Instruction on Scientific Writing & Authoring, Scientific Peer Review, and Publication Ethics: An Assignment-Based Curriculum

Research, Writing, and Communication Are Inseparable

In this post, I describe a writing-intensive and assignment-based curriculum that instructs students on best practices in writing a scientific paper and about the scientific publication process and scientific peer review. This is a course that I have taught in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Missouri since 2010. The curriculum starts with the students’ experiences and uses a scaffolding approach to develop all the tools to study and research the underlying science issues, to discuss the topic in the context of existing literature, and to successfully communicate the conclusions.  By sharing this course description, I hope to offer some ideas and suggestions for how to teach scientific writing and peer review to undergraduate students.


Every course is based on an overarching theme and employs a new curriculum (Table 1). The assignments, associated data and sources, peer review devices including assessment rubrics, and samples of completed assignments are available on the course web sites which are linked to Table 1. “Writing,” “Research,” and “Chemistry” are usually the top three keywords associated with the course (Figure 1), and the fourth most frequent term reflects the theme of the course. The course themes are timely (nutrition, energy, medicine, drugs,…) and discussed controversially in society. The themes will remain in the public’s eye in future, and it is expected that the students will be able to participate in and contribute to the public discourse as competent scientists and responsible citizens.




Rainer Glaser PhotoFor a deeper look into my thoughts on student writing and the teaching of scientific writing, you can view this short video. At the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in the fall of 2013, I was interviewed about my courses on Scientific Writing (Figure 2) as part of the ACS Chemistry Ambassadors video project. You can watch this video to learn more about my motivations to develop this course.

Framework of the Assignment-Based Curriculum

In Table 2, you will find a framework for an assignment-based curriculum for the writing-intensive, upper-division undergraduate seminar course Scientific Writing in Chemistry. The types and sequence of the assignments and the modes of their assessment by various forms of peer review constitute the framework of the curriculum. While the framework remains essentially the same from one implementation to the next, every implementation of this framework is built around a new theme (Table 1) with original assignments, new online resources, and adapted rubrics for assessment.

Table 3 shows the alignment of the assignments with the teaching goals. The left half of Table 3 shows the alignment of the assignments with instruction about scientific writing skills (SWS). The right half of Table 3 shows the relationships between the assignments and the various sections within the standard scientific sequence (SSS) of a scientific paper and the author’s publication correspondence (APC).

Table 2. Course Design: Content, Software, and Resources
Week Task Points Peer Rev2 Content Software and Online Resources
Skill Development for Scientific Writing
1 Reading Chem. Literature, Publication Types Browser, Portals: ACS, Wiley-VCH, RSC
2 A01 20 SR Mindmapping & Outlining, Text Word
3 A02 20 SR Schemes; Integration of Text & Art ChemDraw, Word
4 A03 20 SR Tables, Statistics & Graphing Excel
5 A04 20 SR Simulation & Graphing Excel, Word, ChemDraw
6 A05 20 SR Search, Citation & Bibliography SciFinder, Word, ChemDraw
7 A063 20 Oral Presentation Powerpoint
8 MR Oral Presentation Week
9 A07 20 Structure and Modeling Chem3D, Jmol etc.
Near-Authentic Exercise in Scientific Writing and Authoring
10 A08 20 SR Writing I. Materials, Methods, Appendix JOC Guidelines for Authors (PDF)
11 A09 3FFF Writing II. Body, Abstract, Cover Letter Authentic Examples provided
12 A10 Scientific Peer Review Ethics Guidelines: ACS and NAS
13 A11 40 3FR Revising & Responding to Peers, Graph. Abstract Authentic Peer Review Examples provided
14 Scientific Conduct and Misconduct PR-Cases & ORI-Resources

1 See the Course Schedule for Spring 2015 with links to resources.

2 Modes of peer review: SR: single & rubric-based peer review. MR: multiple & rubric-based peer review. 3FFF: three-fold free format peer review. 3FR: three-fold & rubric-based peer review.

3 In SP10, the oral presentation was “Project #1” and it became A06 in subsequent implementation. Hence, A06 – A10 in SP10 correspond to A07 – A11 of all subsequent implementations.

Table 3. Development of Writing and Authoring Skills in the Assignment-Based Curriculum
Scientific Writing Skills (SWS) Standard Scientific Sequence (SSS) APC6
Task Text Art DDA1 IAS2 Intro. MMA3 R&D4 Concl. Abs.5
A01 X AP X
A02 X X AP X
A03 X X X AP X X
A04 X X X AP X X
A05 X X X SST1 X X X X
A06 X X X SST1 X X X X
A07 X X X SST1 X X
A08 X X X SST2 (X) X
A11 (X) X (X) (SST2) (X) (X) (X) (X) GAbs CLR

1 DDA: Documentation of Data and Analysis.

2 IAS: Information Access and Search. See text for IAS levels.

3 MMA: Materials and Methods, and Appendix.

4 R&D: Results and Discussion.

5 Textual Abstracts (TAbs) and Graphical Abstracts (GAbs) are distinguished.

6 APC: Author’s Publication Correspondence.

Three Dimensions of Scaffolding Scientific Writing Instruction

In the first dimension, we distinguish four essential Scientific Writing Skills (SWS): (1) the writing of text, (2) the creation of art (i.e., Schemes and Figures), (3) the documentation of data and data analysis (DDA), and (4) information access and search (IAS) skills.

