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When do we teach scientists how to write?

In a recent issue of Science, Cary Moskovitz and David Kellogg propose that we should change how we teach scientific writing to undergraduates. They point out that when students write lab reports, they're not really practicing authentic scientific writing.  Undergraduate lab reports typically have "sham" introductions that look nothing like the ones published in journals.

In experimental details, students typically paraphrase the detailed instructions from lab manuals. The data and discussion sections are also false challenges; students usually know well in advance what type of data output is required.

In short, students don't have to determine the best way to present their work.  Unlike professional scientists, they're not asked to write a well thought-out report to defend their scientific standpoints.

Moskovitz and Kellogg argue that lab reports should be inquiry-based, so students actually have to convince instructors of their findings. Students wouldn't be asked to write a complete lab report. Instead, it would be taught in stages, beginning with how to present data and discuss results. Only advanced courses would require complete lab reports from students.

Moskovitz and Kellogg have addressed a serious problem in scientific education.  While they focused on undergraduates, their work also brings up the question of how graduate students are taught to write scientific papers.

Across the board, there are huge discrepancies, as the learning process heavily depends on the PI. There's a lack of standardization in teaching scientific writing in graduate schools.

While there are patient PIs who take the time to generate a manuscript with their students, there are also PIs who take sole responsibility in writing manuscripts. They only ask graduate students for data tables, figures, and supporting information. This leaves students completely in the dark as to what is actually involved in writing a paper. Some graduate students face their first major writing assignment when they write their thesis. It's too late to be teaching someone how to write properly at that point.

Writing skills are essential for success in careers both in and out of academia. Graduate schools should implement classes, programs, or periodic examinations to ensure that scientists are learning how to put their ideas and findings clearly on paper.

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