A major goal of this course is to give you practice and feedback in scientific writing. We will mainly focus on two types of written assignments, commentaries and referee reports. Samples of both types of writing will be given to you. These two types of assignments have different goals and different grading criteria.
In addition to those specific criteria, the graders will be asking the following general questions about all your assignments:
• Is the paper summarized adequately and accurately? You won’t get the details perfectly correct every time, especially technical details. However, you should strive to achieve a good scientific understanding of the paper before you start to write. When you compose your summary, it’s important to state the scientific findings of the paper in your own words as much as possible. It’s not acceptable to simply lift five sentences from the paper verbatim and string them together. This is plagiarism. It also implies that you don’t understand the paper, or that you aren’t reading it critically.
• Is the writing organized? You should outline your essay before starting to write. Also, when writing in the referee report format, it’s important to list each specific criticism or question as a separate point, and to indicate clearly which of these are major criticisms and which are minor criticisms. Before you begin, familiarize yourself with the organization of the writing samples we are giving you.
• Is the commentary/critique thoughtful? Don’t strive for profundity, but do give your comments some real thought. Ideally, you should demonstrate that you are able to take a critical stance in evaluating how well the authors have succeeded in their goals.
• Is the tone of the writing appropriate and consistent? Avoid abusive language, purely rhetorical gestures, and colloquialisms. Even when you’re stating a strong criticism, you should remain professional.
A) COMMENTARIES (750-1250 words total)
We will ask you to write a commentary on some of the assigned papers. This type of essay is designed to be published in the same issue of the journal as the paper itself, and is aimed at the general readership of that journal. The goals of this type of essay are:
• to summarize the paper for the reader,
• to provide context and background, with the goal of clarifying why this paper is significant for the field.
You should assume the paper has already been accepted by the journal in its current form. This type of essay generally adopts a positive tone, but it is perfectly acceptable to note (diplomatically) a major caveat associated with the paper.
Your commentary should address the following issues:
• What are the major questions addressed by this study?
• Why are these questions interesting? How does this related to the background/context for this paper? (In other words, what gap in the literature does this study fill, or what controversy does it help settle? Some of this background will come from what you learn in class, but you may find that some assignments require a bit of extracurricular reading on your part.)
• How did the authors go about answering this question? Briefly summarize the design, experimental methods, and conclusions of the most important experiment(s) in this study. It is not necessary to describe every figure; instead, focus on what is most important.
• What major conclusions did the authors reach?
• [optional but often appropriate] Point out major caveats in the study (if any), and outline obvious future directions of this research (if any).
Feel free to address these points in whatever order makes the most sense to you.
B) REFEREE REPORTS (750-1250 words total)
We will ask you to evaluate some of the assigned papers as if you were refereeing them as unpublished manuscripts. This type of essay is designed to be read by the authors and the editor. The main goals of this report are:
• to provide constructive criticism to the authors, and
• to provide guidance to the editor in deciding whether to accept or reject it.
A referee report generally begins a summary of the basic results of the paper, accompanied by a brief statement of your overall opinions. We are encouraging you to make this narrative portion of the report about ~500 words long. Next, you should list your major criticisms (if any), separated by numerals or bullet points. Finally, list your minor criticisms (if any), again in separate points. A “major criticism” would be defined as a scientific concern that is so serious that if the authors cannot address it, it would be grounds for rejecting the paper. In general, “major criticisms” tend to be broad and “minor criticisms” tend to be specific, but that’s not always true.
Your referee report should address the following issues:
• What are the major questions addressed by this study?
• Please comment on the level of interest/significance associated with this study. In answering this question, it is often appropriate to comment briefly on the background/context for this paper. In the final analysis, the significance of a study depends partly on the interest level associated with the major questions, but also on how effective this study is in clarifying the answers to these questions. A bad study on an interesting topic is not very significant.
• What are the major results/conclusions of this study? This portion of a real referee report is generally succinct (perhaps just a couple of sentences). For the purposes of these assignments, however, we encourage a somewhat longer summary (~500 words).
• Are the authors’ conclusions supported by their results? If different interpretations would be equally plausible, please discuss these alternatives.
• Do you think additional experiments are required before the authors can persuade you of their conclusions? If so, what?
• As a referee, would you recommend publication of this study (in the journal where it ultimately appeared)?
Again, feel free to address these points in whatever order makes the most sense to you.
These examples are actual homework assignments from last year's course along with the instructor's comments.