College Writing, Actually

"How Do You Actually Write A Research Paper in STEM?"

March 22, 2023 Britt Threatt Season 1 Episode 6
College Writing, Actually
"How Do You Actually Write A Research Paper in STEM?"
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Show Notes Transcript

We're continuing with our trilogy of episodes on writing papers in the disciplines! Today we tackle STEM with doctoral candidate Meghan Gonsalves and she is bringing us a step-by-step breakdown!  I know I always say it but for sure today you want to grab your pen and notebook!

Looking for Meg on socials? You can follow her on Twitter @brainy_meg  and on IG @megg0myegg00.

 If you would like the transcript to this episode, you can find it on the podcast's website  Simply select the desired episode and click the "Transcript" tab beside the Show Notes. 

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Britt Threatt, host (BT)

Meghan Gonsalves (MG)

00:00 Intro music

00:04 BT: Hello writers! I’m Britt Threatt and you’re listening to “College Writing, Actually” where we talk about the how-to and how-come of college writing and writing instruction every other Wednesday while school is in session. Today I’m joined by Meghan Gonsalves, a doctoral candidate in the Brown University Neuroscience Department and a tutor in the university writing center. Thanks for joining us, Meg.

MG: Thanks for having me, Britt.

BT: So we’re doing a trilogy of episodes on “how do you actually write a research paper in the disciplines.” Meg, you’re talking to us about “how to actually write a research paper in STEM.” 

MG: Oh yes I am. I'm very excited to talk to you more about it.

BT: Well good! Because I have a lot of questions. I know very little about writing in STEM. I’m firmly humanities. Literature, novels, that's my bag. So I will truly be standing in for the reader--for the listener-- and asking all the questions and clarifications as you talk us through. So starting off with a fundamental question: what is the difference between STEM writing and social science or humanities?

01:00 MG: Yeah, so actually as someone who used to major in English--

BT: My people!

MG: Way back in the day.

BT: Yes!

MG: Like a decade ago! I used to know almost literally nothing about STEM writing myself! In my opinion, the difference really lies in a couple of things: so mainly the rigorous structure of a STEM research paper and really the hypothesis statement. 

BT: Hypothesis.. it kinda sounds like thesis. They related? They cousins?

MG: Kinda, yeah. In terms of the hypothesis, it is actually quite a lot like a thesis statement, so as it guides the reader through the main argument of the paper, you're really leading them down a path. Much like a thesis statement. However, when we think of STEM hypotheses they have to be falsifiable and testable. The argument, or cause and effect proposed, has to be based on the existing evidence out in the literature. So either something you collected or something another research group has collected.

01:57 If your results from your experiment prove your hypothesis incorrect that is totally fine. It may feel like the end of the world.


MG: I know, but it's not. And we call that actually “rejecting” your hypothesis. So though your findings can confirm your hypothesis in your paper, it probably won’t hold true 100% of the time. 

*BT stares at MG in utter shock and horror*

BT: I wish y'all could see my face. I'm literally like, it's not computing, what you're saying. That’s already night and day from humanities writing. If you disprove your own point by the end of the paper your argument failed.

MG: Yes! Yes! I know that feeling very well from back in my literature days. Which is why this can feel just so counterintuitive if you are used to writing humanities papers like I was. It was very culture-shocky when I started doing STEM work.

02:56   In STEM, it's you know it's less about “proving” your point or your hypothesis, and more about accurately and appropriately exploring your hypothesis to see where the evidence actually lies. And I'll talk about this a bit more later, but proving your hypothesis wrong is normal, acceptable, and completely appropriate! 

BT: Mmm--mm...

MG: So not everything scientists predict will come true, and that’s okay- it’s just what the data is. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. 

BT: These differences are blowing my humanities mind but okay. I'ma trust you for the next like 20, 30 minutes whatever. Sure. And then you said the second major difference for STEM is a rigorous structure. So because in humanities where things go is not necessarily earmarked ahead of time. There’s the intro, there's body paragraphs, there's a conclusion but STEM has literal sections that have to be there, right?

