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C. Reading Scientific Papers
The following represent a few writing-based strategies to help you become more independent in your reading of primary source science literature. Since the intent of this type of literature is for scientists to report their findings to other scientists working in related fields, the writing is extremely technical and geared toward those who are already familiar with the language and processes of that particular research field.
Accordingly, high school students may have a difficult time understanding a good deal of the writing, especially sections where the methodology and data are discussed. This would include the presentation of the data in the form of figures and graphs. However, the strategies presented here focus primarily on those sections of the paper which students should be able to master, enabling them to comprehend the major point of the research discussed in the paper.
1. Do some background research to become familiar with the general topic.
2. Start with the Abstract, which will summarize the article.
3. If the Abstract indicates that the article will be relevant, read the Introduction to identify the objectives of the authors.
4. Scan the Materials and Methods section for a sense of the basic methodology.
5. Examine the significant findings in the Results section
6. Look at how the author ties things together in the Discussion section, and determine how the research supports your own work.
7. Do not expect that one reading of the paper will be enough.
As you read, try to relate each research study to your own work. Make use of only those articles that contain relevant information.
Determine where the paper is heading.
1. Read a part or all of the article and then write your first thoughts or questions you would like answered. Describe the purpose of the specific research in light of the larger problem it was attempting to investigate.
Write while you read.
2. Reword the Abstract in more common language.
3. As you read the Introduction, write one sentence that describes the main point of each paragraph.
4. As you read the Discussion, write one sentence that describes the main point in each paragraph.
Work with the figures containing data.
5. The questions below require you to interpret figures within the article in several ways. Pay attention to the structure and design of each figure. Your initial observations should help you focus on particulars.
a. What is the question or hypothesis the figure addresses?
b. What method is used to address the hypothesis?
c. What does the author conclude?
d. Do you have any reservations about the author’s conclusions?
e. How does this figure relate to the overall goals of the paper?
6. Write a caption for the figure(s) in your own words.
7. Write a one-sentence description of the significance of each figure.
D. Writing Style in Science.
Scientific writing often uses a style different from other types of writing. As you read scientific texts pay careful attention to the style used by the author. When you are asked to write in science, use the format and style used by research scientists. Scientists tend to use the passive voice and past tense when describing their investigations, and to avoid jargon and wordiness.
1. Passive Voice
Always use the passive voice, which stresses the subject being observed or tested, rather than the active voice, which stresses the researcher.
Active: I recorded the temperature of the solution and then added 3ml of HCl.
Passive: After the temperature of the solution was recorded, 3ml of HCl were added.
(Note: Some scientific journals require the use of the active voice to save space, since sentences in the active voice tend to be shorter.)
2. Verb Tense
Use the past tense when reporting the results of your own work (which includes most of the Abstract, Materials and Methods, and Results sections) and the present tense for established research (which includes most of the Introduction and Discussion).
Some exceptions should be noted:
· Use the past tense when you refer to an author directly:
Bednarik (1959) found that this Drepanidae was extremely sensitive to light.
· Use the present tense when you refer directly to a table or figure in your own paper.
Figure 1 shows that the population was adversely affected.
Scientists use simple, straightforward writing and avoid the use of jargon. The general meaning of the word ‘jargon’ relates to the technical language of a particular group, such as biologists, chemists, or physicists. A narrower meaning implies intentionally excessive wordiness and the use of obscure terminology.
Jargon: As part of a daily routine, the Microtidae specimens were manually transported by the experimenter to the predetermined observation cage. Each subject was examined carefully and any indications of fighting or other aggressive behaviors were noted. The specimens were returned to the holding facility upon completion of the data collection.
Revised: The experimental mice were observed daily. All indicators of aggressive behavior were recorded.
Since note taking concentrates on the recording of information, first drafts tend to be somewhat wordy. It is important to revise your work one sentence at a time, being careful to retain the content while simplifying your language. Changing even one word can produce dramatic results.
Unlike your descriptive writing in other disciplines, writing in science does not benefit from the use of modifiers such as “very,” “quite,” and “rather.” You should omit any words or phrases that do not add to the meaning of your sentences.
More often than not Usually
It is apparent that Apparently
In light of the fact Because
In only a small number of cases Occasionally, rarely
In the possible event that If
(1, p. 144. Excerpted with permission.)
E. Academic Integrity
Using someone else’s ideas without giving them credit is called plagiarism. Examples of common plagiarism by students include:
1. Claiming equal responsibility for a lab report completed by a lab partner;
2. Copying and pasting text into a paper without using quotation marks and proper citations;
3. Using paraphrased notes without acknowledging the source of the information;
4. Using poorly paraphrased notes – ones that do not completely change the grammatical structure of the original – even with a parenthetical citation.
The most common type of plagiarism (4. above) is when you think you are paraphrasing or summarizing, but the wording is still so similar to the author’s that it does not represent your own synthesis of the material. You can avoid this type of inadvertent plagiarism by being more careful when taking notes.
If your notes consist of half-copied passages from the original source, perhaps it is because you have not fully understood the passages. Note taking that consists of reading without thinking leads to plagiarism.
To take notes effectively, you need to understand the different types of notes.
Direct Quote – reprints, within quotation marks, an author’s words exactly as they appear in the original. These should be used sparingly, for emphasis only.
Summary - expresses the important facts and ideas in a large section of text, using only a few words.
Paraphrase - expresses the important facts or ideas in a smaller section of text, using different words and grammatical structure but of about the same length as the original. The majority of your research should produce paraphrased notes.
Both paraphrasing and summarizing require that you internalize and understand the material fully before you write about it. You must be able to identify and summarize the points that are most relevant to your particular needs.
F. Writing for Physics
While the information above may serve as a guide for scientific writing in general, individual disciplines may have special requirements. For example, writing for Physics should follow these modifications to the general rules:
1. The Title Page of the paper should include the title of the paper, the date of the experiment, and a list of the Experimental Group.
2. A Physics research paper should include seven sections: Abstract, Introduction, Theory, Procedure, Results, Conclusion, and References.
The background Literature Search is omitted completely.
The Introduction includes the historical significance of the current work.
The Theory section includes the derivation of the mathematical formula utilized.
The Procedure includes appropriate pictures and diagrams, and independent and dependent variables are rarely used.
Results are expressed in a tabular form.
In the Conclusion, the results of the experiment are not interpreted. Rather, the numbers (% error) speak for themselves.
3. Pertinent ‘literature’ on an experiment is distributed as a handout. References to other sources of information are listed in the Reference section and cited in the text numerically as superscripts, using the Number System.
4. In Physics, there is no hypothesis stated. Purpose and results are presented and include the % error. The % error is sometimes made as a comparison to a known value, but when no known value is given, % error only relates to the precision of the instruments used to gather the data.
5. In addition to the preferred use of the passive voice, you should also avoid the use of personal pronouns.
The information on this page was developed in cooperation with A. Bednarik, R. Cain, K. Fredyna, D. Heiden, B. Norvell, and K. Tracey of the FHS Science Department, and was based on:
1. McMillan VE. 2001. Writing papers in the biological sciences. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 207 p.
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