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Ten tips for scientific writing

Always check the assessment criteria for your assignment to see whether or not you do need to build in synthesis to your writing.  However, synthesis is usually valued as a high-level academic skill even if it is not mentioned explicitly in the assessment criteria.

In the context of academic writing, synthesis isn't just a purely theoretical exercise: it is an important transferrable skill for decision-making in the real world, such as when recommending new design approaches, improving a specific software application, or selecting a new diagnostic test for disease identification.

But, before you carry on reading, we need to agree our terms and make sure that we all understand the word synthesis when applied to writing.

Synthesis is like making a cake.  You don't make a cake simply by putting eggs, flour, sugar and butter next to each other: the ingredients need to be combined together in a specific way to create something new.  In the same way, synthesis isn't simply listing and describing facts and information: it's combining and comparing those facts and information so that you generate new information.  There are several ways you can combine information to synthesise new information.

  • You can compare and contrast different pieces of research to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.  If different research on the same topic results in different conclusions, why has that happened?  Which, if any, of the research papers gives the clearest and most reliable answer to your assignment question?
  • You can look for patterns across different sources of information.  Are there any factors which are consistent across the different sources?  What changes across different contexts in the sources?  Are there any gaps in our knowledge which none of the sources have addressed?
  • You can take information from one context and apply it to another.  For example, you might be interested in the suitability of a particular alloy for making a component, but there's no existing information about that specific situation.  However, by combining information about the properties and performance of the alloy with information about the requirements for the component, you can come to a decision about whether or not the alloy is likely to be suitable.

The aim is to connect those relevant sources that help answer your essay question, moving away from describing and evaluating the sources and their implications separately.  The synthesis process requires you to think about the interrelationship of information: the similarities, the contrasts, the contradictions and anomalies.  You are trying in your writing need to make connections between the research, and if possible create new and potentially innovative understanding.  It can be challenging, and takes time and practice!

You can find out more about thinking processes in Practical skills in biology.  See Table 5.1: A ladder of thinking processes, moving from 'shallower' though processes to deeper level of thinking (Reed, Weyers and Jones, 2016, p.24).

Activity

Take a look at the following papers to see examples of how different sources have been synthesised together to create new understanding and answer a question.

Jull, A., Cullum, N., Dumville, J., Westby, M., Deshpande, S., & Walker, N. (2015). Honey as a topical treatment for wounds. Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews3(3), CD005083.

Look at the Main Results section to see how multiple sources of information have been used to outline the article's position on the use of honey as a topical treatment for wounds.

Ibrahim, W., Nodeh, H., & Sanagi, M. (2016). Graphene-Based Materials as Solid Phase Extraction Sorbent for Trace Metal Ions, Organic Compounds, and Biological Sample Preparation. Critical Reviews in Analytical Chemistry46(4), 267-283.

Look at the Conclusion and Perspective section to see how the article reaches a conclusion based on 152 sources of information to provide a critical review related to graphene.

Further reading