Tip of the Iceberg: Collaboration and Scientific Writing

Lisa DeTora and Sabrina Sobel, Hofstra University

Many scholars study different types of writing in the sciences, like published manuscripts, presentations, letters, or reports. Science journalism, blogs, and science textbooks are sometimes also studied. Halliday and Martin’s influential book Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power (2015), for example, presents the authors’ analysis of popular science and high-school textbooks. Alan Gross, a famous rhetorician of science who discussed peer-reviewed literature in his book Starring the Text (2006), also discussed popular science writing (2018) which, to him, creates a more “sublime” version of the literature. For some people, especially experts in nonscientific disciplines, any text that conveys science can appear to be part of just one large community of thinkers and authors. This is not really the case, but it can be difficult for “outsiders,” including undergraduate science students, to understand how these communities are organized. One way of identifying the relationships between texts and the communities of people who write them is by examining collaborative practices.

We draw on Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” of writing (Johnston, 1984) to consider the disciplinary and cultural practices beneath the surface of scientific writing. Central to this discussion is the role of collaboration. We will describe how we use our knowledge of information beneath the surface of scientific texts in the teaching of scientific writing for science majors. One complication in this type of teaching is that standard undergraduate laboratory experiments are often intended to impart specific manual, conceptual, and writing skills, not to discover new information. Hence, teachers of scientific writing must find ways to make visible the myriad sources of information that must be conveyed to a reader by students working in artificial situations.

The Scientific Iceberg

In “Hemingway and Freud: The Tip of the Iceberg,” Kenneth G. Johnston (1984) describes the origins of the “iceberg theory” of writing in the “fortunate loss” (68) of draft manuscripts that represented years of Hemingway’s creative work. As he reconstructed texts, Hemingway developed a theory of “omission” (68) that relies on the writer’s deep knowledge to deliver the minimal text needed to achieve an intended effect. As Johnston notes, the “oft-quoted iceberg passage in Death in the Afternoon” (69) explains how the power of writing, like the “dignity of an iceberg” (69) derives from fact that most of it remains submerged. Johnston also connects the “implicit and explicit” (69) modalities of communication in Hemingway with Sigmund Freud’s construction of the conscious and the subconscious, creating an intersection of a scientific context and the iceberg theory. We believe that recognizing the interplay of implicit and explicit communication, as Johnston describes, is an essential component not only of psychiatry but all scientific writing. Scientists assume that their readers understand the depths of investigation beneath the written word.

The iceberg under scientific writing can be used to inform undergraduate writing pedagogies. Critical to understanding the iceberg beneath any scientific text is an implied voyage of discovery that led to a scientific question. It’s always tempting, especially to nonscientists, to think of a study in Platonic terms, as an isolated act of lone genius enacted by its author. However, a crucial characteristic of the scientific iceberg is a series of collaborations that both implicitly and explicitly inform the design and conduct of each study and the writing of their papers. Each new collaboration is like a new community of scholarship. Linguist John Swales (1990) used the term “discourse communities” (9), to describe any group of people who exchange ideas and texts with one another and who create rules that determine the nature and form of different writing genres. In the sciences, shared habits, like the structured research format of introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion may make it difficult for nonscientists or students to understand which groups work together. Helpfully, Bawarshi and Reiff (2010) have described genres in terms of communities and conversations, which may be easier for students to understand than more philosophical terms. Students need to learn how to identify scientific work that builds toward a common goal and work that intends to address new questions or disrupt current understanding.

We believe that the opacity of writing practices within the sciences makes it difficult to identify, and therefore differentiate, the different communities of research and exchange. Understanding the demands of a discourse community (or not understanding them) also can be an important advantage (or barrier) to success in the sciences. In fact, inequalities in undergraduate science education can be linked directly to an understanding of writing demands, which may be unyielding and inflexible. Ironically, social scientists Yerrick and Gilbert (2011) found that programs developed with an aim to transition underrepresented students into STEM majors often used scientific language in a way that marginalized the students further. These programs inadvertently failed to help these students learn how to think and write more scientifically, which resulted in students leaving the sciences. hese authors identify the stakes of failing to characterize and make visible the deep knowledge beneath the surface of scientific writing in student attrition. We would like our students to find ways to discern the boundaries between discourse communities and to produce acceptable texts, while also learning how to manage structured genres.

