Electronic Journal of Biotechnology
versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458
Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.5 n.1 Valparaíso abr. 2002
A Manuscript Writing Course for Biochemistry Undergraduates and Graduate Students in the Biomedical Sciences
Robert H. Glew
Over the past decade, there has been an increase nationwide in the number of undergraduate science majors who are engaged in independent study in the form of a research project for which they can claim substantial ownership and which results in a publication in a respected peer-reviewed journal. It is not uncommon for such students to begin their research at the start of their junior year, sometimes even as early as the freshman year. At the University of New Mexico, for example, students majoring in Biochemistry and who expect to graduate with honors are required to complete a research project, present their findings to the faculty in the form of a poster or 20-minute oral presentation, and, finally, submit an extensive written report of the results of their study. As the number of undergraduate students in the Biochemistry major who were electing to do independent study was increasing, it became apparent to the faculty-mentors and their students alike that the latter might benefit from a formal writing course that would train them to write a scientific paper. Many graduate students, too, do not understand the process of writing a scientific paper or the nature of the peer review and editorial process. It is not uncommon for a graduate student to be graduated with his/her Ph.D. without ever having had formal training with regard to manuscript writing.
Thus, five years ago the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology that administers the undergraduate Biochemistry major decided to offer a formal course aimed at teaching graduate students as well as undergraduate students how to write a manuscript in the biomedical sciences. This paper describes that course and relates the authors five-year experience teaching it.
The two-credit course meets for two hours once per week for 15 weeks, usually from 3:00 to 5:00 oclock on Thursday afternoon. The number of students enrolled in the course has ranged from 6 to 11, with the median being 7 students. Of the 37 students who have completed the course, 13 (35%) have been undergraduates and 22 (60%) have been graduate students. One of the graduate students in the Biomedical Sciences Program was also a technical writer. Two faculty (5%) have taken the course: one was a research assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the other was an assistant professor in the Nutrition Division of the School of Education. Interestingly, about one-third of all those who have enrolled in and completed the course have been students for whom English was not their first language.
The only requirement for admission into the writing course is for the student to have in hand, at the time of the first session, no less than three pieces of original data that were generated by the student himself or herself and which has not been published or submitted for publication. The data may consist of three tables, three graphs or any combination thereof. Students are not allowed to substitute "anticipated" data or data from someone elses project. For example, if a student had no data of his/her own, it would be unacceptable for them to use their mentors data or that of a postdoctoral fellow. One reason for the requirement that students have their own data and that it be the actual results of experiments they themselves conducted is that on that rare occasion when a student was allowed to write a paper based on anticipated data or someone elses data, the students grasp of the background and significance of the project they were to write about was wanting. A second reason for requiring that students in the course write about their own findings as opposed to borrowed or fabricated data is that the course instructor observed that the degree of motivation and effort put forth by students was correlated positively with how closely they identified with and understood the data they were writing about.
The purpose of the course is not to teach students English grammar, nor is it to develop or improve their writing style; its overall goal is to teach students how to write a scientific paper. To this end, the major specific aims of the course are to teach students:
The ultimate goal of the course is to produce a manuscript that is suitable for submission to a respectable peer-reviewed journal.
Students are informed at the first session of the course that, in addition to bringing to class three original pieces of their own data that support a coherent story, the instructor expects the students to do three things:
Historically, 35 of the 37 students who have completed the course received an "A" grade. The two other students received a final grade of "B", mainly because they failed to turn in their final version of the manuscript to the instructor in a timely manner.
What follows is a brief description of the content of the various sessions that comprise the writing course. In some cases, two successive sessions may be devoted to a particular aspect of the manuscript or writing process.
The first of the two-hour sessions is essentially an introduction to the course. The students explore such questions as:
The homework assignments for the next session are: write 150-200 words addressing the question "Why I chose my particular research topic?" and interview your research mentor for 30 minutes about their attitudes and experience vis-à-vis writing scientific manuscripts.
