Authors: Maureen M. Dawson, Brian A. Dawson and Joyce A. Overfield
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
There is just one aspect of my job that I truly hate and that is marking. Were it not for the few good scripts I receive, I might imagine that I had become invisible and inaudible. The publication of Communication Skills for Biosciences will not put an end to this nightmare, but if I can encourage my students to act on some of its guidance, it will be a move in the right direction.
The first two chapters introduce the discipline of scientific writing, describing what it is and how it has evolved. In a handful of pages, the basic laws of punctuation and grammar are covered in a way that is much more accessible than Lynne Truss' famous Eats, Shoots & Leaves. To be honest, I would be amazed if many students bother to read even these few pages and there is not a hope in hell of them reading an entire book on the subject. However, with luck they may dip into the text for guidance or clarification. Particularly useful aspects covered here include lists of commonly confused words, common spelling errors and differences between US and UK English. These are not, as you might imagine, a list of schoolboy howlers, but simple definitions, covering (for example) the difference between effect and affect.
Introductory chapters also tackle the more controversial topics of correct literature citation and plagiarism. As with the rest of the text, the authors' view is unequivocal. There is no discussion about whether it is possible to self-plagiarise; it is simply defined as submitting the same work more than once.
Subsequent chapters cover the wide range of formats and skills that bioscience students need to communicate effectively with their peers, tutors and the public. Individual chapters cover essay writing, producing practical reports, dissertations, posters and oral presentations as well as preparing a CV and applying for jobs.
Each of these practical chapters is short, clear and full of good advice. It is all sensible stuff, covering appropriate formats and stylistic issues, from the basics of the use of different fonts to more high-level skills of constructing a logical argument and engaging the interest of your target audience. Key points are not laboured or overly repeated. All those niggling little faults that needle me when I'm marking are covered. I could take issue with some of the formats suggested, but all do the job more than adequately.
One aspect that appears to have been omitted is field biology. You may not think that this merits a language of its own, but the only mention of the use of common and Latin names is under the subject of "format". So my plans to publish an alternative flora of Britain remain viable, and marking can still raise a smile.
Who is it for? Just as it says on the tin: bioscientists at the undergraduate level. It will also prove a valuable reference source for postgraduates starting out in academia and, dare I say it, there are also a few senior academics who could learn a thing or two from its pages.
Presentation: It would be truly ironic if the presentation of this book were poor, but it is not; it is clear, concise and user friendly.
Would you recommend it? If only I could have it downloaded into the skulls of my undergraduates, my life would be infinitely improved. Please can the next edition come with a USB port to enable this function?