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REPORT WRITING IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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1.0 INTRODUCTION

All over the world, the general impression is that those engaged in the pursuit of science or its application (technology) should not be ‘distracted’ by being called upon to write. Or, more correctly, when scientists and technologists do have to write, they should only be required to do so in the language most frequently used by them, mathematics or statistics, not the prose commonly used by other specialists. Consequently, the education and training of scientists are often so overwhelmingly committed to doing science that the communication arts are neglected or ignored. in short, many good scientists are poor writers. Certainly, many scientists do not like to write. As Charles Darwin once said, “a naturalist’s life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and never to write” (quoted byTrelease, 1958).

Perhaps scientists in developed countries can afford the luxury of not learning to write since they have so many avenues available to them to produce well written science without doing the writing themselves. This is not the case in developing countries which have to cope with the additional handicap of learning the most commonly used medium of science communication, English, as a second language. Scientists in developing counties invariably have little choice but to learn to write the results of their experiments and field observations themselves.

This unit will attempt to argue the need for you to take seriously report writing in science and technology as a worthy contribution to the cause of science and technology. It will invite you to join a growing hand of scientists who are committed to sharing and communicating science as accurately and effectively as possible through good writing. You will be

challenged to view good report writing in science and technology as a necessary stepping stone for writing for publication and career advancement in any aspect of science and technology you may choose to specialise in.

2.0 OBJECTIVES

At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. recognise and appraise the ‘importance of sharing and communicating science, initially through technical writing, as an essential part of the research process 
  2.  defend intelligently the need to place a premium on the acquisition of effective communication skills in formal education for science and technology 
  3. explain how “doing” and “writing” science are complementary functions which need to be actively promoted at all levels of education for science 
  4.  know that writing for publication is the ultimate goal of science. 

3.0 MAIN CONTENT

3.1 First Steps in Sharing and Communicating Science

As in many spheres of human endeavour, your first formal steps in learning how to communicate effectively in science could be critical. This unit assumes that you are taking your first formal steps here to recognise the significance of good technical writing as a necessary foundation to evolving effective communication in science and technology. Unless you are sure-footed in taking those first formal steps, the rest of your career in science or technology may be permanently compromised into relegating “writing science” to a secondary position to “doing science.”

How should you begin? You should begin by asking yourself: What is the ultimate objective of science? The answer to this question is as simple as it is profound: the ultimate objective of science is to share, to communicate, to publish the results of experiments and findings from field observations. What is shared, communicated, or published in science may be applied to some practical objective in life to give us “technology”, and a technological innovation could be the basis of flourishing industry employing thousands of workers.
It is important that you recognise and appreciate your role in the attainment of the ultimate objective of science. Unless you begin by learning how to

write a good technical report, you are not likely to know how to share and communicate effectively your ideas, results, and findings, much less publish them. And in the context of developing countries, your role as scientists who know how to share their ideas in writing assumes a much greater significance. You might be initiating a vital development process which could transform whole communities, nations, and regions – all because you took the necessary first steps in sharing and communicating accurately in your technical reports.

You should also appreciate that sharing and communicating research results is an essential part of the research process. It is not necessary for the plumber to write about pipes, nor is it necessary for the lawyer to write about cases (except brief writing), but the research scientist, perhaps uniquely among the trades and professions, must provide a written document showing what he or she did, when it was done, why it was done, how it was done, and what was learned from it.

3.2 Inculcating Effective Communication Science

Given that the education or training of scientists is so overwhelmingly committed to doing science that its communication aspects are neglected or ignored, what must be done to inculcate effective communication in science? You are invited to consider the following practical steps and to discuss your views with other scientists in the context of this course. • Evolve a more positive attitude to communication in science by according it formal recognition as a specialization worthy of appropriate attention and resource inputs like any other specializations in science.

Scientists pioneered “science information” and successfully demonstrated that it was worthy of equal attention and resources like other areas of science. Today, ‘information science’ has evolved into a discipline in its own right, but its strong roots in science remain. Similarly, “science education” has emerged as a legitimate area of postgraduate specialisation and has continued to grow in stature over the years. There is no known reason why “communication in science” should not evolve in similar fashion.