03:51 MG: Yeah, exactly! That's completely correct.

BT: Okay, soooo....we have the fundamental differences. Let’s get into these gotta-be-there sections. Writers: grab your notebooks! Meg: lay it on us (you know, please).

MG: Alright, alright so in STEM writing there are typically five main pieces of a paper or publication if you decide to publish. They are (1) the abstract, (2) the introduction, (3) the methods section, (4) the results, and (5) the discussion. Any scientific paper, regardless of the field, will probably be outlined in this manner. It's just like the bread and butter of what we do.

BT: That is so intimidating! It's so intimidating to me. I’m thinking about students who are used to social sciences or humanities-- my people-- but are taking a STEM class perhaps for the first time and I’m just…shuddering for them (but we’re here to help y’all)!

04:46 MG: Yes, we are here to help. And writing a paper in STEM, I just wanna come out and say it, can be really difficult and challenging process for anyone; so even the most senior academics and professors may struggle to get their ideas organized on the page. So before you start writing, remember please-please-please be kind to yourself and acknowledge that this is really, really hard! Of course if you are struggling, reach out to your mentor, professor, labmates, colleagues or university writing center like me and Brit you know just for help with getting started. 

But really with any form of writing, especially STEM writing, make sure you are exploring a topic that you are passionate about. I really can't underscore this enough. This is just another tip to keep in mind if you are deciding on a thesis project or deciding to join a lab that will give you the opportunity to publish. It will be so much more fun and so much worth well and shine through in your writing that you really enjoy what you're talking about.

05:47 BT: Yeah. That’s always solid advice, thank you. Okay, now that you’ve soothed any anxious listeners by proxy (I’m the proxy), we can get into the nitty gritty of each of these sections. Let’s walk through what they do and some tips on knocking them out.

MG: For sure, yeah. So when it comes to actually writing a research paper, I would suggest writing these following sections in this very specific order

BT: All this specificity is giving me hives. 

MG: Yeah, yeah don' sounds scarier than it is but it's Methods, write your Methods section first, then your Results section, the Introduction, the Discussion, and then the Abstract. 

BT: I cannot understand that logic. Because it’s not even just backwards. It’s all over the place. Meg, explain yourself!

MG: Oh yeah, no. The first time I wrote a paper, I was like "I have no idea what I'm doing. Someone please throw me like a lifeline or, you know, something to help me." But there's actually a really good reason for suggesting all of this.

BT: We listening.

06:44 MG: So I suggest this method when you're really struggling to get anything down on paper because Methods can be pretty straight forward. Start with the Methods section. This section merely comprises the steps you have already taken to conduct your experiment, so it's just written out in a highly detailed and logical form. So when writing Methods sections, think about it as an instructions sheet that you get with putting a piece of Ikea furniture together. You know, something very direct and something easy to follow. So any person should be able to use your methods section and repeat your procedures and analyses and (hopefully, fingers crossed) obtain the same results- and this is what makes science reproducible. 

BT: Okay, y'all excuse my little snort in the middle of Meg's very wonderful example. I just think it's hilarious that you chose Ikea.

MG: That was probably not the best choice.

07:46 BT: Infamously difficult to follow instructions. Nobody I have ever met can put their furniture together without trials and tribulations. But please continue. Okay, so Methods should be straightforward and reproducible. Roger that. After they got that, they got Results.

MG: Yes, yeah. Sorry about that. I guess I should've picked something maybe like turning on an Apple computer. The instructions are super simple.

BT: Something that could perhaps go well.

MG: Yeah! Something that can go well. I want this to go well for all of you. forget Ikea. So here for the next part, the Results section, I would recommend writing the Results next because theoretically if you have your Methods written out and completed, you should hopefully have your results! If you're uncertain about how to organize them, I suggest writing out your main findings in a bulleted list and then you can go back in later to flesh out your sentences and paragraphs. I literally just did this writing my dissertation so it was a full bulleted list of statistical findings, nothing in complete sentences.

