and others in the same vein are often used by graduate students and researchers alike who are specialists in the field to get a sense as to what the community sees as the most important new research and to help clarify their own thinking on subjects they may not understand as well as they should)!
Some further useful tips:
Explain technical terms
One idea per paragraph
Avoid run-on sentences (ROS)
Be specific about who or what you are writing about (avoid starting sentences with ‘They said…’, ‘It was found…’, etc…)
Write in the active, not passive, voice. Use expressions like the ‘The authors showed…’ rather than ‘It was shown…’
Edit, edit, edit, then edit some more.
Read your paper aloud to yourself – does it make sense? If not, go back and keep editing.
Follow George Orwell’s advice:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? [excerpt from Politics and the English Language, 1946]