Undergraduate Writing Pedagogy

As co-teachers of a course called Seminars in Chemistry, we explore the iceberg of scientific writing by explicitly describing how our knowledge and experience might apply to students. Seminars in Chemistry is intended for advanced majors in chemistry, including dual majors in chemistry and physics. The course description seems relatively straightforward:

Exploration of current chemical literature on a specific topic with presentation of a seminar and production of a review paper. Oral and written scientific communication following JACS format is emphasized.

Of note, proficiency in American Chemical Society style, the organization that publishes JACS (Journal of the American Chemical Society), is required to maintain program accreditation.

It may seem that learning the American Chemical Society format might not have very much to do with collaboration, professionalization, or original thought. However, one of the primary features of Seminars in Chemistry is that students select topics and read published literature to develop professional-quality review materials. One way we teach these skills is by modeling professional collaborative behavior. Thus, Seminars in Chemistry supplements the usual apprenticeship mode of collaborative authoring, which concentrates on task management. We describe this process in the following dialogue:

LD: I’ve been working with you for a few years now and I’ve noticed how you try to get students to formulate review papers. With your research students, how do you approach writing for publication?

SS: The work done by research students in my lab usually involves experiments paired with theoretical calculations. They have already gotten mini lessons in this sort of work when writing in their lab reports. As you know, a classic lab report has an introduction, background/purpose section, a materials and methods section, a results section and a discussion section.

LD: Yes, definitely. I’ve worked with your department to help students achieve success in these papers in classroom settings. And I have worked in more professional environments with people who already have advanced degrees, but how do you impart these skills to undergraduates?

SS: I always start with the concrete content. For instance, I can have them write up methods and results, which is an easier task for them than an introduction or discussion. I spend time editing and shaping their initial drafts in dialogue with them because they often lack the skills to be concise enough for published work. An experienced scientific reader will understand how to decipher the accepted highly condensed language needed in scientific publishing, but it is very difficult to learn how to write that way. We also have to work on tables, graphs and figures to move from the lab report standard to more publishable quality. Creating these items is a real art and students must gain technical and analytical skills to be successful in transitioning to making more professional outputs. They also have to be quite organized when dealing with data.

LD: Not surprisingly, you and your colleagues seem to me to complain most about the introduction and discussion sections in student lab reports. I hear the word “incoherent” rather a lot. How do you overcome this sort of tendency when preparing work for publication?

SS: Students must be able to write a solid lab report before they can progress to a publication. For original research papers, I have the students identify relevant published literature, then we compare what I found and write up mini summaries of each paper. Students often might struggle to identify relevant key words for effective searching. I have a deeper knowledge of the field – the greater underside of the iceberg, and I can better see the figurative forest and how our tree fits into it. Although I have one notable exception: a high school student found the most important key words for her research after months of us chasing our tails. She felt so proud, and I was so impressed. From that point, I take the lead in drafting the introduction. For discussions, we parse and fuss over the results that we have, and I shape and write based on these conversations. If I have a stronger student, then I will ask that student to write a discussion section that I can edit.

Mentoring students creates a sort of iceberg, with some information presented explicitly but a great deal only implied. The final paper, for instance, reveals none of this process (Sobel et al., 2020). In this account, a mentor maintains focus on the end product, a submittable paper incorporating writing in different tones, styles, and voices as well as visual information like tables and figures within a prescribed word count. The students operate only on the surface of the work, relying on their mentor for deeper knowledge and guidance.

Seminars in Chemistry furthers such mentorship by instructing students regarding the nature of scientific collaboration, situating different scientific discourses relative to one another, and preparing students to become effective collaborators. A further area of interest for us as instructors is how we can make use of our knowledge and experience to impart knowledge about writing in the sciences. One of these areas is the means by which we can use wisdom gleaned from rhetoric and writing studies to help students develop facility in drafting text. Another is the ways that cultural information about the sciences is implied rather than stated in scientific papers. We can liken these texts to Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing.

Scientific Writing, Collaboration, and Outlines

In Seminars in Chemistry, we often discuss how interdisciplinary collaboration is embedded behind the scenes of the final written accounts in all scientific contexts. In the fall of 2020, for instance, we used global warming as a general framework to encourage students to situate their work relative to existing knowledge and the projects of other students. As one of us has expertise in rhetoric and biomedical writing, we drew on her past experience and ongoing research to help students understand how their in-class projects might be related to future endeavors and their coursework in other subjects. Our choice of global warming as a broader theme permitted the use of any scientific specialty as a focus, allowing students to choose from many different types of projects while still using some related examples.