During the first half of Session 2, the students read their own pieces about why they chose their research topics and share with each other what they learned about what their mentors think about the writing process. The students are asked to bring to each class copies of the writing they have done for the various homework assignments so that while they are reading or discussing their work or analyzing material they have taken from the literature they will be able to provide all of their classmates and the instructor with printed narrative. Thus, for example, while a particular student is reading the introduction to their paper, the rest of the class may amend comments to the copies of the students text that they have their hands on. In this way, when the student has finished reading their piece and has had it discussed by the group, they can carry away from the class written comments of their peers. The second hour of the session is given over to a discussion of ethical considerations associated with writing a scientific paper. The following issues and questions are addressed:
Session 3 is devoted to a discussion of the elements of a scientific manuscript, including: title page, abstract, introduction, materials and methods (including subjects), results (including tables, figures, and figure legends), discussion, references, and acknowledgements. Most of the session is spent on the specific content and organization of the abstract, introduction and discussion. The students are taught how to construct a one to two-page topic outline of their manuscript. The homework assignment for each student is to draft a topic outline of their manuscript. Students are asked to identify in the recent literature in their field a paper that has what they regard as an excellent title and another that has a poor and ineffective title.
During Session 4, the students divide themselves into pairs and critique each others topic outline. Usually several, but not all, students share their topic outlines with the entire group so as to generate discussion of what constitutes a useful outline. During the second half of the session, the students critique each others title page. They also defend their choice of good and bad titles from papers in the literature. Is the title concise, informative and interesting? Why is the authorship and the sequence of authors as they appear? What was the contribution of each author to the research project and manuscript? Are the key words specific and do they encompass the essential content of the paper?
In session 5, students learn about the structure and function of the abstract of the scientific manuscript, which presents them with their first narrative writing challenge. They are asked to revisit and revise their topic outline, and address the following issues or questions:
For homework, the students are asked to write a 200-250-word abstract of their own paper. In addition, they are asked to search the current literature and select two papers: one they judge to have a model abstract and another that fails to accomplish what an abstract should.
Students spend most of Sessions 6 and 7 reading and critiquing each others abstracts and discussing why they believe the various abstracts they chose from the literature were either exemplary or unsatisfactory. The work of writing their own abstracts and critiquing those of established and published biomedical scientists gives the students a clear understanding of the elements that make for a well-structured, concise and informative abstract. With the advice and criticism each student receives from the instructor and their peers during the session and from the insights they gained by deconstructing abstracts that were published in respected peer-reviewed journals, the students then spend the next week revising their own abstract. In many cases, even before the next session of the writing class is convened, most of the students will have submitted and subjected their abstract to the instructor for several cycles of editing and revision.
It should be pointed out that the course does not proceed lock step from one section of the manuscript to the next. Rather, often times the group digresses from the nuts and bolts of the introduction or discussion sections of the manuscript, for example, into areas that pertain to the writing process itself. What do we discuss? The instructor and students draw upon their own experiences and from what they know of the writing habits of successful writers (not only scientists, but novelists, essayists, and poets as well) to generate a list of suggestions about how to facilitate and enhance ones own writing. One student may describe how she finds it useful to be engaged in writing two or more manuscripts at a time. Another student will want to explore various issues associated with the writing environment: Do I write in the third-floor garret or at the kitchen table with the TV or radio blaring away? What is the best time of day (or night!) to write? How important is it to write something every day? Should I set reasonable writing deadlines for myself? Will a glass or two of red wine or a tumbler of sherry improve the quality of what I write or help me over my writers block (probably not!). At what point and from whom should I seek criticism of my work? My experience has taught me that the students derive great pleasure from discussing such questions. I think this is largely because most of them are inexperienced in writing for publication, and are looking for writing models and strategies they might adopt for themselves so as to establish writing habits that work for them.
