Class papers for my courses - general comments

Jim Moore, UCSD


Who is your audience?

Whenever you write something you should consider whom you are writing it for. If it isn't yourself, really try to think about what your audience is likely to already know, and what they might trip on--and help them not to trip by presenting things in logical order and explaining things the reader is unlikely to know. "The second book I looked at said ..." is a narrative about why you did, but the reader does not care; the reader wants to know what was said, by whom, and then what you do with that fact/opinion. This is a practical application of "Theory of Mind", for those of you who have studied that. When writing a class paper (where of course the grader knows everything [grin]), assume that the reader is a well-educated layperson, has a good general idea of the subject matter but no idea what you yourself have done/studied/written on the topic.



Be sure to put your name[s] (everyone in the group, if applicable), title, and date at the top of your paper. For hardcopy, it is helpful but not essential to number the pages.


If it is a group paper and you share writing duties, it is important to have one or more people go over the whole thing when it's done to make sure there are no gaps ("I thought you were going to say that") or redundancies (e.g., methods described in both introduction and methods sections).


My habit, which I can't break, is to comment on grammar, word choice, etc. Unless egregious, such things don't affect grades too much and you should interpret them as 'think about another way of saying this - but you decide which you prefer'. Similarly, I may comment on a point, raise another issue - don't worry, I know that there is only so much room and you cannot develop every angle. These are more part of a dialog than a 'correction', unless I specify that you really should have discussed X. Similarly, if you see a reference - "see Smith (2005)" next to something, assume it means "hey, this is interesting, here's an article you might want to follow it up in if interested", not "you're losing points for not citing my favorite article".


That said, too many grammatical/spelling errors, especially if careless, will cost points.


When I was a grad student writing one of my first major published papers, I gave the manuscript to a number of people who worked on the general topic and asked for feedback. One quite prominent scientist scared me by saying "OK, I'll be happy to take a look at it, but I warn you: I will not hold back, and I can be really harsh and critical in my comments  -- it's the way I am. Just remember I am trying to help you." When with trepidation I opened the envelope with his annotated manuscript, his comments added up to little more than "this is pretty good". Believe me, it wasn't at that stage, plenty of other people had made that clear to me. I was really annoyed with him; his reading of my paper had not been useful to me. The incident really brought home to me that one learns from the criticisms, and learning is a good thing. So please understand that, when reading my comments on your papers. 


For a SUPERB discussion of how to write well, see Strunk & White, Elements of Style. The first version, Strunk 1918, is available online at         or at


The fourth edition (Strunk & White, 2000) costs under $8.00 and is well worth it, but English hasn't changed THAT much since 1918 so check out the free one.


Length limits:

When imposed, these are not arbitrary; doing a good job in a limited space usually requires more careful thought and synthesis than simply rambling along until you're confident all the important stuff is in there, someplace. NOTE: bibliographies are not included in the word count (in my courses, anyhow).



In text: 

You should use a standard format for both in-text and bibliography citations. For in-text, something that gives the name of the first author and the publication year: " is blue (Smith, 1903)" or "..Smith(1903) says the sky is blue ". There may be some places/people who want the citation to be placed after the period at sentence end, but I've never seen it done in science writing. So please put the period at the end of the sentence.

Correct: - sky is blue (Smith, 1903).  Big whoop╔

Not: - sky is blue. (Smith, 1903) Big whoop ╔


Multiple authors:  If there are two authors, cite both:  "╔ this course is terrific (Laurel & Hardy, 1924)."  If there are three or more, shorten in-text citations with "et al." (for Latin et alia, = "and others"): "╔ no it isn't (Moe et al., 1925)."  HOWEVER, do list all the authors in the bibliography.



What is it?  Sometimes, "bibliography" means everything you cited plus other relevant stuff (and is thus distinguished from "references cited" which is only the works actually cited in the text). I use the terms interchangeably and unless specified, it means only what you cited.


There are many formats for bibliographies. As long as your entry includes names of all authors, date of publication (just the year), title of the article/book, and for books, the publisher, & journal articles, the journal name, volume and article page numbers then everything should be fine. Oh, yeah: for chapters in an edited book, you want author/title for the chapter, AND editor/title for the book (& pages).




Strier, K. B. (1997). Behavioral ecology and conservation biology of primates and other animals. Adv. Study Behav. 26: 101-158.


Wrangham, R. W., C. A. Chapman, A. P.Clark-Arcadi, & G. Isabirye-Basuta. (1996). Social ecology of Kanyawara chimpanzees: implications for understanding the costs of great ape groups. In Great Ape Societies. W. C. McGrew, L. Marchant and T. Nishida (Eds). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: pp. 45-57.


Provide standard information in a bibliography. I might not take off points if you put the reference entirely in the text ("According to an article in 2001 titled "Whatever" by John Smallberries published in the journal Applied Nonsense, v. 5, pp. 7-11" etc.), but I will if it is missing critical publication information (journal name, publication date etc) since someone without access to a good online database wouldn't be able to find it with only author's name & title. Even if you don't lose points, problems with putting it all in the text include


(1) it interrupts the flow of what you're saying;


"Smith (2003) says school is useless"


is a lot easier to read than


"According to John Smith in an article "A whole bunch of bad advice" published in the American Journal of Advising, volume 42, pages 28-38, school is useless." 


And note, I forgot to state the year of publication, which might cost a point.


(2)Putting all that in the text wastes space(remember, bibliographies are not counted in length limits).  


A site that goes into overkill on how to cite various types of sources & format bibliographies and that sort of thing: It's useful to skim but a little OCD.




How do we know? Strong inference by J. R. Platt (1964). Read it. You can find it in Science 146: 347- 353, or online at