«I. Writing Course Papers One of the basic goals of courses in history and philosophy of science is to stimulate students to read critically and ...»
HPS Essay Guide
Unit for History and Philosophy of Science
University of Sydney
I. Writing Course Papers
One of the basic goals of courses in history and philosophy of science is to stimulate students to
read critically and analytically and to formulate arguments and ideas and a convincing way. In
course papers you can demonstrate these skills. Every HPS assignment assumes that
a) you have read the course readings and have formed a critical understanding of them;
b) you have developed a critical understanding of the topics discussed in this class based the readings, the lectures, and the class discussions;
c) that you are able to apply the central arguments to new episodes in the history of science;
d) that you are able to conduct independent research to shape and support your argument; and
e) that you are able to communicate your argument convincingly and effectively.
Writing a paper is, first of all, an exercise in communication: how to present your ideas and arguments in such a way that they are comprehensible to a reader who does not know the fine details of your topic. In other words: your paper needs to be reader-focused rather than authorfocused.
In this guide to writing course papers in HPS, a few pointers for writing interesting and convincing papers are provided.
1. Define a Topic In this course, paper topics are given in the assignments. Nevertheless, within the framework of the assignments, you have considerable freedom of defining your own topic. Or, to put it another way: you will have to define what your paper is about and which message you want it to convey, even though the parameters are provided with the assignments.
The prime characteristics of a paper are: it has one main topic, it makes one central point, addresses one main issue, and only makes one or two major points. A paper should always be an answer to a question. A paper should have a message.
The main topic of the paper can be expressed in a thesis paragraph, which is the very first paragraph of the paper. In the thesis paragraph, you indicate your main conclusion and outline your argument.
The following therefore are not papers: summaries of the readings in the course reader or summaries of readings found elsewhere. Every good paper summarises work that has done before, but goes beyond these summaries by placing cited work in context, criticising it, or building on it. In other words: in every paper, it should be abundantly clear what your voice is and what your opinion is. When we read your paper, we are most interested in finding out your thoughts, arguments and ideas. The ideas of the people you cite we can read ourselves!
Consider the following when you are contemplating the topic of your paper:
• The point you are going to argue should be interesting, novel, and surprising. Nobody is waiting to read a paper about the facts that books fall on the floor if you drop them or about the fact that the sun rises every morning. If your topic is counter-intuitive, has some novelty, or argues a point that has not been made in the readings, it will be much more interesting to read (and write). Put yourself in the position of an editor for a newspaper. Is your paper newsworthy? Does it add anything to existing debates? Does it make the reader interested or excited?
• The point you are going to argue should be specific, well-defined, and well circumscribed. In a paper you can only provide a limited number of arguments. Most of the time, less is more. The more specific your topic and the point you are arguing, the easier it is to find sources and define your arguments. Bad topics would be: “Science in the Western world.” “What scientist have to say about evolution” (too broad; it would be impossible to cover this point in a book-length manuscript, let alone a single paper).
Good topics: “The controversy over cold fusion.” “Australian scientists address evolution, 1860-1890.”
• Ask yourself the following questions: Is the topic of your paper novel? Does it add anything above and beyond the readings and class discussions? Novel points and arguments and your own point of view are far more interesting.
TEST: State the topic and main conclusions in a few sentences (that is three maximum). If you cannot do this, you first need to formulate the main topic and conclusions of your paper.
2. Make an Outline Organisation is of paramount importance in papers. A well-organised paper is a pleasure to read.
A paper without organisation is very hard to read. At no point in the paper should the reader be left guessing as to what the paper is about, what you are arguing, and where the argument is going. The purpose of the paper is to convince the reader of your particular point of view by presenting convincing arguments. In a paper outline, you develop the “skeleton” of the paper. At this point, you decide which arguments you are going to use and in which order you are going to present them.
After finishing your paper outline, you can write your opening or thesis paragraph. You often need to rewrite the opening paragraph and the conclusion after your paper is finished to make sure they accurately reflect the main body of the paper.
3. Locate Sources Explore the list of “Further Readings” in the course syllabus that is part of the course reader, or on the web. There are a number of useful readings listed there.
Go to the readings for the weeks that are most closely related to the topic you are interesting in and see what sources are quoted in these articles.
Conduct searchers on the world wide web with Google (or your preferred search engine). The resources of Google Scholar are really useful (http://www.scholar.google.com) as they contain all electronic articles available.
You should be very cautious about using sources from the world wide web, since about everybody can host a web-site presenting all kinds of fascinating and outlandish opinions. When you keep that in mind, web-searches often provide quick access to useful academic sources (as secondary sources normally found in journals can sometimes be found on the web as well).
Use the electronic databases provided by the University of Sydney Library (go to the home-page of the library, see under “Databases and Electronic Resources”).
The first very useful database is History of Science and Technology (HST), which is a comprehensive database for literature in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science.
Another very useful database is Factiva.com, which provides access to articles in newspapers and magazines (you can search, for example, for articles in Australian newspapers). If you are investigating how science is represented in the media, this will be a very useful source.