08:50 So you know once you have the Methods and Results sections under your belt, or at least a draft of them, take a moment to congratulate yourself because you are halfway through writing your paper! It may not feel like it yet, but this is a really big accomplishment. You know, you've already got two really difficult sections down. And in terms of next steps I would suggest fleshing out your introduction. 

BT: Ooh, okay let’s address this. 

09:15 Music interlude

BT: In humanities a lot of people advise the intro to go last because then you can write the correct introduction to match your argument. But you’re saying to write it in the middle of the process?

MG: Oh yes! Which, again, is very counterintuitive.

BT: My gosh!

MG: But, Britt, that's a brilliant point you're making.

BT: Oh thank you!

MG: No, because it's...seriously. Because this is something that I've always wondered about too, especially when I first started writing in STEM. This was something that really confused me.

09:47 So with writing introductions in STEM, you should already have your hypothesis written out and decided upon. That should be like step one of when you start writing, so your Intro is really about leading your reader to your specific hypothesis that you've already come up with, and in science we call that "a priori." Regardless if your hypothesis confirms your results! So I just wanna say that again and underscore it. It's...write your hypothesis regardless of if it confirms your results. And write your Intro regardless if it confirms your hypothesis. 

BT: Wow...

MG: The discussion is where you can explain your findings and if they matched your hypothesis, you can discuss why or why not. But we can talk more about that soon.So thinking a bit about intros, which, you know have a lot of similarities and differences in the humanities and in STEM... You know your Introduction should really convince your reader why your work is so important and necessary based on the existing literature.

10:48 And like I said before, this could be literature that you've found from other researchers or your own findings. So I’m a very, in my Boston way, very wicked visual learner, so I think of the structure of an introduction as the shape of a funnel or an upside down triangle.

BT: Okay.

MG: So we're starting off really broad with big strokes and working our way down to an idea that is finite, testable, and very specific. For a typical introduction, I like to start off generally with what is known in the field. Then, with each paragraph, it is important to introduce what's unknown. And finally, you should explicitly state what the gap we want to fill in with our research is and why do we want to fill it in? Why is it so important that we actually conduct this research? And again, we are going from big, broad ideas, to something super specific that will direct the remainder of our paper. Think of this section as letting your reader know the background of this field and where you wanna take it. 

11:54 BT: Okay, soo it’s a bit like a literature review and a statement of intervention?

MG: Yeah pretty much. That's exactly it!

BT: And is this section is a single paragraph or longer?

MG: Yeah so it's definitely more than a paragraph,. It should be a section! I like to say that it should be--which may not be helpful-- it should be as many paragraphs necessary for you to get your point across in a logical clear manner. So typically like you know, 5 6 7 paragraphs.

BT: Wow.

MG: Yeah. But they should be pretty short and concise.

BT: Okay, okay, okay. So we’ve got the Methods. We got the Results. We got the Introduction (I still cannot believe this order) but we’re on to the Discussion! Now I can sure enough have a deep discussion with an empty room but what are you talking about?

12:39 MG: Yeah, yeah. So I’m talking about your explanation as to why your hypothesis stands as is. Then your Methods and the Results they produced. Your Results are either going to accept or refute your hypothesis. So many people, including myself, get wrapped up in this piece of writing, because we take our science and our hypotheses so personally. It can almost feel like an extension of yourself so- I really, REALLY want to emphasize that finding opposite results or non-significant results is fine! Good science isn’t significant science; good science is well informed and rigorously carried out science, significant or not. 

BT: Wait a minute! We gotta get into that word! Turn to your neighbor and say “good science isn’t significant science!” Hey! Receive it today! Go ahead, Meg. We’re receiving that on today.

13:33 MG: Yes! If I could stress anything a million times over that would be it. But this is why the discussion is so important- this is your place to discuss why you potentially found what you found. Maybe there were flaws in your experimental design, or maybe there was a confounding variable or factor you didn’t consider. This is where you can delve really deep into the literature and explain why or why not your results don’t hold up next to other similar studies in your field. 