The second dimension relates to the depth of knowledge in any one of the essential skills. With regard to data documentation and analysis (DDA), for example, a student might first learn how to create simple tables and column graphs, then progress to the creation of multi-dimensional tables and perform regression analysis, and eventually learn about more complicated analysis methods of large data sets.

The third dimension relates to the degree of combination and integration of several essential skills. Table 3 shows how the complexity of the assignments increases with regard to all three dimensions as the course progresses.

The scaffolding of the IAS component was critical to the success of the curriculum. In the first phase (Assignments A01 – A04) students learn to access provided sources (AP) and work with literature, i.e., to read, summarize, paraphrase, integrate and properly cite information provided from various sources. Subsequently, they learn how to search information about a selected topic (SST) in two steps. In the second phase, in Assignments A05 – A07, the students select their topic from an instructor-provided pool of possible topics (SST1), and in the third phase, in Assignments A08 – A11, the students search and select their topic of research from an instructor-provided pool of primary sources in the theme area of the course (SST2).

The Fourth Dimension: From Scientific Writing to Scientific Authoring

Author’s publication correspondence (APC) includes all acts of scientific writing that are required as part of the scientific peer review process and these normally include the writing of the cover letters that accompany the original submission (CLS) and the submission of the revision (CLR) and the writing of peer reviews (PR). We clearly distinguish between scientific writing skills and APC proficiency to emphasize that writing a scientific paper is only one part of publishing. A writer becomes a published author only if this scientist can navigate the scientific peer review process successfully.

The competent selection of a suitable venue for publication and the ability to work with editors and peer reviewers require a thorough understanding of the scientific peer review process and excellent communication skills. Instruction in scientific peer review and the development of APC skills present the fourth dimension of scientific communication and it is this dimension that takes scientific writing to scientific authoring.

Peer Reviews Modes

Several forms of peer review are employed in this course (see Table 2). The peer review tasks evolve from rubric-based peer assessments to free-format peer review. At the same time, the peer review tasks evolve from assessments of the writer’s technical and formal proficiencies and of the completeness of the assignment all the way to an assessment of the writer’s capacities for excellence in topic selection, for logical organization and sequencing, for the logical construction of arguments and their clear presentation, and for sound judgments in the formulation of conclusions.

  • Single rubric-based peer review (SR): Rubric scoring is employed in the peer reviews of all assignments for Skill Development for Scientific Writing (A01 – A07, Table 2). In this phase, each assignment is assessed by single rubric-based peer review (SR) and the peer review is managed to ensure that each group reviews another group only once to minimize the consequence of overly positive or negative reviews.
  • Multiple rubric-based peer review (MR): The oral presentations (A06) occur in three class meetings with 4 – 5 presentations per meeting. The presentations are assessed by multiple rubric-based peer review (MR) by the students in the audience (excluding all presenters and the co-chairs of the session) and the average score counts as the presenters’ A06 score.
  • Three-fold free format peer review (3FFF): With the rubric-based peer reviews given and received in A01 – A07, the students are well prepared for the Near-Authentic Exercise in Scientific Writing and Authoring and its three-fold, journal-style scientific peer review (3FFF).

Changing Themes, Common Goals

The learning goals of the theme-based, research-oriented curriculum are well aligned with modern pedagogical principles. The framework of the curriculum emphasizes crosscutting concepts (such as structure & function, pattern recognition, cause & effect), informs about scientific practices and provides instruction about all aspects of research.

The selection of a relevant and timely theme stimulates the students’ interests, curiosity and motivation, this novelty also ensures fresh and engaged instruction in every implementation and guarantees unique and challenging assignments.

The selection of a relevant and timely theme stimulates the students’ interests, curiosity and motivation, this novelty also ensures fresh and engaged instruction in every implementation and guarantees unique and challenging assignments.

Design assignments specific to the course that cannot be found elsewhere in reproducible form.

  1. Are your assignments rehashed “topics”? No!
  2. Are your assignments unique to your course? Yes!
  3. Do they teach critical thinking or merely repeat known information? Yes! Very much so.
  4. Do they allow students to actually use citation as not an after thought or a rephrasing of someone else’s work, but as a way to build a piece of writing out of ideas? Citations, after all, are the writing itself, not add-ons. Yes! Work with refs. from A01-A11.

International Education

The Scientific Writing curriculum integrates content, context, collaboration and communication and addresses an essential need for science students across the globe. Hence, this course on Scientific Writing has been adapted to the Summer School Programs of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, of Northwest University in Xi’an, and of Xiamen University in Xiamen. My hope is that these efforts will contribute to the wide and open dissemination of this Scientific Writing curriculum. More generally, the example of this course adaptation might encourage outstanding professors from many STEM fields to contribute in a significant way to international education.

