Notes for writing scientific papers


"Write to illuminate."




Gopen GD, Swann JA. 1990.  The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist 78:550-8.

Ainsworth S, Prain V, Tytler R. 2011.  Drawing to Learn in Science. Science 333:1096-8 + Supp.



In-text citations. Every article mentioned in an article, poster, or research proposal should be in your literature cited section at the end, and vice versa: every article in your literature cited section should be cited in your text.  Every time an article is cited, the citation should list the authors' last name(s) and the year.  Articles with more than two authors should have "et al." in place of other author names following the first author.  Here is an example involving one single-authored paper, one co-authored paper, and one with more than two authors:

Some biologists (Podolsky 2002), have said one thing, while others (Sotka and Sancho 2003, Strand et al. 2004) have said another.


Of course, if the authors--like Podolsky (2002), or Sotka and Sancho (2003), or Strand et al. (2004)--are actually mentioned as part of the sentence, then only the year goes in the parentheses.


Literature cited section.  References in the literature cited section at the back of your proposal should follow a simple format such as the one shown below [Author(s) (Year). Title. Journal volume:pages.]

Strand A, Plante CM, Harold A (2004).  Acceptable citation styles for research reports.  Journal of Literature Citation 6:121-126.

Note that database information, URLs, and other descriptions are not part of a scientific citation--only what is included above.




This document contains sources that your group is likely to draw on as literature to cite in your proposals.  The references should:

  • be in an Author-Year format (see strongly recommended style below) that is consistent throughout the document

  • use proper formatting of scientific names (Latin species names are always italicized; other taxonomic level names are not)

  • be listed in alphabetical order by author(s)

  • each be followed by a brief (2-3 sentence) description of the article contents and conclusions.  This description should be interpretable to someone who has not read the article, and should give more than what can be deduced from the title.  It should not be copied directly from the article, as this constitutes plagiarism (see below).




Here is your writing mantra: "My writing must be in my own words, using my own sentence and paragraph structure, based on my own understanding. Om."


Your writing should synthesize, in your own words, what you've read.  Do not rearrange parts of sentences written by the authors or simply change, remove, or add words--these all constitute plagiarism.  Also, although it may go against what you learned for other styles of writing, avoid quoting articles verbatim--although not plagiarism, direct quotes are poor scholarship.  The following examples may help to understand what constitutes plagiarism.  If you're still unsure, see guidelines here or here.  Do not risk having your grade lowered for unintentional plagiarism, or having your paper handed over to the honor court, which I am obligated to do if I suspect intentional plagiarism.

Examples of plagiarism.

Imagine that a source (Gould, 1982) includes the following sentence:


Orchids manufacture their intricate devices from the common components of ordinary flowers.

The following four sentences would all be examples of plagiarism.  It makes no difference that the author is cited.  Each sentence involves only rearrangement or changing of a few words--the sentence has the same basic structure. 


Orchids manufacture their intricate devices from the common components of ordinary flowers (Gould, 1982).

Orchids manufacture, from the ordinary components of flowers, their complex devices (Gould, 1982).

Orchids make devices for pollination using the ordinary parts of flowers (Gould, 1982).

Orchids assemble their convoluted mechanisms from the general apparatus of average flowers (Gould, 1982).


Notice that efforts to substitute synonyms, in addition to being plagiarism, can also badly obscure the meaning.


Do not quote parts of the text you read.

Putting quotation marks around a sentence, while technically not plagiarism, is also unacceptable scholarship because you have not demonstrated your understanding of what was reported.


Gould (1982) said that "Orchids manufacture their intricate devices from the common components of ordinary flowers."


The only time you should ever quote text is if you need to comment specifically on the author's exact words and the meaning would be lost unless you quoted exactly.


Improve your reporting by synthesizing what you have read.

Instead of simply reworking the sentence taken directly from a source or quoting it directly, express an important idea in your own words, adding other useful details you've read about in other places:


The structures that orchids use to attract and position pollinators evolved from typical flower parts, like petals, that at one time served other functions (Gould, 1982).

Biology 211 home
CofC Biology home