  1. Design a course on ‘communication in science’ and make it compulsory at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels of education for science. Owing to the dearth of science expertise in this area, initial course designers might have to come from the ranks of specialists in communication and language arts. But as the specialisation gains greater recognition and visibility among practising scientists, it should not take too long for appreciative course designers to emerge from the ranks of scientists. As the new course becomes more and more acceptable in formal education for science, it might be necessary to envisage offering more than one course at two or more levels — undergraduate, postgraduate, and research. 
  2.  Initiate and appropriately endow a movement for more effective communication in science. Most specialists evolve naturally, but a few notable ones have been induced. In all cases, it is the enthusiasm and tenacity of one person or very few people which ensures the survival and blossoming of a new specialism. Since developing countries arguably need competence in science communication more than industrialised ones, there could be special advantages in situating such initiative in a developing society. Ultimately, however, it is the more universal appeal that will sustain it and make it prosper. What possible role might you play here? 
  3.  In the interim, mount a sensitization drive to revive student written presentations at tutorials and seminars, and to integrate written discourse into more and more science degree programmes, especially at the postgraduate level. 

The National Open University of Nigeria is something of a pacesetter by offering a two-credit unit course on Technical Report Writing in its MSc. degree programme in Information Technology. The hope is that other Nigerian universities will emulate it. In the meantime, much can be done by Nigerian universities to promote written discourse in science degree programmes. Student written presentations at tutorials and seminars — a regular feature of undergraduate education for science in the 1950s and 1960s — should be revived.

Finally, academic staff can demonstrate a practical commitment to inculcating effective communication in science by integrating more and more term papers into science degree programmes, especially at the postgraduate level.

3.3 Learning to Write for Publication

Inevitably, we must return to the ultimate objective of science, to publish the results of experiments and findings from field observations, as the greatest motivation for learning technical report writing as early as possible
in your science career. Whether or not you wholly subscribe to the “publish or perish” adage in academia, there is no question but that the goal of scientific research is publication. Scientists, starting as graduate students, are measured primarily not by their dexterity in laboratory manipulation, not by their innate knowledge of either broad or narrow scientific subjects, and certainly not by their wit or charm; they are measured, and become known (or remain known), by their publications.

A scientific experiment, no matter how spectacular the results, is not completed until the results are published. In fact, the cornerstone of the philosophy of science is based on the fundamental assumption that original research must be published. Only thus can scientific knowledge be authenticated and then added to the existing pool of knowledge that we call science. This concept was given added weight when it was accepted as rational policy by the government of the United States of America. Currently U.S. government policy, first proclaimed in 1961 and restated in 1974 by the Federal Council of Science and Technology states as follows:

The publication of research results is an essential part of the research process. This has been
recognized in part through authorization to pay publication costs from federal research grants and contract funds.

Other national governments around the world, notably the former USSR and China, have followed the US example with similar dramatic results. Thus, the scientist must not only “do” science but must “write” science. Although good writing does not lead to the publication of bad science, bad writing can and often does prevent or delay the publication of good science. It is of vital national significance that you, as a potential contributor to the small but locally significant pool of Nigerian scientific knowledge, should imbibe the rudiments of writing good science as early as possible. This course, CIT 802: Technical Report Writing may not make you a great writer of science, but it will give you a firm and confident beginning in that direction. And, it is our hope that your firm and confident beginning will encourage you to become a part of the ultimate objective of science; the publication of scientific research.

4.0 CONCLUSION

Science, as we know it today, would have been impossible without a firm and entrenched tradition of simultaneously “doing” and “writing” science. Unfortunately, writing science has progressively become surbordinate to doing science, both in formal education for science and in the careers of scientists. And yet, to publish the results of experiments or field observations remains the ultimate objective of science. This implies that all scientists, including yourself, must take writing science very seriously, indeed.

This unit encourages you to recognise and appreciate that, by learning how to write a good technical report, you are taking the first vital steps in the attainment of the ultimate objective of science, that is, publishing. You are also invited to make your suggestions on how best to inculcate effective sharing and communication in science, given an educational structure that is skewed in favour of doing, rather than writing, science. The four areas suggested are designed to help you to flag off much needed debate on the subject among the rank and file of scientists. Finally, the nature and significance of publishing science are emphasised to enable you appreciate that both locally and globally, you will be making a worthy contribution to science by mastering the writing as well as the doing of science.

5.0 SUMMARY

In this unit, you have learned to:

  1. recognise and appraise the significance of sharing and communicating science, initially through technical writing, as an essential part of the research process 
  2.  know that writing for publication is the ultimate goal of science and that technical report writing is a vital step towards the attainment of that ultimate goal 
  3. explain how “doing” and “writing” science are complementary functions which need to be actively promoted at all levels of education for science 
  4. defend intelligently the need to accord high priority to the acquisition of effective communication skills in formal education for science and technology. 

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT

Discuss the statement that ‘writing for publication is the ultimate goal of science.’

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