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Writing in Biology: Third Class

Before this class, I generally check to make sure students are posting drafts and perfect paragraphs -- and writing good comments. I try to send a quick email to students that aren't posting enough and invite them to meet with me if they're having difficulty.

By Week 3, the class is falling in a rhythm. We touch base on drafts and perfect paragraphs, review where we are on the METHODS projects and when the coming milestones happen (finish figure this week; follow methods next week; present figures & rough draft, following week; then paper due.)

I review the reading I had asked them to do and point out the section on writing an effective figure legend. And then I introduce the figure legend activity. The take-home lesson is that figures don't speak for themselves. The author needs to explain why they included the figure. And that the exact same figure might be used in multiple manuscripts for different purposes.

I digress for a bit at this point, to discuss the fact that you can't just use any old picture you find on the internet as a figure because of copyright. I gauge the audience to see who knows anything about copyright (nobody generally does). So I talk for a few minutes about copyright being enshrined in the constitution, about the original period of copyright, and if anyone knows how long it is now (and why). Then I ask about the Creative Commons and give a brief overview about how Creative Commons works, the incredible value this represents, and the importance of complying with the requirements of the licenses.

So far, I've used Flickr as a place to find Creative Commons licensed imagery for the figure legend activity. I show them how to use the advanced search to look for CC images, how to get the URL to the image file, and how to put that into a Draft post. (As I say, I've used Flickr for this for years, but their recent membership change has probably resulted in the loss of a lot of Creative Commons licensed imagery. And I can't post there anymore. So if I continue to do the activity, I'll sadly need to look for a different source of imagery.) I also show the flickr cc attribution helper as a quick way to generate the correct attribution.

For the Figure Legend activity, then, I have the students divide into pairs and find an image for which they can each write a different legend, and they each write an in-class activity with the image and their legend. I demonstrate and then help them walk through the steps. We wrap up the activity by looking at a few of the pictures they'd identified and the legends they wrote.

Subsequently, I transition to discussing multi-panel scientific figures which they will need to construct for the METHODS project. As a pre-class assignment, I had asked them to find a multi-panel figure in a peer-reviewed article and share it with me. We look at some on the screen and I ask students to explain things they liked or didn't like about them. We try to derive a list of the characteristics that make a figure effective. Some of the points I hope to make include care-and-attention to detail; having objects aligned and spaced appropriately; having consistent, high-contrast labeling, using color effectively, and considering accessibility. We also frequently discuss the ethics of manipulating imagery and that some journals require that images not be retouched or adjusted.

At some point, I ask students why there are so many multi-panel figures in scientific articles. Students generally don't know, but guess that it's to put related information together. I can generally show in one of the figures we've looked at that there is often a hodge-podge of mostly unrelated information. And I so I offer a brief lecture on the process of scientific publication and the idea of figure and color charges.

In the past, I used to demonstrate how to lay out a figure, but more recently, I've provided screencasts that the students can use for this purpose at their own pace. So, instead, I simply invite them to use the rest of the class period to work on their figures with my help, as necessary, to get their figures finished up. I remind them that, as they make their figure, they will need to be able to describe the process in their methods, so they should consider ways to make the process more replicable and to take notes they can refer to while writing their methods.