Writing assignments


"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."  -Thomas Jefferson

"I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter"  -B. Pascal



1. Research Focus Box (RFB)


Click here to see the kinds of comments I typically make in response to RFBs.


The assignment.  You are a free-lance science writer who decides to submit to Jan Pechenik a Research Focus Box (RFB) for publication in his textbook. From reading the RFBs in the book, you ascertain that your job is to write an engaging summary and critical commentary of a research article on an organism covered in this course. To get your work accepted for publication*, you must focus on the process of science: what gap in understanding led to the question, why the methods and experimental design were useful for addressing the question, how the results were used to draw conclusions, and what new questions were uncovered for the next study. The competition for publication is fierce, and the next step in your career depends on it.


[*In 2011, Pechenik and I initiated a website to publish student-generated RFBs. I will select one or two each semester to be considered for publication.  If your writing assignment is selected, your work could wind up published online!]


Writing this type of critical commentary about a research article might appear simple.  Unlike with a comprehensive "term paper," I am not requiring that you summarize many things that are known about an area of biology.  Instead, your job is to clearly explain how something is known: the scientific process as revealed that led to conclusions in a piece of research that is interesting to you.  Explaining science well requires that you master a number of skills, for example:

  • identifying and explaining for your audience the general background that led to the need to answer the research question;

  • identifying and clearly stating the specific question addressed by the research;

  • identifying and explaining only the thought process and parts of methods that are essential for your reader to understand how the question was answered;

  • identifying and clearly explaining how results from each set of experiments were used to draw particular conclusions; and

  • insightfully addressing how the conclusions help to identify new or unresolved questions. 


To accomplish these goals, you must demonstrate your understanding of the research by writing clearly and concisely in your own words and sentences based on your own understanding (see Tips to avoid plagiarism).


The format: Publication space in Pechenik's book limits you to submit only three pages of text, 12-point font, double-spaced, with 1" margins.  (As a stern editor, I expect you to use all three pages but will not read text beyond the three pages.  A fourth page should include the data graphic(s) and caption(s) and a literature cited section.)  This is a very limited space for accomplishing all of these goals, and as the quote from Pascal attests at the top of this page, it is often harder to write well when space is more limited. You must be succinct, including everything that is relevant but only what is necessary to understand the research and the broader scientific context that it addresses.  Above all, aim to teach your target audience something novel, interesting, and worthy of publication space.

The target audience: Your intended readers are a group of well-educated, science-oriented students like your peers in this class.  Assume they have limited knowledge of the specific topic.  Just like with a Pechenik Research Focus Box, do not expect them to have read the research article that you are explaining to them.


STEP 1: Choose your topic

Common mistakes in choosing an article.  A list of where students go wrong at the beginning:  

  1. The article is a review rather than a research article.  A research article will include methods and results (data), showing how questions were answered, rather than simply reviewing what is known from other research articles. 

  2. It does not focus on the biology of the invertebrate.  The main focus should not be the biology of the animal's symbionts, or the community it lives in, or the number of specimens found in different areas, or the effect it has on humans, or its population structure, unless those topics reveal something interesting about the biology of the animal itself.  Pechenik's RFBs tend to be about form, function, behavior, and ecological interactions.

  3. It does not address an interesting question.   You will have a harder time writing about an article that is highly descriptive but lacks a question that you find interesting and that you can compel your reader to want to know the answer to. 

  4. It was published too long ago for this assignment.  The article must be within the last three calendar years--see other details under "Scope" below.

  5. It covers material that is beyond your technical background.  Do not choose an article that includes complex math, technical methods, complicated analyses or biological details that you do not understand well enough to explain in your own words.

  6. It focuses on a taxonomic group that was not covered in this portion of the course.  See "Scope" below.

  7. You wait too long, and choose an article already approved for someone else.  To encourage diversity, I will approve a given article for only the first student who submits it for review.  It therefore pays for you to screen your choice early.

How to avoid these mistakes: start your search early, do not pick the first article you find, read abstracts to understand what each article offers, and read the article before submitting it for screening.

Finding the article(s).  Either of these methods might be useful for finding research articles

  1. Starting with a topic in lecture or lab that you found interesting, type keywords into a library database (Web of Science is a good one) to find research articles.  Do not use just a taxonomic term--combine it with words that help to identify a particular topic.  Ask me or librarians for help with databases, and feel free to bounce ideas off of me.

