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Writing a Paper in the Hard Sciences

Resources to Use When Writing a Paper in the Hard Sciences

Jan 08, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Science never happens in a vacuum. Researchers are constantly testing hypothesis, soliciting feedback, and reworking their theories, which means that every scientist has to be aware of what other researchers are up to. Science only works when researchers are able to collaborate and validate each other's work. Whether you're mixing chemicals in a lab or measuring whales in the ocean, when you develop an experiment to test a question, you're building your research on a foundation built by others. This interdependence means that learning to do research is one of the most important parts of a science education: you need to be able to cite the studies and theories of other researchers in order to write intelligently about science. Below you'll find guidelines and helpful resources to use when you have to write a research paper in biology, chemistry, or physics.

What is a science resource?

There are three broad categories of resources that you might need in order to write a scientific research paper:
  • The first, and most important, is published reports of original investigative work. When scientists perform an experiment, they write up their important findings and publish them. If you're writing a literature review or doing background research on a topic, you'll need to be able to find and analyze these types of publications.
  • The next category of resources is commentary on research findings. Scientists will often publish writings that don't present original data but instead offer analysis of issues in the field. These include a broad range of materials, from letters to the editor published in journals to white papers from non-profits or research institutions.
  • The third resource you might need when working on a science paper is a source that offers descriptive facts such as definitions, biographies, and historical accounts.
While there is some overlap between these categories, usually you'll need to look in different places to find each of these resources.

Primary research

The resources you'll most likely need to use when writing a research paper in the sciences are published studies. These are an integral part of writing a research paper: you'll be citing them in your introduction and conclusion in order to provide background for your topic and to place it appropriately in the research landscape. If your paper requires a literature review, published studies will make up the bulk of the material in that section.
When it comes to published results, peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard-it's where you should always start your search for resources. Results published in peer-reviewed journal articles have been reviewed by professionals in the field for accuracy and relevance. This means that other scientists have decided that the experiment meets the guidelines for good scientific practice and that the results and analysis are worth publishing. Keep in mind that this doesn't guarantee that the results are accurate or that the conclusions are true; it just means that editors have decided the work meets publication requirements.
There are thousands of peer-reviewed journals out there. Some of them are broadly focused, for example Ecology and Applied Physics Letters both cover a wide range of topics in biology and applied physics, respectively. There are also lots of journals that cater to specific research niches, such as the Journal of Tropical Ecology and Low Temperature Physics. Because there are so many journals to look through, the first step in doing research is familiarizing yourself with the journals in your field-you need to know where people are publishing, and in particular you should know where people will be publishing studies that relate to your topic of interest.
When looking for journal articles, it's best to start broad by using databases that will allow you search as many journals as possible. If you're doing research in a specific field you can also make use of specialized databases.
Note: Unfortunately, most journals aren't free. If you're working at a university, you'll likely have online access to journals through the university's subscription or access to physical copies of journals in the library. If you can't access the articles you need, most can be purchased online or you can try searching a free site like Google Scholar.

General journal databases

EBSCO (also called Web of Science) is one of the largest journal databases available online.
Academic OneFile allows you search journals as well as other resources such as newspapers.
JSTOR focuses more on the humanities and social sciences, but does allow you to search some science journals.

Specialized databases

Biology/Medicine:

PubMed is the best source for clinical studies as well as more general topics in biology.
Nursing and Allied Health Collection includes publications related to nursing.
Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Collection has over 100 journals related to sports medicine.
Environmental Studies and Policy includes a range of publications on environmental issues.

Chemistry:

SciFinder is a database run by the American Chemical Society.
Reaxys is a database that allows you to search by reaction, substance, or numerical properties data.
ChemWeb allows you search over 500 chemistry journals.

Physics:

Scitation is a searchable database from the American Institute of Physics
Astrophysics Data System is a database maintained by the Smithsonian.
Inspec has a database of abstracts for topics in physics and engineering.

Commentary

At its core, science is one big, loud conversation, with researchers communicating and exchanging ideas through published materials. When you're writing a paper or doing background research in the sciences, you need to be aware of this conversation, and you'll likely want to be able to find out what's going on in your field without having to read hundreds of journal articles.
Journals: Most peer-reviewed journals will also publish commentary from scientists on important topics and issues in their field. Searching the databases listed above will turn up letters to the editor, commentary, news, and opinion pieces on your topic.
Books: It might seem old-fashioned, but if you're looking for background material on a particular subject, try your school library or your textbooks.
Magazines and newspaper: It might seem easy to get information you need from popular magazines or online news sites, but you want to be careful about using these sources for an academic paper. The popular media often misreads or distorts scientific findings, so it's always best to go back to the original source (usually a peer-reviewed journal article or book) to analyze the information for yourself.
Websites: Most professional societies, such as the American Institute of Physics and the American Chemical Society, have newsfeeds and online content that can help keep you up-to-date on developments in your field.

Facts and definitions

Often when you're writing academic work for a class, you need to find information like definitions, biographies, and histories. This might seem like a simple task, but sometimes trying to pin down the exact meaning of a scientific term or trace the development of a particular idea can be a daunting task. Often you can rely on textbooks, but if you're looking online here are some resources that will help you find the facts you need.
Science in Context allows you to search a wide range of encyclopedias and news sources that cover scientific topics.
Health and Wellness Resource Center is a searchable database of easy-to-understand resources related to health and wellness.
Science.gov provides links to governmental agencies that publish scientific materials.
Wikipedia can be a good place to start a search, but you should never cite it in your academic work. Instead, use it as a launching pad to locate more reliable resources.
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