During Session 7, students learn about the elements of the introduction section of the scientific paper, which, along with the discussion section, most established scientists will confess is the most difficult part of the manuscript to write. Students are taught that the introduction should answer the following questions (not necessarily in this order):
For homework, they are asked to write the introduction (2-4 double-spaced pages) of their paper.
During Sessions 8 and 9, each student reads his/her introduction to the group and receives feedback on what they have written. By this point in the course, the students have learned how to offer criticism in a constructive, non-hurtful manner. By week seven or eight of the course, they have also gotten to know each other well and are comfortable commenting on each others work and accepting advice and criticism from their peers and the instructor. In fact, one of the more subtle and unstated aims of the course is to train students how to offer and respond to criticism about their own or someone elses written work. In particular, a number of the undergraduate students in the writing class have said that this was one of the few opportunities they have had to exercise and demonstrate higher level critical skills.
The materials and methods section of the manuscript is the topic of discussion in Session 10. Invariably, this is the part of the paper the students find the easiest to write, most likely because they are very familiar with the analytical methods and instruments they have been using to gather their data. The main task here is to remind the students of the need to describe their study in sufficient detail so as to permit their experiments to be repeated by another person reading their paper:
For homework, the students are asked to write the materials and methods section of their paper.
During the first hour of Session 11, each student reads aloud a subsection or two of his/her materials and methods section and then invites comments and suggestions for improvement from the group. The second hour is devoted to a discussion of the results section. Students are advised as to how to present their data effectively in tabular or graphic form. This is facilitated by use of examples of tables and figures from the current literature and by reference to the relevant prescriptions and proscriptions provided under the "Guidelines for Contributors" section of representative first-line journals. Students are advised of the utility of concise and informative subheadings. The instructor also provides guidelines regarding the use of significant figures and statistical data (i.e. p values, correlation coefficients). The students homework assignment is to write the results section of their papers and revise their tables and figures.
The four hours of class-time in Sessions 12 and 13 are devoted entirely to the discussion section, what many scientists regard as the most important and difficult section of the paper to write. Here again, the students are asked to go to the literature. Their charge is to select from the current literature a paper they judge to have either a high quality discussion or a dysfunctional discussion. They then defend their selections in class. By the end of Session 13, the students have drafted the discussion section of their manuscript and shared their writing with the group. The discussion sections are judged based on how well they have addressed the following issues or questions:
The penultimate session of the course, Session 14, is intended to educate students about the two common methods for citing references in the text and for preparing the list of references at the end of the manuscript: the Vancouver System and the Harvard System. The instructor goes to considerable lengths to emphasize to the students and impress upon them the importance of adhering to the journals "Instructions for Authors" regarding the citation and presentation of references and for checking the accuracy of every reference they cite (i.e. names of authors, title, volume, year, inclusive pages).
The last session of the course has several aims. The first is to review the steps involved in the review process your manuscript will be subjected to once you submit it to a journal. The second aim is to prepare the student for the various possible fates that lie in store for his/her paper (acceptance, rejection with minor or major revisions, or outright rejection with a firm admonishment that you not resubmit the paper for reconsideration) and to offer advice as to how to draft the rebuttal letter should one choose to resubmit a revised version of the paper to the same journal. The third goal of the final session of the writing class is to provide the participants with an opportunity to share with the instructor and the group their reactions to the course. Following are several examples of what several students had to say about the class.
In the end-of year assessment of the writing class, a fifth-year graduate student wrote:
"The writing course taught me to think about my research project and science in general in ways I had never before considered. The course provided a perspective on writing that challenged and changed my preconceived notions about the structure and function of the various elements of the scientific manuscript. I discovered that by commenting in class on the writing of my classmates and also by sharing with them my own research experiences and anxieties, the process of writing a manuscript was, for me, no longer a compulsory task or duty but rather a privileged occasion to communicate and to be creative. In short, writing a paper became an opportunity, not an obligation."