BT: Okay, so basically you just have to tell the story to whatever end. 

MG: Yeah.

BT: Got it. Okay. I’m feeling through the atmosphere. I'm feeling, the energy of someone is reaching me, a nervous listener who is saying "this sounds like a meatier section." That listener would like a note on how to eat this elephant. Can you break down the bites?

14:25 MG: Oh, absolutely. So again, this is really challenging. Discussion sections, I would say, are what I always struggle with the most. 

BT: Okay.

MG: Regarding the specifics of the flow of the discussion, I suggest the following order. So typically you want to restate the main objective of the paper and your hypothesis. Then you want to explicitly state your findings in a nice, quick, easily digestible form. Next you're gonna wanna discuss how your findings do or don’t fit in with what has already been found. Next, you're gonna provide potential explanations for this. So, as someone in the life science and neuroscience, I like to think of like biological processes or something that can explain why what's going on is going on.

BT: Okay.

MG: Next, you're gonna talk about the importance or novelty of your research and what should be done in the future to expand these ideas, so this is really an awesome opportunity to kind of set the path forward for your research and for other people.

15:26 Then it's always really important to talk about the strengths of what you found. So maybe you had a really big sample size. Maybe you used really rigorous statistical analyses. Whatever it may be. And then you wanna talk about the limitations-- and don't be afraid to talk about them. It's totally fine if your sample size was small or you didn't have the best data. That's research. That's science, so as long as you explicitly state it, you're good. And finally, a concluding paragraph that summarizes the entire paper. I like to end my conclusions with a “call to action.” So I study mental health in neuroscience and neuroscience-based interventions for treatment-resistant depression. So what can we do to really make, you know, these treatments more accessible? Or how should we expand upon them to help more people? So that's what I mean by a call to action.

16:19 BT: Okay, so those were eight steps of, you know, how you eat the elephant of the Discussion section. I hope you had your notepads out. If you missed it, hit that rewind 30 second button. Go back and get your blessing. Meg, listener says “thank you.” And with that, I do believe we are at the end-- or at least we can see it. We can see an end. And since we can see the end, it’s time to go to the beginning and write the abstract! 

16:44 Music interlude

BT: Okay, so I'm just gonna say out of my mouth right here today, writing writing abstracts is its own beast and I’m definitely sensing listeners wanting very specific direction on what is expected there.

MG: Absolutely, yeah, so abstracts are gonna be the first thing that you see in any scientific paper. Underneath the title and the authors' names and their affiliations. So typically abstracts are between about 200 and 300 words and can be structured (meaning they have explicit sections for the Intro, Methods, Results, and Discussion) or non-structured and just kind of be one giant paragraph. 

BT: Oop, excuse me. So even if we have sections within your abstract, we still keeping that capped at 2-300 hundred words?

17:41 MG: Yes! 

BT: Okay.

MG: I view each section of the abstract as quick summaries of your main points. Remember, a lot of the time people will only read your abstract, because they're trying to find research that's necessary to what they're doing so it is important that it is well organized, thought out, and really highlights your findings and their importance! 

BT: Okay, so since this may be all anyone reads, that means this is the place to put all your five-dollar words?

MG: No.

BT: No.

MG: No. 

BT: Put your $5 words back in your wallet. Okay.

MG: Yeah so as a former English major, I loved using flowery language, rhetorical devices, and sometimes overly complicated sentences.

BT: It's me.

MG: Shelved sentences were my favorite. So I know this is a different preference for everyone, but also enjoyed using adjectives and adverbs to describe actions and ideas. I think description and detail are truly the zest of life....

BT: Yes...

18:44 MG: So whenever I'm talking or you know in my former English major days... But STEM writing really steers you away from this. 

Unlike Humanities writing, STEM writing should be devoid of adjectives and adverbs, and ultimately be straightforward and really concise. I used to think this made this form of writing “boring,” and like "why would I ever wanna do anything in STEM that's not my flowery fun language that I use?" But really it allows the reader to make an informed decision about your methods and your results. 

