Writing in Science
The Purpose of Scientific Writing
Scientists do a lot of writing, and for many different reasons. Mostly they focus on scientific data, on how the data were obtained, and on what they mean. Nonscientists also write about science, but tend to focus more on “discoveries” and their importance and much less on how the data were obtained. More journalistic and narrative writing on science may also emphasize the culture of science, the personality of scientists, and the atmosphere of research settings, something that has traditionally been missing from the professional writing of practicing scientists. In helping students gain science literacy and develop disciplinary literacy in general, a much broader use of media and modes should be employed.
Here are some reasons why scientists write:
- Scientists write to record data. Observations and results may be recorded in a lab notebook. They may also record results directly on a spreadsheet or in a database. Results are often recorded by digital computing devices and may be logged into an electronic notebook or printed and pasted into a notebook.
- Scientists write for the scientific record, mostly in the form of research reports, but also by logging annotated data into big databases that the global research community uses.
- Scientists write in all sorts of less formal ways to communicate with each other, both within a research group and among research groups in large networks. For example, scientists make extensive use of email and increasingly other forms of networked and social media—blogs, in particular.
- Scientists write to think. This includes writing extensive marks, comments, and questions on documents as they read (see Units 5 and 6) as well as taking notes on conversations and listening to research talks. Scientists want fresh ideas and approaches and practice creativity by associational thinking. A research idea can be very direct—for example, a scientist might read about a new microscope technique and decide to give it a try. But more often, the ideas are less direct, resulting from multiple lines of thinking coming together. Most scientists keep hard copy and electronic notebooks and file folders for these ideas.