For your paper, you should locate both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are articles and statements made by scientists, practitioners, individuals, and commentators in the past. Secondary sources are generally written by historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science analysing developments in science.
You should explore the secondary literature relevant to your paper in order not to invent the wheel once more. The secondary literature is also helpful in formulating your thesis statement in suggesting ways in which your topic can be explored fruitfully. The secondary literature can provide examples of how the issues you address in your paper can be analysed and discussed.
You should attempt to find some secondary sources first to explore your topic and gain a sense of what has been written about it. It can also guide you to interesting primary sources.
Your paper should include references to the primary literature since here developments in science can best be explored. References to the primary literature indicate that you have conducted independent research into your topic. Locating primary sources is one of the most important skills in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science.
4. Write the Paper A good paper goes beyond summarising the existing literature. In writing your paper, it should be obvious to the reader that you have consulted a number of sources and that you know relevant primary and secondary sources. However, your paper should present original ideas, original arguments, and a conclusion of your own. Your arguments should of course be supported by citations to the relevant literature, but should go beyond merely summarising it.
A tutorial or course paper contains the following information on the cover page:
B. Your name and student number;
C. Name of the course for which the paper is submitted;
D. Date the paper is submitted;
E. A word count (excluding references) Papers should be either one and a half or double-spaced. New paragraphs need to be indicated with either a blank line or an indent at the beginning of the new paragraph.
A good paper has five parts: a title, an opening paragraph, the main body, the conclusion, and references (either presented as endnotes, footnotes, or a references list).
1. The title should be concise and informative, and give the reader a good impression of what the paper is going to be about. It should be the main signpost for the reader to gain an impression of what the main argument of the paper will be.
“The Origin of Species: Different Opinions.” “An Exploration of Experiments in the Field.” “Assignment 4.”
“Theological Arguments in Favour of Evolutionary Theory.” “The Scientific Nature of Parapsychological Experimentation.” “The Political Motivations of the Critics of Parapsychology.” “The Nature of Experimentation in Homeopathic Medicine.” Use sub-headings in your paper to make the organisation clear. There should at least be one subheading after the thesis paragraph, and one near the end called something like “Conclusion.”
2. The thesis paragraph contains the thesis statement (or thesis statements) of your paper, which indicates what the main conclusion of the paper will be. The opening paragraph also provides a road map for the reader for the rest of the paper.
Examples: “In this paper, I will argue that parapsychological research does not adhere to the basic rules of the scientific method.” “In this paper, I will argue that, within Chinese medicine, alternative forms of experimentation exist.” After the thesis statement, the opening paragraph gives an indication of how you are going about answering your main question, problem or issue. (“In this paper, I will explore three issues in relation to my main topic....”). Here you provide a road-map for the reader for the rest of the paper. The opening paragraph should give the reader a clear idea of what the paper is about, what the point is that you are going to argue, why the topic you cover in this paper is relevant and important. You do not present your arguments or quotations in this paragraph. After reading your opening paragraph, the reader should no longer have any questions about the topic of your paper, your main arguments, and the conclusions you are going to draw.
The last sentence of your thesis paragraph should indicate your expected conclusion.
3. The main body of the text contains the arguments you can present in favour of your thesis statement. You can also cover possible counter-arguments, and argue why they do not apply in your case of why they do not weaken your argument. If you have written a paragraph which does not argue for the main conclusion of the paper, consider deleting it.
Each paragraph in the main body of the text is a building block or a stepping stone. They follow the structure of the paper as outlined in the opening paragraph. At the end of every paragraph or group of paragraphs you should remind the reader what the main topic was about and what the relevance of the preceding paragraph(s) was to your main argument. You should take the reader by the hand and always explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. Ideally, you link your paragraphs by showing how they are related to the main theme, how your they are building on previous paragraphs, and how the following paragraphs represents a progression in your argument. You can do this through linking sentences. Providing such sentences is also called signposting. It prevents the reader from getting lost.
Make sure that you give about equal attention to the sub-themes or sub-topics in your paper.
You do not want to overemphasise one and under-emphasise another theme. Your paper should appear balanced.
Citations and quotations Use quotations sparingly in the main body of the text. I am keen to read your thoughts and your arguments rather than the opinions of others. When you use a citation or use primary and secondary sources, make the evidence, quotations, and references work for your narrative. You should not use citations and quotations to tell the main story; instead, you should use quotations to reinforce the points you are making in the paper.
When you use a quote, always indicate why you use that specific quotation and what it demonstrates. Quotes never demonstrate what they are about; you need to interpret the quote for the reader. After your quote, you will have to emphasise its importance and how it is related to your main argument.
When you quote an author, indicate why the person you are quoting is important for your argument. Just mentioning names does very little to further your argument.
Wrong: “According to Charles Rosenberg, malaria epidemics have become much more frequent in recent years.” Right: “According to the influential historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg, malaria epidemics etc. etc.” Right: “According to the epidemiologist Charles Rosenberg, etc. etc.
The source of the reference has to appear either in a footnote or the citation has to follow the author-date format (i.e. According to Rosenberg (1952), malaria … ).