  2. Browse through recent issues of biological journals that deal with invertebrate biology. Find an article most interesting to you, and use it for your paper or to start your search for a paper.  Here are some useful journals: Biological Bulletin, Invertebrate Biology, Invertebrate Reproduction and Development, Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Marine Biology, Marine Ecology Progress Series.  Most of the recent issues will be available only as paper copies in the library.


Scope With the goals in mind as described at the top of this page, this report should evaluate research described in one research article (not a review article) from a scientific journal publishing primary literature for any group covered in the course.  The article must have been published within the last three calendar years.  



STEP 2: Screen your topic with me

The point of screening the articles is to make sure you're not stuck with something at the last minute that you don't like or don't have the background to understand.  Two weeks before each report is due (see deadlines), to receive credit you must upload a document (docx or pdf) to the appropriate Dropbox folder at the OAKS course website with the following information:

  1. the full citation for the article, written out (all authors, year, title, journal, volume, pages)

  2. a brief (1-2 sentence) description of the question the article addresses that you will focus on

  3. an electronic copy of the article (or link, if a copy is not possible)

  4. a brief description of how you found the article(s)


To encourage diversity, I will approve a given article for only the first student who submits it for review.  It therefore pays to screen your choice early.


STEP 3: Research your topic further

As you read the article more carefully, you will probably come across information that you don't understand or that you want to know more about.  Because you have limited space, it would pay to be well informed about the topic in order to distinguish what is important to write about from what should be left out. Although you are required to focus on the research in the primary research article, it is useful to read other research and review articles on the topic, which you are encouraged to cite in your report as well.  To find related articles type keywords into an online database, such as Web of Science, available at the library webpage <http://www.cofc.edu/library/find/databases>.  Ask the course instructor or any librarian for help.



STEP 4: Write your report

Click here to read a short article by Gopen and Swann (1990) on how to improve your scientific writing.


Text format.  The "Research Focus Boxes" in the Pechenik text are the best models for the text style and content of your own RFB.  They efficiently accomplish your goals--by including only information relevant to addressing the research questions--in about the same space as your assignment. 

Data graphic.  Your report must include one (and only one) data graphic (figure, table, or illustration) for each focal article that helps to explain the results. 

In fact, one useful way to think of an RFB is an explanation of research centered around a data graphic, with enough of an introduction and methods to understand how the data were generated and then enough of a discussion to understand how conclusions were drawn from it.

In some cases you might usefully combine two figures side-by-side to make a single data graphic.  Keep in mind that figures are better than tables at showing patterns.  The data graphic can come directly from the article or can be one that you construct from data in the article.  You must also include a figure caption (which you should write yourself to include only information relevant to your report) and you must make reference to the numbered figure in your report. 

Note: To paste the data graphic into your report when using MSWord in Office 2010, you can use the Insert>Screenshot>ScreenClipping function. Following this chain of commands brings you to a whitened view of whatever document is directly behind your report (you should make sure that document is the article you want to capture the data graphic from).  This whitened view allows you to select an area to paste into your report.  Alternatively, if you press "Fn-Shift-PrntScrn" on your keyboard, whatever is visible on your screen at that time will be transferred to your clipboard and can be pasted into your Word file.  However you do it, crop the final picture to include only the figure, then write your own caption below it.

Get help! Use the campus Writing Center (this could be your last chance in life to get free help with your writing).  You can ask for help with everything from organizing ideas to gaining feedback on your writing before you hand in your work.  View Writing Lab information at <http://csl.cofc.edu/labs/writing-lab/>, call 953-5635 for an appointment, or just stop by the center in Addlestone Library.  Contact me, of course, if you need help or have any questions.

Honor pledge.  Submission of your report must be with an understanding of requirements of the CofC honor code.  Note that (1) you may not receive help from others in writing the report, (2) the report must be work done originally for this class--it should not contain writing or research you or anyone else has done in other contexts, and (3) it should be free of plagiarism (see next section).

Two words of advice. (1) When you read sources, take notes in your own words that reflect your understanding of what you read.  When you write your report, keep sources away from view.  These steps will keep you from writing that resembles your sources.  (2) If I detect language or sentence structure that sounds like professional writing, I am forced to return to the original source and related sources to compare with your report, sentence by sentence.  This process turns into a tremendous waste of my time and makes me very grumpy.


