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That Looks Like Science (The Writing, I Mean!)

Earlier this week, we released an extensive set of materials – comprising a full science writing curriculum – designed to help students use the IMRAD pattern commonly found in scientific journal articles. IMRAD stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, Analysis, & Discussion. It’s been around for quite some time, but it hasn’t always been the unequivocal standard that we recognize today.

A study published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association notes that IMRAD wasn’t uniformly adopted in medical science journals until the 1980’s. As recently as 1935, no example of an IMRAD-structured report could be found by the authors of that study in any of the major medical journals they examined. Key to the institutionalization of IMRAD was a set of recommendations of leading scientific journal editors who met in British Columbia in 1978. The requirements specified by the Vancouver Group, as it has come to be known, made the IMRAD pattern the standard we recognize it to be today.

We think it is pretty exciting that the curriculum prepared by Dr. Melissa Graham Meeks, a writing expert, and Dr. Ingrid Lofgren, a food scientist and nutrition expert, can help students learn how to make all the same moves that scientists make when they write. But there is another way that this curriculum looks like science as well.

Revising Like a Scientist

All told, if followed for a full sixteen weeks, there are more than 50 write, review, revise cycles for students to practice in the science writing curriculum. That’s a lot of writing – a lot of valuable feedback – and a lot of revision! But when you look at the way real scientists write, it looks similar. Lots of drafting and changes, with much reviewing and feedback happening between co-authors and fellow scientists working together and, eventually, more formal reviews by anonymous experts which are usually followed by even more revision! A classic account of this process in the field of writing studies was produced by Greg Meyers who studied the processes of two biologists, each of whom were writing grant proposals. Indeed, in Meyers account it is revision, far more than any other activity, that emerges as central to creating a successful proposal:

The number of revisions each writer made is remarkable considering that the first draft I studied, in each case, was itself the result of many drafts. The number of drafts means little when the writers are using word processors, but in the five versions of Dr. Crew’s proposal and the four of Dr. Bloch’s that I studied, there averaged five to ten large or small changes on each page of each draft, and hardly a sentence remained unchanged over the course of revision (227).

In my own experience writing grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation as part of a research team, it would not be uncommon to have fifty distinct versions of a proposal that reflected many hundreds or even thousands of revisions. Each of these changes would likely be the result of critical feedback from someone on the team or, if we are fortunate, some knowledgeable and experienced reader kind enough to give us advice.

If you use the science writing curriculum by Meeks & Lofgren – either the whole thing or just a few pieces – you can let your students know that by focusing on their work in small chunks and working hard to make each piece better, they’ll truly be writing like scientists!

That Looks Like Science (The Writing, I Mean!) was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Curriculum, Features and Media, Pedagogy, Scholarship.

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