Tips for Others

  1. Embrace inquiry and collaboration as essential elements of your writing-intensive (WI) courses. In its report “Shaping the Future”, the National Science Foundation recommended that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers “… model good practices that increase learning; start with the student’s experience, but have high expectations within a supportive climate; and build inquiry, a sense of wonder and the excitement of discovery, plus communication and teamwork, critical thinking, and life-long learning skills into learning experiences.”
  2. Place emphasis on relevance and teaching your discipline in context as you design your WI assignments. Teach what the students really need. Dare to teach your discipline in its full complexity and with a view to conceptual interdisciplinarity. While past educational standards were developed independently in different subject areas by the respective professional organizations, modern standards call for “fewer, clearer, and higher” and more integrated standards (Achieve, 2013). Students will appreciate the efforts and society will take a gigantic step toward science communication for all!
  3. Create WI assignments and employ assessment methods that will educate students about the scientific method and scientific peer review. Students should not only write about and understand scientific content and methods, but they should also experience peer review as an integral and essential part of the process of science. Conflict and dissent are essential components of science, and science education should teach about argumentation and persuasion as the path to well-informed consensus.
  4. The success of challenging WI curricula depends on student acceptance. Think boldly and rigorously. Plan very carefully, innovate slowly and build gradually, stay flexible, and do not get discouraged.
  5. Pursue your education and teaching activities in WI courses with the same scholarly rigor you apply to your research in your discipline: Find your peers, publish in the field, seek and learn from peer review, persuade your peers.

Publications on Teaching Scientific Writing and Peer Review

I have published on assignment-based curriculum design of scientific writing (2014), and you can read my articles at the links provided below. If you’re interested in reading some of my earlier publications on teaching scientific writing, science communication, and peer review in large lecture settings, you can follow the links to my articles on the Chemistry is in the News (CIITN) project.

Glaser, R. E. (2014). Design and assessment of an assignment-based curriculum to teach scientific writing and scientific peer review (PDF). Journal of Learning Design 7, 85-104.

Glaser, R. E. (2014). Teaching content, context, collaboration, and communication in college chemistry (PDF). Chemistry in Action! 101, 10-19.

Glaser, R. E. (2013). Science communication for all (PDF). Chemistry in Action! 99, 6-10.

Carson, K. M., and Glaser, R. E. (2009). Chemistry is in the news: Assessing intra-group peer review (PDF). Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 34, 69-81.

Carson, K. M., Hume, D. L., Sui, Y., Schelble, S., and Glaser, R. E. (2009). Chemistry is in the news: The why and wherefore of integrating popular news media into the chemistry classroom. In N. J. Pienta, M. M. Cooper, and T. J. Greenbowe (Eds.), The Chemists’ Guide to Effective Teaching, Vol. 2, Prentice Hall Series in Educational Innovation (pp. 230-245). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hume, D. L., Carson, K. M., Hodgen, B., and Glaser R. E. (2006) Chemistry is in the news: Assessment of Student Attitudes toward Authentic News Media Based Learning Activities (PDF). J. Chem. Educ. 83, 662-667.

Carson, K. M., Hodgen, B., and Glaser, R. E. (2006). Teaching dissent and persuasion (PDF). Educational Research and Reviews, 1, 115-120.

Glaser, R. E., and Carson, K. M. (2005). Chemistry is in the news: Taxonomy of authentic news media based learning activities (PDF). International Journal of Science Education 27, 1083-1098.

Wu, Z., and Glaser, R. E. (2004). Software for the synergistic integration of science with ICT education. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research 3, 325-339.

Glaser, R. E. (2003). Science communication for all (PDF). Chemistry International 25, 3-6.

Glaser, R. E., and Poole, M. J. (1999). Organic chemistry online: Building collaborative learning communities through electronic communication tools (PDF). Journal of Chemical Education 76, 699-703.


The present work has been supported by the NSF-PRISM grant Mathematics and Life Sciences (MLS, #0928053), by a Faculty Development Award AY13/14 by MU’s Campus Writing Program 2013-14, and by Visiting Professorships of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2013 and 2014. The Chemistry Is in the News (CIITN) project was supported by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, MU, and NSF-DUE.

Dr. Rainer Glaser studied chemistry and physics in Tübingen, at Berkeley, and at Yale. He is broadly interested in physical organic chemistry and has collaborated extensively with chemists, biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, astronomers, educators and journalists. He loves research and realized early on that research is inherently connected to writing. Writing instruction has always been an essential part of his teaching and researching at all levels. He began education research in 1995 with the development of the novel curriculum, Chemistry Is in the News (CIITN) to teach chemistry in the context of real-world issues, to build life-long learning skills, and to expose students to all aspects of science communication. CIITN engages students in learning and writing activities that are collaborative, parallel the research process, and are based on authentic news media. From the very beginning, these efforts have been guided by helpful, practical advice from the leadership of the Campus Writing Program and many WI faculty colleagues.