It can also be difficult to fit a lot of complex ideas into one sentence, so you're better off breaking ideas down sentence by sentence. If we think about this from a musical perspective--I played the clarinet for like 10 years. I was awful at it, total Squidward, but we can think of these sentences as very “staccato.” Like one immediately after another.

19:43 So I have three pieces of advice or tips that I always give as a Writing Associate. I guarantee I repeat them every writing session that I have here but the first one is each sentence should only express one idea. That's where the staccato comes in, so it's a lot of different sentences, different ideas. Two, if your sentence goes onto four or more lines, it might be worth breaking it down into separate sentences or using a semicolon. And three, if you ever get stuck on what you are trying to write out in a clear way, look away from your paper and pretend (or actually) talk to a friend and state in just plain language the main idea of what you are trying to say. Oftentimes I ask students, “What are you trying to say? Just explain it to me in simple terms,” and when they do it sounds excellent! This is because they're less worried about what the “writing” actually sounds like and are just trying to get the main point across so that way you can continue the conversation. 

20:45 This should be the same line of thought with writing, and it's of course harder to translate this onto the page. So I almost say immediately after they say it, “Write it down! Write it down!” And they're like "really?" But that exactly what should be written down in their paper. The clear, very direct point.

BT: Okay. Wait, are we actually at the end-end now? This is unbelievable! I'm not even prepared. That was a lot of information in a fairly concentrated amount of time, so definitely listeners feel free to go back and listen to it but it’s still gonna be a lot on the replay so I would also encourage you to go section by section as you’re trying to apply this advice. And even when you do, please remember that drafting-- drafting right "ing", that present progressive-- hey, humanities! That present progressive now it is a process. It is going to be something that is continual. It's a part of the drafting process-- I mean it's a part of the writing process. You don’t have to get this paper done in one. That’s not a thing so just embrace the crappy first draft. We all have to.

21:47 MG: Oh totally! Drafting is a difficult and necessary process. And this goes for STEM, humanities, whatever it may be. This is for any type of writing. The first version of all of your sections will most likely need editing- and that's okay! Every great scientist and writer revises, and no one writes a Naturepaper--and for those of you who don't know, that's like the top tier type of paper-- but no one writes it in a single sitting or without input from mentors and colleagues. A lot of times the edits or Track Changes if you're using Word or Google Sheets-- or sorry, Google Docs--will feel discouraging. You know, especially seeing all that red on a page.

BT: My goodness.

MG: Yeah, I've had it before. But it really means that your co-authors believe in you and want the paper to be the best it can be. 

22:42 As I said before, I started out college as an English major and now I am getting my PhD in Neuroscience. 

BT: Yeah, you are!

MG: Yeah! I'm telling you, little Meg a decade ago never thought that she was smart enough or good enough  to be in STEM. I think my insecurities stemed a lot-- STEMed

BT: Ha ha.

MG: A lot from what I experienced in high school, but neither of those things were or are true for me or for you. A good scientist is truly someone who is passionate about their work and views everything (so experiments and the writing component) as an imperfect recursive process. I hope this discussion has been helpful and demystified the scientific writing process and really helped you to see that anyone-- truly anyone-- can be a scientist. 

23:38 BT: What an encouraging word to end on. Writers, speak to yourself and say “anyone can be a scientist.” Receive that! Thank you, Meg. This episode is part of a “papers in the disciplines” series. Each episode has centered writing a paper in the three major field sectors: humanities, social sciences, and STEM. Once again, definitely save and share if they’ve been useful to you. Shout us out on Twitter if your spirit is super moved. 

There remains an open invitation to DM the Twitter questions or topics-- you may hear them in a future episode. Following College Writing, Actually on the Twitter and adding it to your playlists on your preferred streaming platform is the best way to catch those upcoming episodes. Until then, we out of here. Y’all write on.