By Rebekah Martin

How Do We Learn Scientific Writing and Communication?

It has become apparent in the later years of my doctoral work that in the United States of America scientific writing and communicating is not a skill taught in typical undergraduate university experiences nor graduate curricular work. Where should the responsibility of teaching or honing this skill fall? From my observations, it tends to fall on the research advisor or oftentimes instruction gets ignored all together, but I wanted to discover how other universities confront this ambiguity. Thus, my focus on GPP was to compare the incorporation of scientific writing instruction in graduate student curriculums of graduate schools in France, Switzerland, and Italy.


In my area of research of drinking water quality, the most blaring account of the need to communicate science is the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan. What has become apparent in the discussions following the crisis is that scientists need to learn how to communicate with each other, public officials, as well as the general public. Since the water crisis came to widespread public attention in January of 2016, conversations regarding how scientists inform the public of their findings have grown, continued, and been brought back to the forefront of media attention. These discussions have included open sourcing and how scientists are individually or organizationally improving their practice.


At a university/graduate studies level, changes can include focusing on programs, outreach events, and curricular changes. At Virginia Tech, the graduate school offers general classes on pedagogy and communicating science as electives or certificates, yet requirements depend on departments, degree types, as well as advisor willingness. While visiting the University of Zurich, Antonio Togni presented our group with thoughts on the purpose of doctoral education comparing the “scholar/stewards of the discipline approach (working with) vs. the knowledge workers (working for) approach to create a product of a doctorate” (Togni, “Doctoral Studies at ETH Zurich”, 2017). This discipline approach or “working with” can be effective combining the support of these institutes and resources with the expertise and mentoring of advisors. While visiting universities in France, Switzerland, and Italy, I observed different types of programs to support the development of scientists in researchers.


France, Switzerland, Italy


Each of the European universities that I visited took part in the Bologna Process. According to this process, a PhD should be completed in three years, and students must apply for an extension to continue study for another year. This puts more pressure on the student to complete the research and dissertation rather than publish within those three years. One university that I visited advertises that their PhD students average two peer reviewed publications during study but eventually five to six are typically published from their thesis (POLI MI). Additionally, the application process differs between universities. Writing samples are not generally required by the university for admissions, but can be requested by the supervisor. Most PhD programs start after five years of higher education – three bachelors and two master’s years. The exception to this is ETH, who allow direct PhD admissions for exceptional students. These two big differences, the Bologna Process and different admissions requirements, change the structure of graduate degrees at the universities we visited compared to the USA while also allowing for distinct variations between universities.


At the University of Zurich, the university advertised a joint science day which it hosts with ETH. They also hold a children’s university, create public libraries, and a number of museums for public use. The university has set up a Graduate Campus which focuses on funding, quality development, general doctoral courses, and dialoguing with the public and politics. Within the general doctoral courses fall a selection of courses on “transferrable skills” including writing skills, presentation and communication skills, technical skills, social skills, and self-management skills. Depending on the department, these courses can be included in a doctoral program of study, but are not required at a university-wide level. The University of Basel has a very similar to program to the University of Zurich, which is run out of the graduate center. Basel offers tuition-free “transferrable skills” courses that can be taken for credit under the following categories: technical skills, scientific writing and publishing, social skills, self-competence and career.


Conversely, at ETH there are almost no graduate schools, so it is the responsibility of supervisors of students to manage their progress and “curriculum”. The university requires twelve credits for a doctoral degree, one-third of which must be unrelated to their research field. These credits, though, differ from our course credits. They are defined as “verifiable independent achievements” and further explained in that “active participation in ETC committees and working groups may be recognized in the form of credits” (Ordinance on Doctoral Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, 2008). This one-third rule seems to promote interdisciplinary work and university involvement rather than improving communication or writing skills specifically.


The Université de Strasbourg hosts a monthly outreach event (Jardin des Sciences) to give students and researchers practical experience to communicate research to the public. Their Doctoral College, which handles all graduate studies, is organized into ten doctoral schools. The doctoral program requires 54 hours of “transversal training proposed by the college of doctoral schools” and 54 hours of disciplinary training. These “transversal training” courses offered by the Doctoral College include scientific and socio-professional courses as well as “soft skill” courses (examples: communication & teaching, tools, knowledge of the socio-political).


Politecnico di Milano organizes its doctoral work under a PhD School. In their documentation, they state that the number one challenge is to link academics and society. Their program has a one-to-one student to advisor ratio. The curriculum requires 30 ECTS credits in PhD level courses generally taken in the first year plus two years of “full-time work devoted to research and development of thesis.” Looking more closely at one program, Environmental Engineering requires that 10 of 35 maximum credits must be “soft and transferrable skills” courses. Examples of these courses include: Ethics in Research; Ethics, Technology, and Science; design thinking; Scientific Communication in English; Science, Technology, Society, and Wikipedia; Innovative Teaching Skills. All PhD programs require that some portion of the 30 required credits come from the PhD School’s courses. Similar to the University of Zurich and Université de Strasbourg, Politecnico di Milano participates in “European Research Day” to give researchers the opportunity to communicate their research.


La Scuola universitaria professionale della Svizzera italiana (SUPSI) is a young university (20 years old) which offers bachelors, masters and continuing education coursework. They pride themselves on small classes and a direct application of coursework. Although they do not have PhD level classes, they do focus on integrating soft skills into their undergraduate projects. Most professors are professionals who work in field and teach part-time, but they are required to complete pedagogical training. Università della Svizzera italiana (USI), although also focusing on the Italian language, has a more traditional structure than SUPSI. They seem to offer academic teaching courses and writing courses within the graduate school, but little was discussed on our visit and there is little information on website.



In summary, the issue of scientific writing and communication does not appear to be fundamentally different between European universities that we observed and the U.S.A. Both systems have varying programs in place with the universities each implementing their own strategies and efforts. Higher education as a whole has to play a role in exposing the researchers they are training to communicate their work to the public if they are truly going to educate individuals to better the public good. This includes pedagogical and practical exercises as well as integrating scientific writing and communication into education at all levels. I will end with this quotation, from an article challenging our traditional view of communicating science: “…the obstacles faced by science communicators are not epistemological but cultural. The skills required are not those of a university lecturer but a rhetorician.”