Science writing course popular

March 10, 2005, vol. 32, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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There appears to be a huge demand at Simon Fraser University for a full-time course, or a regular workshop for graduate students and faculty on getting research papers published.

The centre for writing-intensive learning (CWIL) sent up a trial balloon to gauge interest in such an offering when it launched the nine-week, six-session workshop, Writing for Science Publication, in January. No sooner was the word out than the workshop filled up with 22 people and another 10 waitlisted.

Wendy Strachan, CWIL director, says the centre surveyed various disciplines for their interest in such a workshop before launching this one, which is being sponsored by the faculty of science. "The biggest response came from the sciences," says Strachan. "We're now looking into securing ongoing financial support for a regular workshop series and are hoping a SFU faculty member will teach it."

Iain Taylor, a retired University of British Columbia biology professor and a successful editor of scholarly publications is the only academic widely known in B.C. to teach a writing-for-publication workshop to scholars. So the CWIL brought in Taylor to share his tablet of commandments.

"A researcher's work will have less or no impact unless it can be read by a science journalist, or more importantly an individual who makes policy for government or industry," argues Taylor.

The assistant editor-in-chief of the National Research Council of Canada Research Journals emphasizes the importance of creating a well-structured draft and developing solid author-peer reviewer relations.

"The scientific sin is to adopt the attitude that those who don't know the field should not be reading the paper."

Taylor started offering his workshops at UBC in 1993 to help scholars "drive out a first draft of a research paper that is readable by more than the author's immediate clique. Far too many papers were being refused publication because they were poorly presented, and many well established researchers did not understand the process of publication." Taylor notes that 80 per cent of published papers are never cited, adding, "That indicates a good lot are never read because of inaccessible writing."

Shivanand Balram and Sophie Lavieri feel that they are getting invaluable tips on writing for publication. They are part way through Taylor's workshop. "The greatest strength of this workshop is having an experienced journal editor at the controls," says Balram, a department of geography research assistant pursuing his doctorate. "Transferring this knowledge can shortcut many frustrating trial and error mistakes out of the graduate student writing experience."

"No matter what you are writing about, it has to be written in a way that anyone can read it and understand what you have done, how you did it and why," says Lavieri, a chemistry lecturer who has already written several papers.

Daniel Stevens, a master of science candidate in geography, withdrew two sessions into Taylor's workshop because he realized his thesis was not at the publishing stage. However, he still picked up some valuable tips. Stevens says, "Getting published in peer-reviewed journals at the graduate level is proof of those soft-skills that we like to put on our resumes but have trouble verifying without an extensive work history."

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