"During every session, each of us was challenged to make our reasoning and writing comprehensible to our peers and the instructor. Students got away from the habit of resorting to the jargon of their particular research niche and began using language that would appeal to and be more understandable to a wide audience".
"I especially enjoyed the opportunity I had to edit the work of my classmates and, in turn, to subject my own writing to their constructive criticism. In this way, we learned and practiced the art of reading someone elses work and offering advice and suggestions in a manner that was respectful, thoughtful and encouraging."
Another student who completed the writing course and who had previously taken a course in technical writing had this to say about the class:
"I gained a better overall understanding of the components of a scientific paper and how they complement each other. The instructor also presented several excellent strategies for both giving and receiving criticism. The class provided an open and secure environment in which I could practice my science writing. I also found the check lists in the syllabus to be especially helpful in my everyday life and expect I will continue to refer to it for quite some time".
"The informal, round-table approach of the sessions was both helpful and enjoyable. It fostered a high degree of interaction and communication between students and between the students and the instructor as well. I appreciated the fact that the course was conducted more as a series of writing workshops as opposed to a more traditional lecture-style format".
"During the course, we read portions of our papers aloud rather than via a one-on-one exchange between students. I appreciated receiving feedback about my writing from the entire class. I also liked the way the instructor called on students at random to read sections of their papers. For me, being asked to read my writing aloud on the spot enhanced my self-confidence and helped me overcome my fear and anxiety about writing and about presenting my ideas to other people. This approach, I believe, prepares students for the "real world" and also helps them grow as writers and researchers."
A graduate student from the Middle East wrote the following in her end-of-course assessment:
"The writing class was helpful because it demystified the process of writing a scientific paper and made it much less intimidating than I expected it to be. The course oriented me by providing a roadmap I could follow when I was writing the various sections of the paper. It was very helpful to have spent the first week drafting and revising my outline as it helped me avoid overlooking critical aspects of the different sections, especially the introduction and discussion sections. Now when I follow my outline, the writing flows easily and I can see progress every time I sit down and write. It was also useful to have a writing assignment for every class and to present my writing orally to my classmates each week".
"I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere that existed in the class because it allowed me to get to know my classmates very well and to share my criticisms and ideas and even my feelings with them. It is the only class I have ever taken in which I have had the opportunity to discuss with my peers and teacher my personal life, career goals and apprehensions about writing."
Like other courses I have devised and taught over the past 35 years, the writing course has taken four or five years to mature. Each year the syllabus I use in the course has increased in terms of length, specificity, detail and balance to the point where the narrative and organization are sufficiently clear that colleagues who have published consistently throughout their career could take over the course and teach it quite effectively with only a moderate amount of preparation.
The writing course also travels very well. I have used the syllabus to teach the very same writing class to medical doctors at several teaching hospitals in Nigeria. Doctors at academic centers in sub-Saharan Africa and other underdeveloped regions of the world have expressed to me a strong interest not only in the transfer of technology from the U.S., but also in enhancing their ability to write up their research for publication in scholarly, peer-reviewed international journals. I have taught the writing course, albeit in a compressed form time-wise, at various teaching hospitals in Africa and the experience has been enjoyable. The first time the class was taught at the Federal Medical Centre in Gombe, Nigeria two of the eight doctors who participated in the two-week course completed manuscripts that were soon thereafter submitted for publication. In addition, the course is presently being taught to eight resident doctors in Surgery and Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico.
Over the past five years, approximately 70 percent of the papers that have been written by the USA students during the class have been submitted to various journals, and in every case, a students written work has either been incorporated into their masters or doctoral thesis or used to satisfy the departmental requirement for honors.
As increasing numbers of undergraduate students obtain research training and undertake their own project, and as they seek to write up the results of their work, so too will the need for additional formal courses designed to teach them how to write a scientific manuscript in their field. Hopefully, the authors positive experiences teaching such a writing course will encourage faculty elsewhere to devise and offer writing courses of their own that are tailored to the particular interests, discipline and needs of their students.