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How to read at university

Academic writing

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The academic writing style can make even simple concepts impenetrable to the lay-reader, which is strange as this style was developed to aid the communication of complex ideas.

Your initial reaction to a piece of academic text may well be “do they really need to use so many words?”. Well yes, they do. Academic writing must be exact. Nothing can be assumed, or hinted at. Every assertion and argument must be justified and supported by evidence: there can be no room for confusion or waffle. In academic writing, words are employed with surgical care and precision.

Of course academic writing requires a technical vocabulary, but there are other characteristics of the academic style that can make cause problems for the uninitiated. Academic writing style can vary between disciplines, but some of the fundamentals remain the same. Academic writing...

Top tip...

If you're not used to reading academic articles, the academic writing style can take some getting used to. However, the more articles you read, the easier it will be, so read as many journal articles as you can - it will help you with your academic writing style too.

Activity: spot the academic style - 10 minutes

This activity will introduce you to the academic writing style; this will help you to judge whether an article is a piece of scholarly research (in which case it's probably of reasonable quality), or written for a more general audience (in which case, you should approach it with more caution). It will help you with your academic writing style too.

1. Read the extracts below from an article that appeared in the British Medical Journal - don't worry if you're not a medical student - this is a non-technical article, which should be easy enough for most people to follow.

2. Which text do you think is written in the academic style? Use the list of features of academic writing above to help you.

This extract was taken from: Wicker, A et al. Reliability of students' vaccination histories for immunisable diseases. BMC Public Health, 2008, 8:121. The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at: www.biomedcentral.com

Medical students are often exposed to infectious diseases in the course of their clinical training. It is therefore important to identify and limit any possible gaps in immunity of vaccine-preventable diseases before initial patient contact [1,2]. Reports by Breuer [3] confirm that health care workers and medical students are also a source of infection for patients. Health care workers and their employers should therefore be responsible for protecting health care personnel and patients against hospital infections [4-7].

It is in the interests of the medical students to know their own immune status against the immunisable viral infections, but the individual student cannot be forced to undergo vaccination. However, faculty has to bear the costs of required vaccinations.

The purpose of this study was to compare the medical history with the serological status of selected vaccine-preventable viral diseases (measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) of medical students in their first clinical semester at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany. The aim was to determine whether a serological examination of the immune status was required before vaccination or if a self-reported medical history report alone was sufficient. The main focus was on epidemiological and economical factors.

This extract was taken from: Edwards, C. The Press: Vaccination Scaremongering. student BMJ, 2000;08:303-346. The electronic version of this article found be found online at: www.student.bmj.com

Vaccine scaremongerers put forward apparently sophisticated arguments about the dangers of immunisation. They try to blind the public with science. Doctors and the government need to be more aggressive in dismantling these arguments. Much of the current pro-vaccination information, is insufficient to counter their claims. The public should be left in no doubt that the interpretation of scientific findings is a job for experts in research science. They also need to be made aware that judgements about vaccine safety are based on good science-that is, replicable research conducted using appropriate subject numbers, methodology, analysis, and controls-that is published in reputable peer reviewed journals. The "evidence" presented by vaccine scaremongerers fails to meet most of these criteria.

This approach may well mean that doctors are accused of being condescending and paternalistic, but the battle to maintain high vaccine coverage must be won if potentially serious childhood diseases are to be prevented. Vaccine scaremongerers fail to mention that in the pre-vaccine era, mumps, for example, was a leading cause of meningitis in young children.

The waters have been well and truly muddied by those seeking to demonise vaccination. It is small wonder that some parents shun immunisation when vaccine scaremongerers repeatedly get away with peddling dangerous and inaccurate information. It is time for the medical profession to fight back collectively.

How did you do?

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Now you have a clearer idea of the types of things you should be reading, we will move on to look at how you can keep track of what you read.

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