        Your general mantra to avoid plagiarism:

 I must write in my own words using my own sentence structure based on my own understanding.  Om. (repeat)


To avoid problems of either unintentional or intentional plagiarism, read the information on plagiarism and expected citation format.  Many students incorrectly think they already understand these issues; not understanding them can create trouble that neither of us need.


STEP 5: Submit your report

Upload a copy of your report in MSWord format to the appropriate Dropbox folder at the OAKS course website.  Do not email the report.  The final format of your submitted report should be:

  • 3 pages of text (at the top of the first page put your title report and name)

  • 1 page with literature cited and the data graphic

  • a copy of the research article that is the focus of your report


Grading rubric.  As with a professionally-submitted article, reports will be evaluated for both content and language. I expect you to use well-structured paragraphs that lay out a coherent argument, using proper grammar and impeccable spelling (spell-check and proofread!).  Keep in mind that, as with many tasks of a professional scientist, the person evaluating your work will be reading many such submissions at one time.  The work that gets the high grade (or the funding, or the publication acceptance) will be efficient, succinct, and engaging.  In particular, I will base your grade on these 10 to 11 criteria:

How well did the research report:

     introduce the research by providing sufficient background to understand the general problem addressed?

     identify specific questions before describing the methods and results used to answer the questions?

     explain the methods without unnecessary detail, and the logic for using these methods to answer the questions?

     explain logical steps involved to draw specific conclusions from each set of experiments/observations?

     critically evaluate the research, identify unresolved questions, and suggest approaches to resolve them?


Writing quality

     grammar and spelling

     sentence and paragraph structure

     overall quality, clarity and precision of writing

     proper use and format of citations and references


     How effectively does the report teach the reader something interesting about invertebrate biology?



2. Invertebytes!


Invertebytes! is a new website that we are starting in this class, this semester!  Your contribution of one webpage is your second writing assignment.


The website will be composed of webpages with a common structure.  Each page will highlight an invertebrate group that possesses, does, or has provided (through research) something specific, captivating, and informative about how animals work. Your contribution will be graded in part based on how much it stimulates interest and imagination, especially in children who are becoming aware of cool things in the natural world.  Topics that are less commonly known involving invertebrate groups that are less commonly known will be especially valuable content for the website.


Format.  The guidelines are simple: each page must have a short, catchy title and blocks of text in three sections: (1) what it is, (2) what it has or does, and (3) why that's cool.  The total amount of text should be 400 to 600 words.  The text should be edited carefully to make the best use of that space.


Figures. Your page can include images, movies, sounds, and graphs, but appropriate credit must be given to those who produced those materials.  Material that is copyrighted or not free for public use is not allowed (although many providers of such images allow their use for educational purposes).


Professional literature.  Your page must also make reference to one or two published research articles that discovered or increased our knowledge of the traits or behaviors that are highlighted on your webpage.  You should use the same standard citation format that was expected for the RFB assignment.


Procedure.  Here are my suggestions for getting started and moving forward:

1) Read widely.  And then read widely some more. Dig around to find interesting stories. There are many non-vertebrate animals and they have or do a whole range of interesting things.  Starting with professional literature may be more challenging than using a search engine that includes the popular press.  You might start searching by a favorite group (e.g., tuataras) or from a favorite body part (e.g., prehensile tails) or with a favorite behavior (e.g., squirting blood to deter predators).  [Note that those are all vertebrate topics.]

2) Screen your topic.  As with the RFB, I will assign a topic only to the first person who proposes it.  (Also, I might not approve topics for taxa that are already well covered.)  Submit your topic proposal to the Dropbox for writing assignment #2, including the following: a three sentence description of 1) what it is, 2) what it has or does, 3) why that's cool.  In addition, provide 4) a possible short, catchy title, and 5) a link to one or two primary journal article(s) that will be featured in your Invertebyte page along with a brief description of what the article shows or how it will be included.

3) Start composing.  Once approved, put together the blocks of text and figures that will go on your page.  Try not to have so many figures that they overwhelm the text.

4) Arrange and submit the page.  I will send notice of how to put the material into a webpage once I finalize the best hosting site.


Audience.  Keep in mind that your goal is to reach a general, public audience with limited understanding of science, but that includes showing how scientific research is instrumental to discovering interesting things involving invertebrates.  If you are creative and have fun with the assignment then your audience will have more fun with the website.




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