Seminars in Chemistry, by encouraging students to review published literature and concentrate on their own projects, also allows students to refine their own writing practice so that they can become more effective collaborators in the future. Effective collaboration requires an ability to think about coauthors as well as the end audience. Coauthoring, then, often requires an ability to contribute part of a text in such a way as to invite further comment or added information. To this end, we forward a mentoring practice introduced to our chemist by a family member:

SS: Laura, I’m feeling really overwhelmed with writing my Ph.D. thesis. It seems like more than I can handle.

Laura: I’m a linguist, as you know, and I always start with an outline. Then I slowly fill that in with more and more details and examples. It’s easy to outline sections, and the outline format is easier to organize than paragraphs at first. If you tried that, you could think about what you need in each section of your thesis separately. I gradually fill in the outline until I am writing practically full sentences. This should apply in your field, too. Just give it a try.

SS: That’s a great idea! I’ll try it. This process should help me to break up the paper into digestible chunks. I could even write little chunks separately for each part of a structured paper. Then I could integrate those chunks into a coherent whole more systematically.

Laura: Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

One of the benefits of the “outline method” is that initial text is easy to write and organize. It is also easy to lay out a series of sections so that different authors can choose one area to build up without losing sight of the whole project. To this end, in fall 2020 we encouraged our students to build interconnected mind maps and a shared background slide kit about global warming to help organize a set of key references and concepts. By using the slide set as an outline of sorts, students could use shared concepts and references to develop the introductions of their own papers while developing a discourse community of their own. Unsurprisingly, the outline method worked very well in Seminars in Chemistry:

(years later)

SS: I’ve been using your outlining method for so many years in my own work. Recently, though, my colleague convinced me to use it as a teaching tool in our Seminars in Chemistry class. I simply review the process for outlining, using a specific introduction section, usually from whatever my last paper was. It’s fun because students see the names of their peers, and they also see how a literature search can lead to a published introduction. We do a literature search in our class, and after the students spend some time selecting the most interesting articles, I can model how to organize the most relevant topics and then to fill in each section with bullet points.

Laura: It’s great to hear that you have used my ideas. I knew my idea was good, but it had more uses than I would have expected.

Seminars in Chemistry introduces students not only to specific writing formats, but also to the collaborative spirit that informs all scientific writing. As we have shown above, however, these practices gain more meaning when we situate them not only relative to scientific discourses, like journal articles and regulatory documentation, but also to writing studies, technical communication, and rhetorical studies of science. These studies provide the needed context that informs students why they should build outlines, read the scientific literature, or consider contexts outside an immediate product like an experiment, report, or paper.


SS thanks Laura Janda for casual conversations about writing. Both authors would like to thank the students of Seminars in Chemistry for their hard work and creativity, especially during the Covid-19 public health emergency. LD thanks Andrea Efthymiou for reference advice.

Parts of this paper were based on work completed while drafting an entry for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Scientific Communication, edited by Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, Michael Zerbe, Gabriel Cutrufello, and Stefania Maci.

Works Cited

Bawarshi, A. S. and Reiff, M. J. (2010) Genre: An introduction to history, theory, research, and pedagogy. Parlor Press.

Gross, A. G. (2006) Starring the text: The place of rhetoric in science studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Gross, A. G. (2018) The scientific sublime: Popular science unravels the mysteries of the universe. Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M. A. K. and Martin, J. R. (2015) Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. Routledge.

Johnston, K. (1984) Hemingway and Freud: The tip of the iceberg. The Journal of Narrative Technique, 14(1), 68-73.

Sobel, S.G., Kimura, M.W. and Laxdal, C. (2020) Chapter 1: Investigating trends in M-SALEN complexes: An open-ended lab experience. In Advances in Teaching Inorganic Chemistry Volume 2: Laboratory Enrichment and Faculty Community, Rebecca Jones, Ed.; ACS Symposium Series 1371; American Chemical Society. doi:10.1021/bk-2020-1371. ch001.

Swales, J. (1990) Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press.

Yerrick, R. K. and Gilbert, A. (2011) Constraining the discourse community: How science discourse perpetuates marginalization of underrepresented students, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 6(1), 67-91.