July 28, 2013

How many pages should a science report be? How much detail should I include? How do I know when to explain a vocabulary word? Who should be able to understand my report? What does ‘understand’ mean? Does it mean that the reader can reproduce my experiments? Or does it mean that the reader can understand the overall narrative of my experiments? When do I stop editing my work? When do I stop reading outside sources that help me explain the biology? How do I limit my work?

These are some of the questions that have haunted me this last week while I have been writing my science report. It seems that the science report will be a failure in terms of how I had hoped to approach it. I had wanted to write a short, direct narrative of my experiments in the lab. I wanted it to be easy for my reader to follow the overall structure of my time in the lab over these last few months. I didn’t want it to look like a ‘real’ science report, because I am not a ‘real’ scientist. I wanted it to be creative, fun, interesting and most of all philosophic.

However, that is not what I have written. I have over 3000 words on the activity of the P5 promoter in E. Coli. There are graphs, pictures, schemes, and even a bibliography. The only novel part of the report is how I both begin and end the report. Instead of going directly into the biology that is fundamental to my experiments I started the report by explaining the narrative of my work. I explained where I was working, with who I was working, for how long I was working and why I was working on these experiments. These are essential parts that are lacking in most science reports. This was difficult to do because, again, how much should I tell? How far back should I start my story?

Nevertheless, this beginning to my report does help my reader understand the narrative of my work. The problem is that after these first couple paragraphs the report becomes too technical. When I write ‘gene expression’ I know that the average reader will not understand what I am referring to, but then I have to explain what transcription is, and then what DNA and RNA are, and then my report will never end. The report is already too long, and going back through the report to make it less technical is not possible for me to do. Maybe someone who is fluent in the technical language of microbiology can make these concepts more accessible to any reader because they know how to explain and re-explain these ideas, but it is hard enough for me to explain my experiments to a biologist in semi-technical language, let alone explain my project to a non-academic. So I decided to learn from the process of trying to make my report accessible, and not to kill myself by trying to write something that is impossible for me to do. I have to limit my work somehow.

This problem of trying to figure out how much to explain to your reader, is an issue that is deeply embedded within academic communication. Instead of struggling through writing a clear, direct report, academics have decided to take the easy way out: specialization. Disciplines have used boundary work to establish the fundamental concepts that they will discuss, and then they built a technical language around this area of knowledge. When you write for a peer-reviewed journal you don’t have to worry about explaining your ideas in a simple way for your reader to understand because you know that your reader will know all the technical language in your report. If they don’t, then that is their problem and one point for the writer’s ego, proving that they are smarter than their reader. However, this is the type of writing that I am trying to work against. It is hard to do, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to pull it off for this report. But as an embedded philosopher I will have many more opportunities to work on the art of writing.

The other novel aspect to my report was that at the end of my report I included a section discussing the broader impacts of my work. I acknowledged that, while these experiments could potentially cure deadly diseases some day, they could also allow people to design a type of bacteria that would resist all antibiotics. Some of the broader impacts questions were: at what point does the possibility of creating deadly bacteria that cannot be killed stop the research done at LBPA? How can these issued be addressed it the lab? Should we limit scientific research?

Well, I should get back to my report and my epistemic values paper!! I just wanted to share a few thoughts.


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